Kia’s slogan, “The Power to Surprise,” is one of many ambiguous catchphrases that automakers are using these days. In the case of the brand’s redesigned 2006.5 Optima, however, it manages to ring true. The Optima’s refined ride, strong engines and attractive interior make it an unexpectedly strong entry in the midsize-sedan segment and an enjoyable car to drive.
Exterior & Styling
The new Optima isn’t likely to draw a crowd with its appearance; to my eyes, it looks like a scaled-down Buick Lucerne. It is well-proportioned, however, and its conservative design doesn’t offend. In any case, looks don’t typically make or break a midsize sedan. (If they did, Toyota’s Camry wouldn’t be the segment’s best-seller year after year.)
Pains have been taken to ensure the Optima’s exterior conveys quality. A close inspection reveals tight gap tolerances between body panels, and closing the doors produces a solid-sounding thud — very luxury car-like. Uplevel EX models get chrome door handles, and V-6 models have dual exhaust outlets finished in chrome. Standard steel wheels measure 16 inches in diameter, but 16- and 17-inch alloy wheels are optional.
Ride & Handling
The Optima has a four-wheel independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars. The suspension treads the middle ground between overt softness and punishing firmness, resulting in a setup that’s definitely taut, yet able to smooth out bumps and depressions in the road. All in all, the Optima is more willing to be driven quickly than a Hyundai Sonata.
Driving the Optima quickly through sweeping turns is entertaining, and the car manages to resist body roll quite well. The steering wheel has a moderate amount of heft to it, but it doesn’t provide much feedback. In this way, it’s comparable to most other midsize sedans. I could feel a slight vibration in the steering wheel at times.
Below 40 mph, the Optima’s cabin is impressively quiet, but when driving on concrete surfaces at highway speeds, the tires drone incessantly. This particular test car wore Michelin Pilot HX MXM4 all-season P215/50VR17 tires on 17-inch alloy wheels. As part of the $1,500 Appearance Package, these tires are priced at $194 each on The Tire Rack’s website. Though they likely contribute to the Optima’s handling capabilities, a near-$800 replacement cost is a bit much to stomach, especially in a value-oriented car like the Optima.
Going & Stopping
I drove two Optimas, one with a four-cylinder engine and another with a V-6, and I liked each one’s performance characteristics. The four-cylinder LX model comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but the model I drove had the optional five-speed automatic with a clutchless-manual mode. That engine and transmission are especially well-matched; in city driving, the car felt quick and the transmission was always in the right gear.
The Optima with the V-6 engine and automatic feels quick accelerating from a standstill, and the car still has power to spare at highway speeds. Transmission kickdowns are swift and refined, and the automatic didn’t hesitate to downshift a couple gears when necessary. With the performance of these two engines being so similar, I’d opt for a four-cylinder model and take the gas mileage gain if I were going to buy one.
|Kia Optima Engines|
|2.4-liter I-4||2.7-liter V-6|
|Horsepower||161 @ 5,800 rpm||185 @ 6,000 rpm|
|Torque (lbs.-ft.)||163 @ 4,250 rpm||182 @ 4,000 rpm|
Like its exterior, the Optima’s cabin design doesn’t have a high wow factor, but the controls are sensibly arranged and intuitive to use. Interior plastic panels have appropriate graining, though some pieces are hard to the touch. Overall, the EX model’s fit and finish levels are very close to those in Honda’s Accord, which speaks volumes about how important a well-executed interior is in today’s market, regardless of price. My EX test car was free of rattles and squeaks.
It’s unfortunate that an awful new-car smell spoils the interior. This isn’t the first Kia I’ve driven that’s had this distinctive, chemical-like smell, which makes me less inclined to chalk it up as an anomaly of my test car. It very well may diminish over time, as most new-car smells do, but until then, stock up on air fresheners.
Cloth-covered seats are standard and leather-trimmed seats are optional. I found the cloth front seats to be very uncomfortable; my lower back was sore after a 45-minute trip. The leather front seats are firm and have seat cushions that feel narrow due to bolstering, but they are much more comfortable than the cloth ones.
The rear bench has seatbelts for three, but it’s better suited for two. The backrests of the outboard seats are angled for comfort and there’s enough legroom for adults. A little more headroom wouldn’t hurt, but it’s adequate. The center position’s upright backrest, lack of headroom, and hard cushion and seatback won’t win over passengers.
The seatbacks of the 60/40-split rear bench can fold to accommodate long cargo items. The handles that release them are located in the trunk, but the seatbacks are not spring-loaded like those in the Ford Fusion, which automatically fold down when released. The Optima’s release levers only unlatch the backrests; you still have to fold them forward from the backseat (or force them down with whatever large item you’re loading into the trunk). The opening to the cabin that’s revealed by folding the seats isn’t very large, and there’s a ledge in the floor between the cabin and trunk.
The Optima comes standard with side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags designed to protect outboard occupants in the first and second rows, active front head restraints, and a tire pressure monitoring system. An electronic stability system is optional. The Optima received a Good rating in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal-offset crash test.
Cargo & Towing
At 14.8 cubic feet, the Optima’s trunk is comparable to its competition. The trunklid is assisted by gas struts that don’t intrude on trunk space, as some hinges can. The deck-mounted subwoofer speaker, which is standard on EX models, juts into the trunk slightly but shouldn’t affect cargo-carrying abilities. When properly equipped, maximum towing capacity is 2,000 pounds.
Base Optimas come standard with a high level of comfort and convenience features, including heated power side mirrors, air conditioning, a CD stereo, and power windows and locks. Noteworthy options include a manual sunshade for the rear window and power-adjustable pedals. Both of these options are bundled together in the Leather Package that’s available for EX models; in addition to leather seat trim, the package also includes a power front passenger seat and front seat heaters.
An Appearance Package is also optional. It includes 17-inch alloy wheels, dark grille bars, revised headlights and “Supervision” daytime-illuminated gauges. EX models with this package also get black leather seats and an all-black interior. Rather than coming across as gloomy, the all-black interior looks rather luxurious.
A strong warranty complements the available features. The Optima has five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage. Kia also includes a five-year/60,000-mile roadside assistance plan.
Optima in the Market
The Optima’s base price undercuts much of the competition, which is good news for consumers. While some cars may exact a penalty in refinement or performance in exchange for this level of affordability, the Optima doesn’t require any sacrifices in return for being so easy on the wallet. It’s a well-rounded package that should have the competition concerned. Now, if only Kia could do something about that new-car smell.
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