Kia should be taken seriously. Seriously, it should.
Over recent years, this South Korean carmaker has pumped out some excellent alternative choices in vehicles such as the Forte, Soul and Sportage. It continues to build a reputation as an affordable brand that doesn't cut corners.
Now, it is offering a new midsize car rebuilt from the platform up. The 2011 Kia Optima has all the trappings of another premier entry: lots of luxury features, powertrains of the future and a head-turning exterior including striking wheels that can serve double duty as food processor blades.
But the Optima still falls into the 7:30 p.m. time slot — close, for certain — but not quite ready for prime time.
While the exterior is stunning, the engine offers excellent power and the interior is decent throughout, the car lacks that step up in performance and ride to run among the big boys in the brutally competitive midsize segment.
However, the Optima is closer to the competition than any one might have expected, and that's why every carmaker needs to watch Kia closely. First, it offers customers the full range of powertrains: a direct injection 2.4-liter I-4 engine, a 2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a gas-electric hybrid. The only other carmaker to offer all this variety is Hyundai.
I have not tested the hybrid model, which the Environmental Protection Agency estimates will get 36 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. But the other two powertrains operate extremely well on the road.
The base model 2.4-liter DOHC gasoline direct injection I-4 produces 200 horsepower and 186 pound feet of torque and gets 24 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway with a six-speed automatic transmission. By comparison, the top-selling Toyota Camry's 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing produces 179 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque and gets one mile per gallon less in the city and on the highway.
Touting 200 horsepower, the Optima's I-4 provides plenty of power. But it's the turbocharged 2-liter four-cylinder engine that provides the better combination of power and fuel efficiency. The 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque outperforms most competitors' V-6s, while this Optima still gets 34 mpg on the highway, as well as 22 mpg in the city.
All of that power means you can really push the Optima, which is where this car falters. The independent suspension holds the car up fairly well, but when you push this car through corners or travel at highway speeds, the Optima is not an enjoyable ride. Its ride is harsh as if it's too tense or uncomfortable in its own MacPherson struts and coil springs.
The electric powered rack-and-pinion steering feels disconnected from the road and leads to oversteer in hard corners.
But that shouldn't take away from its otherwise solid performance. For a family taking this sedan to the mall, its ride is just fine. Additionally, the turbocharged model has that extra pickup every driver wants when they want to overtake that sluggish hypermiler on a country road.
Of course, anyone you pass in this car will take notice. The exterior on the Optima is modern, well-proportioned and just beautiful. The roofline is smartly curved to provide lots of interior space while still making the car look sleek.
The wedge-like profile denotes speed and, unlike so many new cars that have a tendency to push the wheels out to the corners of the vehicle — something I usually like — the Optima keeps them in to provide an ample trunk and a more contemporary sedan look. However, that doesn't detract from the 110-inch wheelbase, which is 2.9 inches longer than the outgoing model.
With the high beltline, the Optima looks stout. In fact, it is bigger all the way around — wider, longer and lower to the ground.
The bigger body means bigger spaces inside the car, which is what midsize customers want. The front row offers more than 45 inches of leg space, and the back row has 34.7 inches of legroom. That's more than enough for most adults in the back and lots of space for kids. Additionally, the 15.4-cubic-foot truck can pack a lot of groceries or a foursome's set of clubs easily. If you need more room, the 60/40-split second row folds down flat.
Instead of the interior attempting to project the modernistic exterior inside, the lines throughout the cabin are clean and smooth. The instrument gauges are simple and clear, with a nicely done LCD screen mounted between the two dominate gauges.
While I liked the asymmetrical dash layout and curves, Kia used too many hard, shiny plastics throughout the cabin that took away from the overall design. Materials matter, and many of these felt cheaply snapped together. I can only imagine the dash rattle a few years down the road after it experiences a few Detroit winters.
Perhaps Kia was trying to make up for that deficiency by loading up the car with lots of electronics.
All the amenities drivers expect are there, including Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation and USB connections to the stereo mounted at the base of the center stack with a cubby to hold a phone or music player.
My loaded test model came with the optional convenience/technology package, which included an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, auto-dimming rearview mirrors, Infinity audio system, navigation system, back-up camera and dual climate zones.
The Optima also comes with a host of safety features, including six air bags, active front headrests, height adjustable seat belts and a tire pressure monitoring system.
This keeps the car on par with most in the segment, though it certainly doesn't make the Optima the leader or even a frontrunner in this department. But that doesn't mean Kia won't get there.
With every new vehicle this brand brings to America, it seems to leave a mark, most notably in other carmakers' sales figures.
Although far from perfect, the Optima is a step in the right direction. It may not go through the drive-through today and steal someone else's lunch, but if people don't take it seriously, it will eventually.
firstname.lastname@example.org (313) 223-3217
Exterior: Excellent: Modern-looking and perhaps the best-looking factory wheels available.
Interior: Fair: Well laid out with lots of space. Parts still feel cheap, and shiny plastic parts abound.
Performance: Good: Good engine choices and good around town. Ride is harsh and loud, especially during aggressive driving.
Pros: Lots of features for the money.
Cons: Quantity over quality.
Excellent **** Good *** Fair ** Poor *
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