Kia's Optima has never exactly stood apart from the crowds of midsize sedans sold here in North America -- but all of that changes with the new 2011 Kia Optima, which makes its big debut at the 2010 New York auto show.
How do we justify that bold pronouncement? Simple. Not only will Kia now offer the Optima with a legitimate hybrid, but a legitimate sport model is in the works as well. If one look at the 2011 Optima doesn't tell you that Kia's been doing its homework, a quick peek under the hood will.
Optima LX base models come equipped with Kia's impressive new 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine, equipped with a six-speed automatic or optional six-speed manual. Coming in early 2011, this engine will shack up with an electric motor and form Kia's first hybrid for the U.S. market.
The enthusiasts, of course, want to know about that sport model we mentioned earlier. Called the SX, it bursts on to the scene with the hot new Theta II, 2.0-liter direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder that bangs out a muscular 274 horsepower. Unfortunately, it only comes with the six-speed auto, but you at least get a set of paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
Look past the engines and you'll see an all-new platform underneath equipped with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a new multi-link rear setup. Kia promises its engineers have been working very hard on the NVH, so the new Optima is expected to simultaneously be a sportier and more comfortable ride than the car it replaces. You can expect more room inside as well, thanks to a 2.9-inch longer wheelbase, which in turn leads to a 1.7-inch increase in overall length. The new Optima is also wider and lower than the outgoing model.
As we said before, though, all it takes is a look at the new Optima to know it's a whole new ball game over at Kia. What began with a simple facelift for the 2009 model year has morphed into a whole new look for the Optima, one that pushes the new "tabbed" corporate grille to look as aggressive as it ever has. It's accented by swept-back but still angular headlights and slick new fog lights and LED driving lights in the lower fascia. To match the bold new nose, Kia has raised the beltline and given the Optima a short greenhouse with gun slit windows sitting atop a hard bone line that runs from the headlights to the taillights. In the back, dual chromed exhaust tips are standard and the trunk and fascia take on an almost Lexus-like look of sporty elegance.
Then there's the SX model. As you already know, it's more than a basic trim package and the body will reflect that. SX models get a unique grille, HID headlights, LED taillights, a small rear lip spoiler, new side sills and red-painted calipers behind special wheels. Inside, the SX picks up black leather seats with French stitching, black, carbon and metallic trim pieces, lighted metal scuff plates in the door sills and a special "Supervision" instrument cluster with an integrated LCD screen.
Even without going full-bore on the SX model, Optima customers will be greeted to an all-new, upscale interior. Kia's corporate three-binnacle gauge cluster is flanked by two wing-like ducts for the air vents and a new, Audi-like center stack is angled toward the driver. Like all its models, Kia will deck-out the Optima with a bevy of standard equipment on the LX base model including Satellite Radio, USB and Auxiliary audio connectors, Bluetooth, steering wheel controls, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, power everything, 60/40 folding rear seats and a chilled glove box.
Hop up to the EX model and you snag some leather on the steering wheel and shifter, one-touch front windows, a back-up camera, dual-zone climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, automatic headlights and Kia's UVO voice-command system. Leather seats, navigation, a panoramic sunroof, seat heaters and coolers, a heated steering wheel and an Infinity premium 500-watt, eight-speaker stereo with 5.1 surround sound are all optional.
If Kia's competitors didn't take notice when the company known for cheap transportation released the Soul, Forte and Sorento, they'll definitely take notice when the Optima starts rolling off of dealer lots this fall. It's got all the goods it needs to go toe-to-toe with segment leaders, and hot looks to boot. Will it be enough? We'll just have to get our driving shoes on one and find out.