You know you like a car when the only thing you would change is the hard, uncomfortable seats.
Automobiles are the amalgamation of thousands of parts designed and created by hundreds of individuals. Each piece provides an opportunity for the car to provoke the ire of the driver or passenger. Some cheap plastics here, ungainly taillights there, and very quickly you have an inert resident of dealers' lots.
Kia Optima. If some indurate cushions are the only thing to complain about on the $27,440 EX model I tested, the company has a winner on its hands.
Kia Motors Corp. is the South Korean upstart perpetually dodging the shadow of cousin Hyundai Motor Co. As a result, each of Kia's vehicles has a Hyundai doppelganger. In the Optima's case, it's the Hyundai Sonata, a vehicle setting the mid-size segment ablaze with both critical and consumer acclaim.
One can only hope that the Optima receives similar attention, because frankly, it's the better of the two and possibly the best in the mid-size segment long dominated by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
The Optima uses the same 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine found in the Sonata, and in this application it's good for 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. This power is routed through a six-speed manual transmission on the base LX model, or a six-speed automatic available on the LX and standard on the EX and SX trim lines.
Fuel economy on the four-cylinder automatic is rated at 24 miles per gallon in the city, 34 mpg on the highway, though I saw an average of 24 mpg over 300 miles of city and freeway driving.
Buyers looking for more power or more fuel economy have some options as well. The EX Turbo and SX models come with a 2.0-liter, 274-horsepower turbocharged engine. Meanwhile, a recently announced Optima Hybrid will be available in early 2011 and will wring an expected highway fuel economy of 40 mpg out of the same 2.4-liter engine used on the base Optima, this time paired with an electric motor.
On the road, the Optima EX I tested felt composed and responsive to driver input. Because it has one of the most powerful four-cylinder engines in its class, this Kia has more than enough zip. The steering has a communicative feel, and body roll was minimal. The suspension falls on the firm side, but this is worth the dividends the setup pays in the car's handling. In comparison with the Hyundai Sonata, the Optima as a whole felt like Kia engineers created a tighter, more dynamic driving experience with the platform they were given.
Aesthetics are always subjective, but in this reviewer's eye, the Optima leaps to the top of the segment in exterior design. Better than the dowdy Camry or bulbous Accord, the Optima continues Kia's handsome and unique design language. Everywhere the sculpted Hyundai Sonata has a curve, the Kia Optima has an angle.
The front of the car gives off a taut smile rife with mischief as the headlights and bumper sweep back toward the front wheel arches. The profile of the car shows a windswept greenhouse with a shallow angle to the rear glass, giving the Optima a near coupe-like look. The rear of the car shows off bold, angled taillights and the standard dual chrome exhaust tips add an upscale flair.
The upscale feel continues with the Optima's interior. High-grade materials abound and anything a driver or passenger is going to touch, such as the arm rests and the controls on the dashboard, has a solid, quality feel to it.
Too solid, in fact, when it comes to the front seats. Perhaps my hindquarters are more delicate than most, or perhaps Kia stuffed the Optima's seats with the cardboard box the leather came in. But in spite of their heated and ventilated attempts, the excessively firm seats did little to support me during my time with this Kia.
The rest of the spacious cabin is a nice place to spend some time, especially when you consider the entry fee. My fully optioned nonturbo Optima EX model came in at a mere $27,440 (including the destination charge.) That may seem like a lot for a mid-size Kia, but it featured a laundry list of options untouched by other cars in its class for this price.
The highlights included a touch-screen Sirius navigation system with traffic updates, a gorgeous panorama sunroof, heated rear seats, an Infinity audio system and a backup camera. The same setup on a Camry or Accord will run you thousands more.
For the Mario Andrettis in the Optima's customer base, the EX Turbo commands a $2,000 premium over the regular EX. Want more? The premium SX has the turbo, paddle shifters, unique (and very cool) alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension and various trim pieces for $1,500 over the EX Turbo.
Want less? The Optima lineup begins with the base LX, which starts at just under $20,000 with a manual transmission or $21,000 with the automatic.
The safety quota is met on all Optimas with six airbags, traction control, stability control, ABS and a tire-pressure monitoring system. As with all Kias, the Optima is covered by a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty with roadside assistance.
All told, the Optima is a tremendous value, which will go a long way toward establishing this Kia as a formidable mid-size competitor. However, it's the styling and execution of the 2011 Optima that will help the Kia nameplate rise to a respected brand from the pejorative it was just a few years ago.
Some softer seats would go a long way too.