Every car company starts somewhere. For Kia it was making bicycle parts in Korea in1944. They hit US shores (specifically Portland, OR) in 1992, with a few stores stocked with a tiny sport-ute called Sportage. My brother-in-law took the dare and bought one of the first ones off the dock. He put 90,000 miles on it in four years. Eventually he was lured away by a BMW Z3. Hard to blame him.
From there, Kia built a reputation for making budget transportation serving up Rios and Sephias. In 2000 they branched into the midsized sedan market with the Optima, a thinly disguised Hyundai Sonata that was so plain, it made vanilla feel special. Kia has put the kibosh on the cheap and cheerful image. Their best selling vehicle is now the mid-sized Sorento sport ute, not the Rio. That BMW owning brother-in-law now has the rakish new Sportage on his short list.
This is a Kia?
If the 2011 Optima bores you, check your pulse. A daring move forward, this third generation looks spendy yet doesn’t crib off the aspirational design cues of BMW and Mercedes. A chrome roofline spear that arches from the sideview mirror right on through the rear C pillar is especially distinctive. A jog in the windshield roofline mirrors the one found in the grille, which is called the “tiger nose” by Kia.
Wearing Snow White Peal paint, Optima looks expensive but the value proposition remains. The EX model I’m driving is optioned up with the Premium and Technology packages and stickers for $27,440 with destination. As you read on that number might seem like a typo. It’s not.
Optima’s competition is the usual suspects: Camry, Accord, Altima, Malibu, Fusion, and the current darling, Hyundai’s Sonata. The fact that Optima and Sonata are based on the same architecture bodes well for the Kia. This is no Ford/Mercury type of arrangement though. To look at and drive the two Koreans, you’d never know they share a basic platform and drivetrain.
Less Brother and Sister, More Distant Cousins
Optima’s handsome lines are masculine to the Hyundai’s more flowing feminine silhouette. Sonata’s cabin is stylish yet traditional. Optima’s instrument panel tilts everything toward the pilot in a not-so-subtle hint that it’s a driver’s car. Appropriately the Kia’s suspension is set for sport, with a firmer feel.
Slip behind the excellent leather wrapped tilt/telescope wheel and you’ll find it’s dotted with well-placed controls for audio and phone. Bluetooth and iPod interface are standard equipment, even on the base model that slips in under 20K (yes, including delivery). There are two transmissions but the six-speed manual is only found on the base model. Most Optima’s will be delivered with a six-speed automatic.
Two engines can be hooked up to the autobox, a 274 horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder (optional on EX, standard on SX) or a normally aspirated 2.4-liter 200 HP model. The V6? Gone, and not missed. Both powerplants feature direct-injection. I’ve driven both, today I’m focusing on the non-turbo.
EX has push button start and the engine turns over smoothly. The front-drive Optima moves briskly off the line with quick throttle response (perhaps a little too touchy for some). 0-60 happens in 8 seconds according to my Dynolicious equipped iPhone (note: Edmunds just recently posted an 8.9 second time for what it’s worth).
Fuel economy won’t keep buyers away, at 24 city, 34 highway for the automatic, it’s quite good. Brakes have good modulation and stopping power, the EX gets larger discs to go with the powerful turbo engine.
Not Just Good Looking, Athletic Too
Ride quality is similar to Honda Accord, firm though not harsh. Optima corners athletically, staying fairly flat in hard turns. Yes, there’s some understeer as the limits approach but the front end doesn’t plow heavily. BMW 3 Series pilots will want more road feel but as a front-driver in the mid 20K price range it’s hard to complain too much about the driving dynamics here. While Kia engineers have alluded that the Optima cabin is quieter than Sonata, I find road noise to be a bit higher than average.
The interior, like the exterior, has it’s own original cockpit design. Soft touch materials are found throughout, a few strips of hand stitched trim go a long way to elevate the space a class. Two memory settings for the driver’s chair are good if you have a petite spouse. Shut down the Optima and that seat glides back for easy exit.
Less Money, More Features
This car has pretty much everything an owner could want; Dual zone auto climate control, a very good eight-speaker Infinity sound system, panoramic glass roof with motorized shade and leather seats. These are heated and ventilated. The chairs are very firm but what might first seem uncomfortable is actually very supportive on long road trips. Touch screen navigation? That’s included. Backup cam too. Oh yeah, the steering wheel is heated.
If you’re in a car pool better be careful, your friends will want to take your car all the time. Optima’s rear quarters have plenty of knee and foot room, the seats are comfy and nicely sculpted, even heated. No power port to charge electronics though.
It’s all been candy and roses so far, lets dig into what I don’t like. The all-season Nexen tires don’t grab wet Seattle pavement well when acceleration. Combine that with aggressive traction control and Optima can seem like it’s sluggish on a rainy day.
While Optima has a pretty big trunk the gooseneck hinge arms will pinch cargo when loaded completely full. That’s remedied by paying attention to the arms when packing. Even though I’m griping, an above-average 7 packs of bath tissue are easily stowed in the infamous TP Trunk Test. I was able to get my kid’s bike in, wheels on, by folding the split rear seatbacks.
A Final Word on Design
I do believe style is subjective but have to say this is a very striking sedan. The most impressive part is that Kia’s lead designer Peter Schreyer and team drew up a car that doesn’t overtly rip off anyone else’s cues. I do see a little Porsche 924/944 in the window line but that’s long ago and far away. In a way, Optima sort of looks like a design direction SAAB could have headed in. Unique is easy to do, just look at Aztek. Original AND attractive? That’s tough to do.
For those on a budget this sedan can be had for under $20,000 with a 6-speed manual transmission. If the competition doesn’t see Optima as a threat, they have their eyes shut and fingers in their ears. At a much lower transaction price it includes features not even available on Accord, Camry and Altima. Kia’s combination of design, performance, efficiency and value put Optima in a class by itself.