Thumbs Up: Comfort and luxury at an affordable price.
Thumbs Down: Needs a proper sport-shift automatic and less body roll.
Buy This Car If: You want a near luxury sedan that’s fun to drive, at a great price.
The previous generation of the Kia Optima was a blend-into-the background sedan that could hardly be called aspirational. It was a car that you had to justify to your neighbors by saying, “I got a good deal on it. A really good deal.” That’s no longer the case with Kia’s midsize sedan, which boasts jaw-dropping good looks, amazing fit and finish, a stylish and comfortable interior and a price that’s thousands less than equivalent cars from better known brands. The new Optima is a bona fide sales success for Kia, and the Optima drew more questions and praise from friends and neighbors than any other press fleet car in recent memory (except, of course, the Kia Optima Turbo).
Designed by former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer, now the head of designed for Kia, the 2011 Kia Optima carries on the styling trend begun with the slight restyle of the last version Optima in 2009. The pinched grille and angular headlights pioneered in 2009 are taken a step further in the 2011 redesign, and even side-by-side it’s hard to recognize that the two cars are both the same make and model. Kia’s futuristic styling was aimed at attracting buyers who wanted something a bit different, and their plan has worked well.
The 2011 Optima sports an angular front fascia that gives the front end a take-no-prisoners look. The hood flows back to meet the steeply raked windshield, and the roofline slopes down to meet the rear window. Strong character lines and fender vents give the car a distinctive appearance from the side, and blacked-out B-pillars add to the car’s sporty feel. On upper trim models (such as my EX tester), the roof is also painted gloss black, which gives the appearance that the greenhouse is a giant glass canopy. From behind, the Optima uses uniquely-shaped taillights and a sculpted rear fascia to create a presence. Even non-turbo cars get dual exhausts, which feature chrome outlets highlighted by a black lower fascia.
Inside, the Optima feels more like a luxury car than you’d expect. Front seats are well-bolstered, and wrapped in surprisingly nice leather on upper trim level models. The driver’s seat is power adjustable, and opting for the premium package gets you a power adjustable passenger seat as well. The same package also gets you heated and cooled front seats, something not often found in a sub-$30,000 vehicle.
Rear seats are more than an afterthought, like they are in many cars designed to a price point. There’s a reasonable amount of bolstering for outboard passengers, and rear-seaters get treated to the same rich leather as those in front. There’s a surprising amount of leg room in the rear of the Optima, and four adults would be comfortable even on a cross-country trip. The descending roofline means that the rear seat loses some headroom, but those six feet and under will find the rear seats to be all-day-long comfortable. Another feature not often found in sub-$30k cars is heated rear seats and HVAC vents for rear-seat passengers, but the Optima has both, You have to remind yourself from time to time that this isn’t meant to be a luxury car, because it certainly does a good impersonation of one.
The dash will look familiar to anyone who’s driven a new Hyundai model. Saving money means raiding the corporate parts bin, but in this case that’s a good thing. Kia doesn’t play much with color on the inside of the Optima, but they keep things visually interesting by using contrasting textures, All controls readily fall to hand, and their touch screen nav system is as intuitive as anything on the market. I’ve previously praised both Hyundai and Kia for building superb steering wheels with easily accessed controls, and the Optima is no exception. The leather wrapped wheel is the perfect size and shape, and even includes thumb cut-outs at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: if other manufacturers want to know how to build a proper steering wheel, just buy an Optima and copy it as closely as you can.
The instruments are functional, but lack the personality of those found in the Hyundai Sonata. There’s no LCD graphic of the Optima, and even the numbers used on the tach and speedometer aren’t a particularly interesting font. I do like the trip computer display in the center of the speedometer (as in the Hyundai Sonata), but find the red LCD readout to be distracting. If you’ve ever raced cars, red lights on the dashboard usually mean bad things.
The Optima uses fake wood trim on the doors, and I usually call out cars for this. Instead of going with the fake burl walnut look, Kia instead chose to use a charcoal colored woodgrain (borrowing from Cadillac’s midnight sapele wood trim, perhaps), and it looks good. I hate myself for saying this, but I actually preferred it to the usual dark plastic, aluminum or faux carbon fiber trim.
Under the hood is Kia’s 2.4-liter, four-cylinder Theta II engine. Thanks in part to gasoline direct injection (GDI), the Theta II now produces 200 horsepower and 186 ft lb of torque, but still returns fuel economy of 34 mpg highway and 24 mpg city. The Optima is only available with a six speed automatic transmission, but the car still manages the run from 0 to 60 in about 8.5 seconds. If there’s a weak link in this chain, it’s the shift logic that both Kia and Hyundai use in their transmissions: even in a manual shift mode, the transmission doesn’t allow you to wind a gear out to redline before upshifting. This negates any benefit of manually shifting gears, so what’s the point of adding the feature?
On the road, even the normally aspirated Optima accelerates with some enthusiasm. Transmission upshifts aren’t exactly quick, but six speeds help the car return both reasonable fuel economy and better-than-average performance. Steering is light and less than precise, but it still feels tighter than the Hyundai Sonata. You need to remember that the Optima isn’t a sport sedan, so as long as your expectations are reasonable the car’s handling and braking are more than adequate. Pushed hard in a corner, the Optima exhibited a surprising amount of body roll, and I suspect that the aftermarket will soon have damper and spring solutions to counter this. Compared to other midsize sedans, the Optima is still fun to drive and handles on par with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. It does make me wonder just how much fun an Optima R-Spec, with a proper sport suspension, turbocharged engine and six-speed manual transmission would be.
Base price on a Kia Optima EX is $23,190, including a destination charge of $695. Options on my tester included the $2,000 Technology Package (nav system, back-up camera, Sirius Traffic, Infinity audio system) and the $2,250 EX Premium Package (panoramic sunroof, power passenger seat, driver’s seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel) for a total sticker price of $27,440. For comparison, a similarly equipped Toyota Camry XLE would sell for $29,955, while a comparable Honda Accord EX-L would sticker at $28,105.