Kia and Hyundai have been playing a serious game of catchup. There are many good articles out there about Kia and how far they have come, so I won’t regurgitate the same old sayings. I’ve been involved in the used car business for the past several years and know a thing or two about Kia’s rightly earned reputation, and their immense turnaround that other brands just wish they could accomplish. The mid-sized sedan market, in America, is everything for car companies. Try as they may, the American companies just can’t break into this segment; it’s ruled by the likes of the Camry, Accord, and Altima.
That is exactly where the new Optima is aimed, but will it be able to break up the top three? Is it good enough to be considered in the same shopping list as these other cars? Is it a better, or just as good, mid-sized sedan for the average Texas buyer? We plan to find out.
Let’s start with the most obvious and striking change for the 2011 Kia Optima, the looks. It’s longer, lower, and wider than any other Optima before it. I’ve heard the looks of this car being compared to a Lexus, Jaguar, Volkswagen, and even Audi. There is a good reason for these high-end looks, as Kia employed a designer from Audi to design this new Optima. Many “experts” will tell you that a mid-sized sedan buyer isn’t interested in looks and design as much as they are functionality and purpose. When you can put these two together though, at a good price, what’s not to love. Everything on the outside of this car is about attention to detail. Detail in the front grille, detail in the headlights, detailed lines down the car, the swooping roofline, all the way around to the detail in the taillights. When I first saw pictures of the Optima and it’s sister of sorts, the Hyundai Sonata, I really thought the Sonata was the better looking of the two. After spending some time in and around both cars, I have to say the Optima is not just the better looking of the two, but possibly the best looking in it’s class.
Great, so good looks on the outside, that’s not hard to do. But what about the inside? You might be thinking the same thing. You might have been in an Optima from a few generations back and cringe at the thought of the interior of those cars being inside of this elegant sedan. Cringe not. The detail of the interior matches that of the exterior. Even the center stack is angled 10 degrees toward the driver; a subtle, but effective detail. Our test car was an EX equipped model. That means top of the line. However, I’ve been in some other trim levels, and they are not bad either.
Our car had a two-tone, black and sand interior. The sand leather seats were comfortable and good quality. There were leather accents in just the right spots to break up the plastic trim and give you nice touch points. The steering wheel seemed busy with buttons at first, but once you knew the functionality, you really never notice the extra clutter. The gauges are crisp and clean with a nice digital readout in the middle of the speedometer giving you all the information you want. The center-stack was laid out just as clean with good sized buttons that were easy to navigate. The infotainment/navigation screen had an iPod-like feel and look that was also very easy to navigate.
Room to move about? Why yes, as a matter of fact. One of the biggest compliments I received from occupants was the surprise of ample room. Rear occupants leg room and even head room were no issue in this car . Other complements given where toward the equipment that came on this Kia. Most were surprised at the fact that, in a Kia, you get front cooled and heated seats, rear heated seats, heated steering wheel, electric seats with drivers memory position, rear back-up camera, push button start, hands free integration, and an Infinity sound system. The real party piece on this Optima was the panoramic tilt/sliding sunroof. This glass roof spanned from the front to the rear and was a great touch; unexpected on this Kia.
Overall, the interior reminded me more of the Buicks we recently tested than those of the Accord or Camry. It wasn’t all roses though. The one big let down of the interior would be the road noise emitted into the cabin. It’s not excessive for it’s class, but is more noticeable than other cars I’ve driven in this same class.
The looks might move you, but will the 2.4 liter 4 cylinder engine really get you moving? Matched up to a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, this engine pushes 200 horsepower and 186 ft. lbs. of torque. While those are normal base engine ratings, they wont blow your socks off. We actually were surprised on how peppy this engine felt, though. The Optima felt light on it’s feet and almost agile for it’s 3200 pound curb weight.
If you are really looking for a little more sportiness out of your Optima, you can have one with the 2.0 direct-injection, turbocharged engine pushing a more right-foot-happy 274 horses and 269 ft. lbs. of torque. If you opt for the more sporty turbo engine, you do lose the option of a manual transmission, which seems a little odd to us.
While the base Optima did a good job in the fuel economy range, we averaged around 28mpg during our week of testing, you can also now get the Optima in a hybrid trim. Kia isn’t known for hybrids, and we haven’t tested out any of the Kia’s or Hyundai’s equipped with their hybrid technology as of yet, but if you are looking for a great looking hybrid, I don’t know how you could go wrong with this car.
I am, and have been real excited about all the great new designs coming out of Kia and Hyundai, and that’s not just an underdog since of accomplishment talking. It really seems like more and more companies are getting it. They are understanding that consumers are looking for style, and even if they are buying a mid-sized or compact car, they want quality and style for a good price. Above, I compared this Kia Optima directly to the Buick LaCrosse we tested a few weeks back. I really think that’s a fair comparison in most areas, but the Kia is a full $10k cheaper than the LaCrosse we tested. This top of the line model tipped the charts at just over $28,000. That’s with the panoramic moonroof and navigation. You can still pick up a base model for around $17,000, and for the same looks, that’s a great deal. Don’t let the name throw you, this should be on your shopping list when looking for a mid-sized sedan.
Full photo gallery on Facebook