Preview Drive: 2011 Kia Optima

Major redesign pushes Kia a crucial step closer to serious contender status in midsize segment

by James M. Flammang

2011 Kia Optima

IRVINE, California - Ever since Kia sent its first cars to the U.S. market in the mid-1990s, the South Korean automaker has concentrated primarily on value. Their goal: to deliver cars that approached the leaders in each category in quality and appeal, but sell them for significantly lower prices.

That principle has largely kept Kia - as well as its Hyundai corporate cousin - alive through all these years. While the first-generation Optima, launched for 2001, was a competent sedan, it fell short when compared to the leaders from Honda and Toyota. Its purpose was to establish Kia's presence in the midsize segment.

Generation two, introduced in 2006, was actually quite a satisfying sedan all-around, yet it continued to appeal largely to value-conscious buyers at the entry-level end of the market. Now, with the third generation ready for sale, Kia is fully ready to join the midsize-sedan mainstream - as is Hyundai, with its substantially redesigned Sonata. As Ralph Tjoa, manager of car product planning, put it, the 2011 Optima will express Kia's brand identity and target the core of the market.

In his media presentation on the new Optima at Kia headquarters (which includes a Design Center), chief designer Tom Kearns promised an "unexpected level of design [in the] mid-size segment," led by a sleek, flowing profile with chrome lower accents. "The car just sits well," Kearns added. "The stance is good." In fact, the Optima's overall theme is called "Transformed by Design."

Dimensionally, the 2006-09 Optima stood near the bottom of the midsize segment, according to Michael Sprague, Kia's vice-president of marketing and communications. The 2011 model is about 2 inches longer, an inch wider, and an inch lower - hardly massive increases, but enough to help give the sedan a more expansive appearance.

Tjoa calls this growth to "mainstream dimension." The hood is 2.4 inches longer this time around, while the trunk lid is 4.3 inches shorter. Inside, front-seat legroom has grown by 2 inches (now 45.5 inches).

All Optima engines will be four-cylinder; no V-6 options offered. Sales begin with the 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter GDI engine, driving a Sportmatic automatic transmission. (The entry-level LX model gets a standard six-speed manual gearbox, with automatic an option.) A 274-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine joins later. During 2011, a hybrid engine will join the lineup.

With the base engine and automatic, the Optima gets a fuel-economy estimate of 24 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. Manual shift raises the highway figure to 35 mpg, while turbo power drops the estimate to 22/34 mpg. Dual exhausts are standard even for the 200-horsepower base engine. Optimas have Electronic Stability Control, traction control, and Hill Assist Control.

Kia promotes quite a long list of features, either standard on specific models or available as options. They include LED taillamps (on SX); ventilated front seats; heated front and rear seats; cooling glovebox; premium (530-watt) audio; a class-exclusive heated steering wheel; and a backup camera. Power lumbar support for the driver is standard. Interiors contains front/rear soda bottle holders and a backseat cupholder. With a panoramic sunroof installed, roll blinds block sunlight when needed.

Three trim levels are offered: LX with 16-inch alloy wheels; EX, which has 17-inch tires, front foglamps, heated mirrors, leather seat trim, and pushbutton start; and SX, which gets a turbocharged engine along with 18-inch wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, lip spoiler, and sculpted bumpers. A Turbo EX model also will be available, featuring larger front brake discs, a black chrome grille, and wood interior trim.

Capable sedan of 2006-09 turns admirable road car for 2011

Although the Optima doesn't quite measure up to Kia's ambitious presentation, it really is a giant step ahead in the segment. The prior Optima was an appealing, high-value sedan; but this one is a superior road car that handles with utter certainty and behaves in an overall assured manner. Few significant drawbacks are evident, apart from thick B-pillars that impede over-shoulder views.

While quiet generally, the base engine (with automatic) can definitely be heard when headed uphill, as it begins to strain just a bit. Only then can you tell it's a four-cylinder, not a V-6. The LX suspension is on the taut side, to maintain handling skills; but ride quality remains good. Still, lumpy pavement can induce substantial body motion, though it recovers quickly and smartly from each reaction.

Base-engine performance is wholly adequate, as long as drivers don't have excessive expectations. Acceleration from a standstill is on the moderate side. Passing power (the important trait) is more satisfying.

Front seats are wide and quite comfortable, with support ranking as average or slightly above. Occupants get plenty of room all-around. Large white-on-black gauges are deep-set but easy enough to read. Moving from an LX to an SX model doesn't qualify as luxurious by any means; you just get a few more features.

Kia foresees close to 50-percent growth in the misdize market over the next five years.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang