It seems that South Korean manufacturers introduce a new model in the United States and then immediately begin to consider modifications. Hyundai installed a bigger engine in its XG350 sedan after only a year on the U.S. market, and Kia has done the same for its Optima.
Based on the Hyundai Sonata, the midsize front-drive Kia Optima emerged in December 2000. For 2002, the Optima gets a new 2.7-liter V-6 engine, though the four-cylinder also remains available. The base sedan trades in its 14-inch tires for 15-inchers. Automatic on-off headlights have been added to the SE model, and a leather package for the SE includes a power front passenger seat.
Both Kia and Hyundai have shown big sales gains in recent years, and each has been expanding its lineup. Kias four-door midsize sedan is closely related to the front-drive Hyundai Sonata. Hyundai is the largest South Korean automaker, and it owns Kia; the companies maintain totally separate brand identities and dealer networks.
But warranties from the two automakers are identical; they cover the entire vehicle for five years/60,000 miles, major powertrain components for 10 years/100,000 miles and corrosion for five years/100,000 miles. Owners also get free roadside assistance for the first five years.
Although Kia borrowed some styling touches from the Sonata, and the two share some major components, the Optima has a unique nose with a crosshatch grille. Thats the main visible difference between the two. Both the Sonata and Optima have a 106.3-inch wheelbase, but the Optimas overall length of nearly 186 inches is a tad shorter than the Sonatas and a few inches shorter than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The Optima is 71.5 inches wide and 55.5 inches high.
Front bucket seats and a three-place rear bench allow the Optima to seat five occupants. A folding rear seat expands maximum cargo space beyond the trunks 13.6-cubic-foot capacity. A two-bin console storage box holds items inside the SE sedan.
Standard equipment for the base LX model includes air conditioning, a cassette stereo, and power windows, locks and mirrors. The SE sedan adds a power moonroof, keyless entry, cruise control, a power drivers seat and a 120-watt stereo system with cassette and CD players, among other features. An eight-way power drivers seat in the SE includes lumbar support.
Under the Hood
Both the LX and SE sedan have a choice of engines: a 149-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder and a 170-hp, 2.7-liter V-6. Sedans with the four-cylinder can have either a five-speed-manual or four-speed-automatic transmission. The V-6 is available only with the automatic, which incorporates adaptive logic and a provision for manually selected gear changes.
Antilock brakes are optional on models equipped with the V-6 engine. Side-impact airbags are standard, which is a first for Kia.
A smooth and easygoing ride leads the list of merits in Kias top model, which glides neatly past moderate bumps without transmitting much commotion to occupants; but rougher surfaces begin to impair its composure. The Optima is easy to maneuver and offers excellent stability on the highway. Acceleration with the V-6 reaches well beyond adequate, and the automatic transmission responds well even though an occasional abrupt downshift can occur at lower speeds.
Seats are somewhat firm but comfortable, and few faults come to mind after a lengthy drive. In overall competence, Kias midsize model comes surprisingly close to the level of the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry. Throw in a modest price, and the Optima serves as an appealing contender.