Kia Optima Gets a Euro Feel

It is a global industry when a Brit convinces his South Korean auto maker employer to give a Euro-like suspension to an American-version car. That's the international back story to the development of the redone 2006 Kia Optima, a midsize sedan with a tighter ride and more precise steering than its predecessor or, for that matter, its prototype. It took some lobbying to convince Kia to tune the suspension

It is a global industry when a Brit convinces his South Korean auto maker employer to give a Euro-like suspension to an American-version car.

That's the international back story to the development of the redone 2006½ Kia Optima, a midsize sedan with a tighter ride and more precise steering than its predecessor or, for that matter, its prototype.

It took some lobbying to convince Kia to tune the suspension closer to a firmness preferred by European drivers, says Kia Motors America Inc. Chief Operating Officer Len Hunt.

When Hunt, a former top executive of Volkswagen of America who was a few months into his Kia job, first drove an Optima prototype, he thought the ride was too soft and handling too loose.

South Korean engineers thought it was appropriate for the American market. Hunt, a native of Manchester, England, convinced them otherwise.

“I told them: ‘This car isn't engaging enough,’” says Hunt. “I said, ‘This isn't Len Hunt from VW talking. We need to tune this suspension.’ They listened.”

The result is what Hunt calls Kia's “signature suspension,” intended to set the brand apart. He dubs it “a hybrid — and I'm not referring to the engine.” Rather, it's a balance of a comfortable ride and responsive handing, leaning more towards the latter.

Adds Ian Beavis, Kia of America's marketing director: “We wanted great ride quality, but not the disengaged feel of a Toyota Camry. We wanted the handling dynamics of a Mazda6, but not its terrible ride.”

Kia expects the suspension to appeal to 73 million Generation Yers.

“Everything we are seeing indicates consumers under 35 want a more engaged driving experience,” says Beavis.

Unchanged is Kia's aggressive pricing. The new Optima starts at $16,355 for a base model with a 5-speed manual (plus a $600 destination charge), $45 less than the predecessor that had less content.

Kia has 650 U.S. dealers. Kia's quality-control efforts now extend to them in an effort to boost customer satisfaction on the sales floor and in the service department.

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