Kia moved upscale during the 2000 model year with its midsize Optima sedan, which was based on Hyundais front-wheel-drive Sonata. The Optimas styling differed from the Sonata, but they share engines and other major components.
For 2002, the Optima got a new 2.7-liter V-6 engine, but the 2.4-liter four-cylinder also remained available. For 2003, the Optima gets fresh front-end styling, new wheel and wheel cover designs, and a new console and seat fabrics. Kias Sportmatic automatic transmission is now available in four-cylinder models, but the four-cylinder SE sedan with the manual shift has been dropped. Both LX and SE models get some equipment changes.
Kia is owned by Hyundai, South Koreas largest automaker, but the companies maintain totally separate brand identities and dealer networks. Warranties cover the entire vehicle for five years/60,000 miles and major powertrain components for 10 years/100,000 miles.
Even though Kia borrowed some styling touches from the Hyundai 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 cars. Both the Sonata and Optima have a 106.3-inch wheelbase, but at 186.2 inches long overall, the Optima is a tad shorter than the Sonata and a few inches shorter than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
The 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.
Standard equipment for the base LX model includes air conditioning, a cassette stereo, and power windows, door locks and mirrors. The SE sedan adds a power moonroof, remote keyless entry, cruise control, 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 have a choice of engines: a 138-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder or a 170-hp, 2.7-liter V-6. Sedans with the four-cylinder may be equipped with either a four-speed-automatic or five-speed-manual transmission. The V-6-equipped model 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 places Kia ahead of some competitors.
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 power plant reaches well beyond adequate, and the automatic transmission responds well, even though an occasional abrupt downshift can occur at lower speeds.
The seats are somewhat firm but comfortable. All told, 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 and Toyota Camry. Throw in its modest price, and the Optima serves as an appealing contender.