Editor’s note: This review was written in April 2011 about the 2011 Kia Optima. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Kia’s midsize sedan used to be a forgettable car with an obscure name. (Optimal? Altima? Optimus Prime?) Today, the redesigned 2011 Kia Optima boasts sharp styling, competent driving dynamics and a cabin that leapfrogs other family sedans — and could stay in the lead for years to come.
Honda and Toyota should pay close attention to the Optima’s success, which seems all but inevitable.
Trim levels for the car include the LX, uplevel EX and sport-tuned SX, with normally aspirated and turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Click here to compare them or here to stack up the 2011 and 2010 Optima. Last fall, Kia had a collection of EX models on hand for the media to preview. We later evaluated an Optima SX at Cars.com’s Chicago offices.
The Optima and its platform sibling, the Hyundai Sonata, are both sharp-looking cars, but the Optima looks better to my eye. Designed by Kia’s studios in Germany and California, it’s longer and wider than before, losing more than an inch of front and rear overhang versus its predecessor — a car that, in its final years, looked interesting up front but utterly forgettable everywhere else. What an improvement: The new Optima sports a clean, assertive profile. Its belt line rises simply, with no swooping curves or sudden kinks; the furrowed expression recalls many mid-decade Acuras. Kia has found a corporate face worth sticking to, and it doesn’t matter so much that it’s derivative — almost everything is these days.
Stick-shift LX models have 16-inch steel wheels with plastic covers; other cars get alloy wheels — 16-inchers on LX automatics and 17s on all EX models. One upscale touch: All models have body-colored side mirrors with integrated turn signals. EX cars add chrome door handles. The Optima SX gets a range of exterior appointments: xenon headlights, LED taillights, a small rear spoiler, various ground effects and 18-inch wheels. That description may sound gaudy, but the SX is tastefully done.
Kia offers LX and EX trims with a 200-horsepower, direct-injection four-cylinder, which works with 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 moves competently: Squeeze the accelerator two-thirds of the way down, give the automatic a beat to fetch 4th gear, and 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 — and appreciate, given the drivetrain’s impressive 24/34 mpg city/highway EPA rating. Stick-shift models get a slightly better 24/35 mpg, while the turbo gets an impressive 22/34 mpg. Not bad, given both drivetrains run fine on regular gas.
Kia officials characterized the Optima’s suspension tuning as decidedly firmer than the Sonata’s — closer to a Mazda6 or Nissan Altima than a Toyota Camry or Chevy Malibu. The car rides a bit stiffer than its Hyundai counterpart, but not by much, and it’s better than the brittle Altima. On highways, our test car picked up the general rhythm of surfaces underneath it, but it didn’t play them back staccato. Noise levels, too, are competitive — the Optima quells highway wind sounds better than road ones, but overall noise won’t drown out conversations or music.
Product planner Ralph Tjoa said the EX shares suspension tuning with the LX, while the SX has firmer shock absorbers, plus 18-inch wheels and lower-profile tires. The SX also dials back the steering wheel’s power assist, which some will find too generous in LX and EX models. As 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 the highway at 80 mph, it still felt loose.
Find some back roads, and the car holds its own. The nose pushes a bit, and on curvy roads the steering reveals a degree of slop that doesn’t plague the Mazda6 or Suzuki Kizashi. The Optima corners pretty flat for what it is, though; it refuses to pitch off-kilter into hard corners and throw its nose wide, tires squealing, like the Sonata and Camry do. The brakes are marvelous, too, with a strong, linear pedal sensation and little suspension dive on hard stops. EX turbo and all SX models have upgraded brakes, with front discs that measure a healthy 12.6 inches across.
Winter drivers, take note: The Optima’s standard tires — all-season Classe Premieres from Korean brand Nexen — are poor allies in cold conditions. We took an Optima from our Chicago offices to Michigan for January’s Detroit auto show, and the tires slipped, slid and spun to keep up with light snow on the interstate. Even on snow-free pavement, acceleration around town would often overcome the tires’ modest grip, forcing the Optima’s standard traction control to rein in the spinning. If you drive in inclement weather, consider swapping them out.
Don’t be fooled by the lack of two cylinders; Kia’s turbocharged four-cylinder gives the Optima SX the acceleration of a V-6 family car — torque steer and all, noted one editor. With little sign of turbo lag, the car accelerates swiftly, storming up to highway speeds with power to spare. It’s a quiet drivetrain, too, though another editor found the engine buzzy at certain speeds.
Still, the turbocharged Optima ranks among the quickest family cars; the V-6 Camry and Altima are perhaps a smidge stronger, but the V-6-powered Honda Accord and Dodge Avenger feel more modest. The turbo engine is standard in the Optima SX and optional on the EX.
The six-speed automatic offers responsive enough kickdown, though with 274 hp and 269 pounds-feet of torque — the latter available at just 1,800 rpm — any delay comes at little cost. Steering-wheel paddle shifters are standard on the SX; they induced reasonably quick shifts, but the responsiveness is a bit conservative for aggressive driving. Call up a downshift that would pitch the tach needle past 5,000 rpm, and you’ll be summarily denied.
The sport-tuned SX doesn’t ride much firmer than the LX or EX, but some will find the ride, which filters up road imperfections in a way the Malibu and most Camry trims don’t, too firm. Choppy rides or loud suspensions haven’t stopped car shoppers from buying the Altima or Accord, so I doubt this will hamstring the Optima too much, especially given its handling payoff.
Our tester exhibited body roll similar to the EX — some but not too much — and outstanding handling balance. With less power assist, the steering wheel feels more settled at speed, and it unwinds back to center more naturally than in lesser trims. My only complaint lies with the electronic stability system. Leave it on and it cuts in with all the subtlety of a “24” plot twist.
The Optima’s cabin impressed us at its auto show introduction, and it held up over a daylong drive. Materials are good, with padded surfaces where they count — namely, along the door panels and armrests. The dashboard has Saab-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 comes surrounded in a strip of stitched leatherette — the stuff of luxury cars just a few years ago. Our test car’s faux-wood trim and metal shifter trim looked decent, and once you move up from the Optima LX, Kia shows merciful restraint with the shiny silver plastic that spoils too many interiors in this class.
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. Kia states headroom as a decent 40 inches, but an optional panoramic moonroof knocks it down significantly. The automaker hasn’t published a figure for those models, but most adults will have to lower their seat to compensate. I sat in a car without the moonroof, and the difference is as great as a couple of inches. By the numbers, the Optima has lost 2 cubic feet of passenger volume in its redesign, but its cabin volume is still comparable to the Camry. From the driver’s seat, the cockpit seems a bit smaller; that’s due mostly to the wraparound design, which enhances the impression of driver-centric sportiness — at the expense of overall space.
The backseat has decent legroom but, as in the Sonata, the seat sits close to the floor, leaving most adult passengers’ 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 most of the class. Only the Sonata, Ford Fusion and Mazda6 have appreciably more.
A competitor to Ford’s Sync system, Kia’s newly optional UVO system stands for “Your Voice.” Implemented in part by Microsoft — the company behind Sync — UVO indexes the content off a connected iPod or other compatible MP3 player; as with Sync, you can call up songs, playlists or artists on the stereo by saying their name. Kia demonstrated the system to journalists, and it works fluidly enough. Its female voice sounds more natural than Sync’s robotic lady, and you can turn her off once you get the hang of things, which expedites the command response. UVO comes packaged with an upgraded stereo that has a new head unit with a small color display. Though you won’t be able to get UVO with the Optima’s top-shelf Infinity stereo and navigation system (which are packaged together), Kia plans to make the combination available soon. Other Kia models, starting with the Forte and Sportage, are also slated to get the system.
In crash tests by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, the Optima earned top marks in front, side, rear and roof-strength evaluations, earning IIHS’ Top Safety Pick status. Standard features include six airbags, all-disc antilock brakes, active front head restraints and an electronic stability system. One oversight: The rear center seat — the safest position for backseat passengers — lacks a head restraint. Click here for a complete list of safety features.
The $18,995 Optima LX is well-equipped with features like USB/iPod integration, steering-wheel audio controls, air conditioning and keyless entry. At the top end, the equipment list reads like that of a big luxury sedan: heated and cooled front seats, xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel. Fully loaded, an Optima SX tops out around $30,000 — similar to a top-line Accord or Camry.
The market’s 15 family sedans — several on their last legs — have accounted for nearly one-sixth of all vehicle sales this year. The ubiquity can be oppressive: At Cars.com’s eight-car family-sedan Shootout last spring, our test-family parents, Jill and Ben Tiernan, remarked how similar everything was.
Indeed, shopping for a family car inspires all the excitement of choosing between Friday’s, Chili’s and Applebee’s for a Saturday dinner. Until now, the Optima has owned a minuscule slice of the reheated apple pie, so to speak, selling on par with the nearly extinct Mercury Milan in August 2010. But this redesign could change that. Extravagant amenities, smart styling and, in all likelihood, good value stand to lift the car at least to midpack popularity. The Optima’s slice is poised to get bigger, and deservedly so.