Kia Optima — The game changer

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The new mid-sized Optima sedan is a game-changer for Kia; from its cutting-edge styling to its fuel-efficient drivetrain to its lively driving demeanor Optima can go head-to-head with the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Nissan Altima.

Audacious of us to say you say. Well maybe. But once you’ve experienced the Optima, maybe not. Forget everything you have heard or experienced about Kia in the past — just wipe it out of your mind. Leave your preconceptions at the door. It is a new day.

The Optima is a kissing cousin to the award-winning and much ballyhooed Hyundai Sonata (Hyundai and Kia are both owned by Korea’s Hyundai Motor Company and are operated as the Hyundai Kia Automotive Group) and the Kia shares many of the Sonata’s underpinnings. But we found ourselves a bit astonished with our transformation into an Optima fan as our testing proceeded. We believe that the Optima is every bit the equal of, and in some ways better than the Sonata.

The Optima shows, compared to the Sonata, as a stand-alone vehicle with totally unique styling inside and out and with noticeable differences in other areas including suspension tuning and steering feel.

The most obvious difference is design. The Optima is sleek and streamlined — longer, lower, wider and more conservative when compared to the Sonata with its deep character lines and bold front end. The character lines on Optima are more subtle, the beltline higher, and the front more handsome than aggressive. Kia’s design chief Tom Kearns calls Optima, “Simple, clean and pure.”

It’s a different kind of Optima, so radically new it garnered a lot of attention from the gawking public as we piloted the new sedan around both the Eastern and Western seaboards. There’s substance under the appealing styling, too. The doors close with a solid thunk; interior materials are of high quality for the segment and fit and finish is first rate.

The Optima, like the Sonata, is far from being a muscle car in its normally aspirated four-cylinder mode. The shared base engine is a 2.4-liter DOHC in-line four-cylinder putting out 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. And like Sonata, Optima now can also be purchased with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo that pumps out 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. And later there will be a hybrid version for both as well.

If you opt for the turbo version, you will sacrifice very little in gas mileage, but you will pay a couple grand more to drive off the lot. And for the extra cash outlay you will get very satisfying V6-like performance.

But we think most people will be satisfied with the 200 energetic horses provided by the base engine, which is more than the base engines in any of the popular mid-sized offerings. The Optima can hit 60 miles per hour in around 8 seconds from a standing start. Is it high performance? No. But it is definitely adequate performance.  Also, the Optima will stop from 60 mph in a relatively short 121 feet.

Considering the growing importance of gas mileage, the Optima’s mpg rating of 24 in the city and 34 on the highway is a winner. The turbo is rated at 22/34 and reportedly will cover the ubiquitous 0-to-60 in just a tick or two over six seconds.

The six-speed automatic works well, with smooth, crisp shifts. We like it better than the continuously variable transmissions found in some competitors.  If you still care to shift for yourself, Kia has made a six-speed manual available in the base LX trim.

The driving experience was rewarding. The Optima performed vigorously on our favorite stretches of twisting roads and mountain passes, but the suspension is firmer than found in the Sonata and that kept us well planted. If your tastes run to the plush side of the driving equation, you may want to take an extended test drive over some uneven pavement. For us, it was spot on.

We like all aspects of the new Optima, but perhaps best of all we like the striking good looks of the interior, its cockpit feel with a canted instrument package, and its distinctive European look.

The center stack buttons are fairly intuitive and the instrument panel with its three overlapping gauge clusters is attractive. Redundant controls on the thick-rimmed steering wheel are many and well placed for such things as raising and lowering stereo volume, operating the cruise control and gaining access to the Bluetooth phone system.

The front seats proved comfortable and achieving an excellent driving position with the power seat controls and tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel was quick and easy. Decent leg room is afforded rear passengers. And trunk room is ample at 15.4 cubic feet.

The Optima comes in four trim levels with the well equipped LX starting at $19, 690 including destination charges. By well equipped we mean standard stuff like keyless entry, full power accessories, height-adjustable driver’s seat with power lumbar adjustment, air conditioning, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, and a stereo system with CD player and satellite radio. 

Standard safety is no less impressive with four-wheel antilock brakes, traction and stability control, side-curtain airbags and hill start assist (desirable with the manual shifter).

Move up through the trim levels and features not normally available in family mid-sized sedans include heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and a huge panoramic sunroof become available.

The usual options now available on most nameplates are there for purchase as well including navigation, a backup camera and a premium sound system.

While the LX may attract a fair number of shoppers we figure the mid-trim EX will be the sales leader. It starts at $23,190 with such standard equipment as leather seating and dual-zone climate control; although we did miss the outside temperature gauge.

On the down side some desirable options are unavailable separately, but come bundled in one or another of two packages, technology and premium. We would opt for the technology package at $2,000 which brings navigation with backup camera and the upscale audio. The premium package is an additional $2,250.

Our test EX model equipped with both packages carried a bottom line of $27,440.

The new Kia offers strong competition for the segment leaders including Sonata, and should gain many conquest buyers. It’s that good.

Base price: $19,690; as driven, $27,440
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder direct injection
Horsepower: 200 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 186 foot-pounds @ 4,350 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating" 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.0 inches
Length: 190.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,385 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 34 mpg highway, 24 mpg city
0-60: 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima

The Good:
• Energetic fuel-efficient engines
• Impressive styling inside and out
• Good ride and handling
• Long-term warranty

The Bad:
• Options bundled into packages

The Ugly:
• Needs to overcome bland reputation