2001 Kia Optima

Driver Side Rear View

Sonoma, California - Kia Motors America is an optimistic company, so it's appropriate that its new flagship sedan is called the Optima. How optimistic is Kia? Enough to price the Optima about $1000 more than comparably equipped Hyundai Sonata models (Optima base prices range from $15,299 to $19,949). Why is this significant? Because Hyundai owns Kia, and the mid-size Optima is simply a reskinned, rebadged Sonata. "Our consumer clinics indicate our brand is worth more than Hyundai," says Dick Macedo, Kia's U.S. chief. "And our styling is better. That's why we can charge $1100 more for our volume model."

In measurements and mechanicals, the Optima is virtually identical to the Sonata, and the two cars share the same engines: a 149-bhp, 2.4-liter four and a 170-bhp, 2.5-liter V-6. With Kia's new Long Haul Warranty, both cars have the same ten-year/100,000-mile powertrain and five-year/60,000-mile overall coverage. Aside from styling and price, there are only three significant differences between them: The Sonata has a five-speed manual standard with both engines, whereas V-6 Optimas come with a four-speed automatic only; said automatic in the Kia has Tiptronic, licensed from Porsche, which will not be available in the Sonata for another year; and the Kia does not offer traction control, which comes with ABS on the Hyundai.

Like the Sonata, the Optima is a decent but undistinguished driver. The V-6 is fairly smooth but has no surfeit of oomph, while the all-independent suspension provides a comfortable ride but vague handling. Everything works, but nothing inspires. Still, we'll say the same thing about the Optima that we've said about the Sonata: We'd take one over a Pontiac Grand Am or a Chevy Malibu. But to spend an extra grand for the Kia over the Hyundai, you'd better really like that styling.

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