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