First Drive: 2011 Kia Optima

After decades of watching value-conscious automakers fail to transition their show cars' looks to the showroom floor, we've been brainwashed into thinking that high style must cost a fortune.

Kia begs to differ. The 2011 Optima is a cleanly designed, elegant sedan that's missing not a pinch of visual appeal due to cost-cutting. Its roofline is worthy of a Jaguar, and its proportions are phenomenal. In fact, aside from its me-too fender vents, it looks unlike any other car on the road, and it's easily the best-looking car in its class.

Going up against the Stay Puft Marshmallow Honda Accord and the frumpy Toyota Camry, that isn't saying much. But remember, the sleek Mazda 6, the edgy Ford Fusion, the slick Nissan Altima, and the swoopy Hyundai Sonata also play in this league. And visually, this Kia eats them all for lunch.

Then again, the mid-size-sedan segment is the home of the overachiever -- styling is but one data point. The best cars in this category get tremendous fuel economy (the aforementioned models range from 31 to 35 mpg on the highway), offer roomy back seats, and provide the creamy ride of a Lexus. It's a tall order, especially for a big car starting at about $20,000.

That's where the Optima lags a little behind its peers. Its seats are hard and unsupportive, road noise is abundant over rough surfaces, and some of the lower trim plastics are hard and scratchy. On the other hand, the optional Infinity stereo system sounds great, a touch-screen navigation system is available on all trim levels, and Bluetooth is standard. So Kia isn't forcing buyers into more expensive models just to get the toys they want. That's smart.

Like its Hyundai Sonata sibling, the Optima will eventually be available in both turbo and hybrid models. For now, the only choice is whether you'd like a manual or an automatic transmission strapped to your direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. We drove a loaded EX model with Kia's superbly smooth six-speed automatic. The powertrain gets the job done without being obtrusive, body control is impressive, and although it's no Mazda 6 in terms of road feel, the Optima's steering is reasonably well weighted, accurate, and mostly devoid of torque steer.

Add to that a very good driving position and excellent outward visibility, and this new Kia makes a great alternative to the established set. In short, the Optima is now a fully competitive car in a very competitive segment. Each new model from Kia shows that this ambitious car company is quickly catching up to the best. In terms of styling, though, it's safe to say that Kia is now clearly out front. The power to surprise? We'll say.

The Specs
PRICE: $20,500 (est.)
ENGINE: 2.4L I-4, 200 hp, 186 lb-ft
DRIVE: Front-wheel

BrunoT - it's simpler than that; it's cos four years ago they employed Peter Schreyer as design director, previously a high-flyer at Audi. They're not hamstrung by the dominant Japanese design philosophy that a lot of the other OEMs have.
The reason Hyundai and Kia new designs are so good is that unlike Toyota, Nissan,Honda, and GM (I don't count ford), they lack a luxury division. This means they are not forced to hamstring their affordable cars to get buyers to move up to the more profitable luxury lines. There is no reason Honda can't sell a TSX as an Accord here. But if they did it'd sell for $5 grand less than it does as an acura. A Fugly $25K Camry becomes a luxurious decent looking Lexus ES350. Without that requirement, Kia is free to do their best job on the more mundane family sedan.

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