The new Kia Optima is remarkably good looking. I saw a design study for it at Kia headquarters in Korea in July 2009, and we’ve since seen it at auto shows and in endless photos, but then when you actually encounter one on the street, you’re still a little shocked: THIS is a Kia?!? Wow. So sleek and upscale looking. One minor exterior fillip that I could do without is the GDI (gasoline direct-injection) badge on the trunk lid next to the EX badge. It reminds me of when GM would put badges like “ABS” and “Port Fuel Injection” on its cars.
While scraping the Optima’s windows after our first snowstorm, I realized just how small the side windows are in this new Optima, a consequence of the shoulder line that swoops up dramatically toward the rear of the car. Some rear-seat passengers might find it a little claustrophobic to have the side door glass start at their shoulders, but in our particular test car, there’s a rear panoramic sunroof that goes a long way toward alleviating that feeling, as it brings a lot of light into the rear part of the cabin. It’s a twin panoramic sunroof, with two panels of glass, one above the front passengers and the other above the rear passengers. Sitting behind myself in the rear seat, I found plenty of legroom, and I appreciated the pull-down center armrest. The outboard rear seats also are nicely sculpted.
If anything, the Optima is an even nicer, more refined version of the Hyundai Sonata with which it shares its platform and powertrains. Among those powertrains is the optional turbocharged engine, which handily outperforms, for example, the 220-hp 2.0-liter turbo four available in the new Buick Regal. Ride, handling, steering: all these dynamic qualities are among the best in class and will, I’m quite sure, shock the daylights out of anyone who drives the previous Optima. Excellent high-beam headlamps, I might add.
The streaming audio in the Infinity stereo worked beautifully, and the phone interface is great. The center-stack buttons are all very clearly labeled and quite intuitive. The whole instrument panel is attractive. I also liked the tan leather seats with white stitching in our test car.
– Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Just when I started telling people that the Hyundai Sonata was the mid-size car to buy, kid brother Kia comes out with something even more appealing. First off, it’s unbelievably good looking. Even with white paint and a heavy coating of ice and snow, its sloping roofline and chiseled shoulders look just right. Why oh why would anyone buy a vanilla Toyota Camry when the same money buys all this sexiness?
It gets even better inside, where the stitched leather, nicely grained dash, thick-rimmed steering wheel, and attractive navigation screen honestly feel like they could belong in an Audi. Some will likely complain about the low, short seat squab, but I consider it short peoples’ revenge for all those long cushions that cut into the back of my stubby legs.
The actual driving experience is no less shocking. The steering is precise and more nicely weighted than in the Sonata, although there is a dollop of torque steer during full-throttle acceleration.
To say the Optima is a huge advance over the last version is a massive understatement. It’s not only better than its predecessor, it eclipses just about everything else in the segment as well.
– David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
Unlike my colleagues, including Jason Cammisa, who wrote Automobile Magazine’s first-drive story on the new 2011 Optima, I’m not in love with this car’s styling. I’ll admit that it’s very refreshing to see such a distinctive-looking car in the midsize sedan category, but I’m having a hard time warming up to Kia’s new inverted-bow-tie grille; it just isn’t my thing. I do like the exterior styling of the Optima slightly better than that of the super swoopy Hyundai Sonata, whose grille reminds me a bit of melted candle wax. On the plus side, and unlike Eric Tingwall, I really like the dashboard’s asymmetrical design.
I, too, thought that the Optima drove better than most mid-size cars, but it didn’t seem like much of revelation during my snowy, icy commute. These Nexen all-season tires certainly did the Optima no favors, and left much to be desired in wintry conditions. The four-cylinder’s power was plenty adequate, though, and the six-speed automatic shifted smoothly and quickly. To me, the steering felt good but somewhat heavy in normal, 50-mph sweeping curves.
I look forward to spending more time behind the wheel of a 2011 Optima to see if my opinions align with or further diverge from those of my colleagues. This mid-size Kia, after all, is a very nice place to spend time.
– Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
The Kia Optima is unquestionably better looking that its Hyundai sibling from the outside, but from the cabin, I find the Sonata to be the more appealing car. For one, Hyundai’s center-stack layout and touch-screen design is more intuitive. While the Optima adds just a few more physical controls, the layout makes it more cluttered. The Sonata’s symmetrical layout provides natural groupings of buttons, such as the audio controls to the left and the navigation controls to the right of the volume knob. Hyundai’s climate controls are more generously spaced, and the person-shaped mode button is very user friendly.
The driving experience of the Optima, though, is every bit as impressive as with the Sonata, and in some small ways even better. The 2.4-liter engine provides excellent acceleration with stunning fuel efficiency and the six-speed automatic walks through the gears gracefully. The cabin is impressively quiet on the highway, and the seats feel slightly more padded than in the Sonata (although they could still use more cushioning). The most significant change though, is the steering, which feels much more naturally weighted in the Kia Optima than in the Hyundai Sonata. Kia has eliminated the springy return of Hyundai’s steering wheel, and the change goes a long way in making the Optima feel like a much sportier car despite its numerous similarities. There’s still a dearth of feedback in the steering, but it’s not any less communicative than other mid-size sedans.
The tires on our particular Optima were Nexen Classe Premiers, Nexen being a brand I’ve never heard of it until this Optima arrived. There might be good reason for that, as these Korean tires are absolutely atrocious. On modestly damp roads, they’d slip every time I tried to leave a stop with even modest throttle. The wheel spin was always quickly quelled by the abrupt, aggressive traction control, jerkily interrupting forward momentum. It’s a shame that Kia crippled such a good car with such terrible tires. Fortunately, swapping tires is a pretty easy fix for anybody who wants in on the Optima’s value, style, and driving goodness without the Achilles’-heel rubber.
– Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
Base price (with destination): $22,495
Price as tested: $26,745
2.4-liter four-cylinder engine
6-speed automatic transmission
Electronic stability control
Tire pressure monitoring system
Automatic climate control
AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with 6 speakers
Sirius satellite radio
USB and auxiliary input jacks
Leather seat trim
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt/telescoping
Options on this vehicle:
Premium package — $2250
Driver’s seat memory
Heated and cooled front seats
Heated rear seats
Heated steering wheel
Wood trim door inserts
EX technology package — $2000
Navigation system with backup camera
Infinity audio and speakers
Power front seats
Heated front seats
Power adjustable pedals
Rear window shade
17-inch alloy wheels
Key options not on vehicle:
Turbocharged 2.0L DOHC I-4, $2000
Fuel economy: 22/32/25 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Size: 2.4L DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 200 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 186 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Curb weight: 3223 lb
Wheels/tires: 17-inch aluminum wheels; 215/55R17 Nexen Classe Premier all-season tires