Nice looking, good running, well equipped and attractively priced - it would seem that Optima has it made.

Except for two things:

1. This midsize sedan is a newcomer in the most competitive automotive arena in the known universe.

2. It's a Kia.

Actually, the second thing is not entirely true. The Optima is not so much a Kia as it is a restyled, rebadged Hyundai Sonata, which is a good thing. Hyundai now owns Kia, a fellow South Korean company, rescuing it from bankruptcy last year just as the wolves were moving in. Optima benefits immeasurably from Hyundai's influence, especially the bigger company's recent boost in quality. The Optima is certainly a better-realized vehicle than Kia's other offerings: the tiny, tinny Rio; the minimalistic twins, Spectra and Sephia; and the cute-but-funky sport-utility vehicle, Sportage.

In content, driveability and quality, Optima goes a long way toward enhancing Kia's image. And with the top-drawer SE-V6 version tested here, loaded with luxury and performance features, Optima also offers a lot of car for the money.

Standard features include premium stereo with CD; alloy wheels and performance tires; heated mirrors; leather-wrapped steering wheel; power windows, locks and mirrors; side-impact air bags; fog lights; moon roof; four-wheel disc brakes; cruise control; and V-6 engine with automatic. That's a lot of content for a $20,000 sedan. Add to that a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, with five years, 50,000 miles on the rest of the car, and you have a pretty good package.

So what's the downside? How about fear of the unknown. Unlike the Japanese stalwarts of the midsize-sedan range, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, Optima has no favorable reputation for reliability or durability. What it does have is Kia's shaky record on each count. But the Korean products, especially Hyundai's, have shown major improvements in recent years.

Though Optima is a nice-driving car, it's not anything special. Suspension and steering are soft and inoffensive, and handling is competent but hardly interesting. For those who appreciate the roomy, comfortable interior and luxury features, and don't mind the dull driving characteristics, none of this should be a problem.

After recently testing Hyundai's new flagship, XG300, which drives and performs really well, I expected a little more from the new Kia, maybe some upgrades from the likewise competent-but-boring Sonata.

Optima's 170-horsepower engine gets a little noisy under acceleration, but it's a smooth engine with enough pull for this 3,200-pound car. The automatic transmission includes the optional self-shifting Tiptronic system designed by Porsche, which works quite well. But this car hardly inspires the kind of spirited driving that makes this a desirable feature.

Prices for a four-cylinder, stick shift base LX model is $15,299, a pretty good price b ut only marginally cheaper than similar base Accords and Camrys, not to mention Ford Taurus, Mitsubishi Gallant, Nissan Altima and the revamped Chrysler Sebring. Really, in terms of value, it's only when the Optima gets all loaded up that it becomes worth considering.

Options on the already well-equipped SE-V6 test car included antilock brakes, $795; full leather interior, $995; paint upgrade, $80; and, of course, those darn floormats, $80.

Though it's doubtful that Optima will drag too many of the fiercely loyal Accord and Camry buyers away from their chosen mounts, Kia knows it can attract others who are impressed with the boatload of luxury goodies at a moderate price. And that mighty warranty, which worked so well to squelch doubts about Hyundai's shaky past, should help prospective buyers to perceive Optima as a bit less of a gamble.