2011 Kia Optima: First Drive
Slightly longer and wider than its predecessor, the Optima has clean lines and a sharp expression. The uplevel SX trim gets more aggressive bumpers, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The redesigned 2011 Kia Optima goes on sale in November and shares underpinnings with the Sonata from Kia's sister company, Hyundai. It's a good pedigree, given that the Sonata kicked trunk at Cars.com's $25,000 Family Sedan Shootout earlier this year.
The Optima has potential to do the same and then some.
It strikes a better balance between ride and handling than the Sonata, and its cabin will appeal to people shopping cars a class above the Optima. I can't rave about everything: The front seats are thin on padding, and like in the Sonata, rear headroom for adults is tight. However, this is the sort of car that could make Kia a mainstream choice in a popular segment, which is a rabbit's leap for a hamster-handed brand.
Kia will offer LX and EX trims with a 200-horsepower, direct-injection four-cylinder. Come December, a 274-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder will be optional on the EX and standard on the top-dog Optima SX. Alas, we didn't drive the turbo. Kia only had normally aspirated EX models equipped with the Optima's staple transmission, a six-speed automatic. It's a capable pairing: The engine lacks the low-end oomph to come out of a corner in a high gear and accelerate uphill, but the transmission kicks down soon enough to get you back up to speed. On the highway, the car has a bit of zip. Squeeze the accelerator two-thirds down and give the automatic a beat to fetch 4th gear, the Optima turns 60 mph into 80 mph with surprising vigor. It's no V-6 impersonator, but it represents a sort of halfway compromise that most owners should be able to live with. They might even appreciate it, given the drivetrain's impressive EPA-estimated 24/34 mpg city/highway when paired with the automatic transmission. With a manual transmission, it gets 24/35 mpg. The turbo engine's fuel economy comes in at 22/34 mpg.
Kia officials characterized the Optima's suspension tuning as decidedly firmer than the Sonata's, closer to the likes of a Mazda6 or Nissan Altima than a Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu. The car rides a bit stiffer than its Hyundai cohort but stops well short of the brittle Altima. On highways and back roads, our test car picked up the general rhythm of surfaces underneath, but it didn't play them back in staccato bursts. Kia product planner Ralph Tjoa said the EX shares suspension tuning with the LX, while the forthcoming SX will have firmer shock tuning, plus 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires.
The SX also dials back the steering wheel's power assist, which my journalist co-driver and I both found a little too generous. Like in the base Sonata, steering the Optima around parking lots is a picnic. I'm fine with that, but the wheel doesn't firm up enough at higher speeds: Cruising down California's Interstate 5 at 80 mph, it still felt too loose. At least then the Optima is well-insulated. Even with its optional panoramic moonroof, our test car kept highway wind noise to a low hum. Road noise was more noticeable, but the two didn't combine to drown out conversations or music.
Find some back roads and the Optima holds its own, though the nose pushes a bit. On curvy back roads, the steering reveals a degree of slop the sharper Mazda6 and Suzuki Kizashi lack. However, the Optima corners pretty flat for what it is; it refuses to pitch off-kilter into hard corners and throw the nose wide -- tires squealing -- like the Sonata and Camry. The brakes are marvelous; there's a strong, linear pedal sensation with little suspension dive on hard stops.
Cabin quality is good, with padded surfaces where they count – namely, along door panels and armrests – and buttons and knobs that operate with the kind of precision you'd expect in a family car. The dashboard has Audi-like wraparound contours; Kia says the center controls are angled roughly 10 degrees toward the driver. Step up to the EX or SX and the whole panel is surrounded in a strip of stitched faux leather, the stuff of luxury cars just a few years ago. Impressive.
The front seats have ample adjustment range, but after a few hours' driving, I could feel harder pieces of the seat underneath the cushioning. Our test car's leather felt high quality, but Kia could stand to crank up the padding. There's only one published headroom dimension of 40 inches, which is decent, but the panoramic moonroof knocks it down significantly. Most adults will have to sacrifice some seat height. I sat in a car without the moonroof and the difference of a couple inches is palpable.
The backseat has decent legroom but, like in the Sonata, the seat sits low to the ground, leaving my knees in the air. Sitting upright, my head mashed into the ceiling. Trunk volume, however, is impressive: at 15.4 cubic feet, the Optima beats the Accord, Camry and Altima.
Kia hasn't priced the car yet, but Kia sales vice president Tom Loveless expects it to start "in the low $19,000s" for a stick-shift LX. The car comes well-equipped at that, with features like USB/iPod integration, steering-wheel audio controls, air conditioning and keyless entry. At the top end, the equipment reads like a big luxury sedan: heated and cooled front seats, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel. No word how much a loaded turbo Optima will cost, but given Kia's penchant for value, it'll probably compete with a loaded Camry or Accord; both sedans can top $30,000. Not many years ago, you'd be nuts to pay such money for an Optima. Now it seems entirely plausible.