Kia moved upscale during the 2000 model year when it began offering the midsize Optima sedan, which was based on the front-wheel-drive Hyundai Sonata. The Optima's styling differed from the Sonata, but the two models shared engines and other major components.
A new grille goes on 2004 Optima models, which can be fitted with restyled 16-inch alloy wheels. What was previously the SE trim level is now called EX. The Optima comes with either a four-cylinder or V-6 engine, and a Sportmatic automatic transmission is available.
Kia is owned by Hyundai — South Korea's 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 Sonata and the two share some major components, the Optima has a unique nose and grille, which is the main visible difference between the two cars. Both vehicles have a 106.3-inch wheelbase, but at 185.8 inches long overall, the Optima is a tad shorter than the Sonata and several inches shorter than the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Front bucket seats and a three-place rear bench allow the Optima to seat five people. A folding rear seat expands maximum cargo space beyond the trunk's 13.6-cubic-foot capacity. The rear armrest offers additional storage space.
Standard equipment for the base LX model includes air conditioning, a CD stereo, and power windows, locks and mirrors. The EX sedan adds a power moonroof, remote keyless entry, cruise control, and a stereo system with cassette and CD players, among other features. An eight-way power driver's seat in the EX includes lumbar support.
Under the Hood
Both the LX and EX are offered with a choice of engines: a 138-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder or a 170-hp, 2.7-liter V-6. A four-cylinder LX sedan may be equipped with either a four-speed-automatic or five-speed-manual transmission. Other models are available only with the automatic unit, 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, easygoing ride leads the list of merits in the Optima, which glides neatly over 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 engine reaches well beyond adequate, and the automatic transmission responds well, even though an abrupt downshift can occasionally occur at lower speeds.
The Optima's seats are somewhat firm but still comfortable. All told, few faults come to mind after a lengthy drive. In overall competence, Kia's midsize model comes surprisingly close to the level of the Accord and Camry. Throw in its modest price, and the Optima serves as an appealing contender.
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