Optima moves Kia to top of charts
The first time I saw a 2011 Kia Optima, it was difficult to look away. It was parked in subdued evening light, on a grassy area in a California hotel’s courtyard. I circled the car, from the front, around to the side, looking at every curve and every line, and then I walked to the rear corner.
I suggested to a fellow-automotive journalist that the car looks more as though it should have an Acura or Lexus badge on it, than a Kia logo. He said, “From the rear corner, it looks as though it was built by Jaguar.”
He was right. The slope of the roofline as it angles down to the rear fenders in the new-world concept of a 4-door coupe makes it strikingly similar to the new and spectacular Jaguar XF sedan. It has a smooth body with a classy appeal that looks like it should cost at least twice its price. The fact that a couple of occasionally cynical auto journalists were comparing first views of the car with Acuras, Lexuses and Jaguars speaks volumes. Kia calls it “breakthrough styling in a bland segment.”
Kia is an eager stepson to Korean auto giant Hyundai, and in the five years since their relationship began, they have shared platforms and drivetrains. One interesting difference is that Kia hired designer Peter Schreyer from Audi, and Audi is a frequent winner of automotive design awards. Schreyer has done well, and on the new Optima, he has outdone himself.
“The Optima is like a fitted Italian suit,” said Schreyer. “It has a long hood, a short, high rear deck, and a panoramic sunroof that is wide, and there is a skylight over the rear seats, with a rolling blind to block the sun.”
In the five years since Hyundai took over Kia as its partner and foster-parent, neither of the Korean car-makers could have envisioned what has happened in the past two years. Hyundai has skyrocketed to the upper edge of the technological envelope, with a superb 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that is brought to full potential by a progressive gasoline direct-injection system that is arguably the best in the maintstream industry. Along with it, Hyundai developed its own 6-speed automatic transmission, which shifts better, and is also 26 pounds lighter and considerably smaller than the 5-speed unit it used to buy. All of those features came to roost in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, which was an instant hit since being introduced a year ago.
One thing Hyundai and Kia are stressing is to differentiate between its corresponding models. That works very well with the Optima, because where the Sonata is curvaceous and virtually shouts sporty sedan, the Optima offers fewer contours but a more formal and luxurious design. It would be possible for a family to own one of each, and to say the Sonata is their sporty sedan and the Optima their luxury sedan.
Interior room is slightly less in the Optima, because of its lower roofline, and while the Sonata has a distinct bladed grille, the nose of the Optima bears the familiar corporate grille that can also be found on the Forte, Sportage and Sorento. Where the two come together is that the sportier looking Sonata has plenty of luxury inside, the more luxurious-looking Optima is plenty sporty.After driving the Optima on the twisting roads of California’s foothills, performance was impressive out of that 2.4 direct-injection engine. The base car, the LX, has it with either a 6-speed manual or the 6-speed automatic. The EX has more luxury appointments, including keyless ignition and foglights. And then there is the SX, which is a sporty upper-end sedan with EX features but also with the 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged 4, plus larger front disc brakes, 18-inch wheels, sport suspension, high-intensity discharge headlights, LED taillights, and steering wheel paddles for manually shifting the 6-speed automatic. Piercing blue color is exclusive to the Optima SX 2.0-Turbo. Prices on the Optima are startling. The base LX comes well equipped but can be bought for right around $20,000. Moving up the to EX costs more, and if you move up to the SX Turbo, the sticker is $25,595 — a remarkable sticker for all that is included in the car. The competitive midsize sedans are mostly priced $8,000-$10,000 more, for similarly equipped models.
The engines are a story in themselves, although it was curious that while Hyundai had stressed the engine performance at the introduction of the Sonata, Kia officials were stressing the great looks of the Optima, and barely mentioned that the Optima would have the same strong performance and, perhaps, the outstanding fuel economy. The naturally-aspirated 2.4 engine has 200 horsepower and 186 foot-pounds of torque — figures that are significantly more robust than the comparative 2.4 or 2.5 engines in the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu or Mazda6 — while still offering city gas mileage of 24 and 35 on the highway.
The only way those competitors can catch up to the Optima’s power is to get you into their V6es, which take their toll on your sticker price and on your fuel economy. Kia’s answer is, to nobody’s surprise, the same as Hyundai’s: the optional 2.0-liter Turbo. Combining direct-injection and the turbocharger kicks the Optima’s horsepower up to 274 and its torque to 269 foot-pounds, figures that are higher than the competitors’ V6es. And it still offers EPA numbers of 34 miles per gallon highway.
The second time I got my hands on the Optima was in Miami, where we were invited to watch the Miami Heat play an NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, which was interesting, because Lebron James made major basketball news by leaving Cleveland to help assemble a powerhouse in Miami. Kia is a corporate partner of the NBA, and provides the “official vehicles” for the NBA in exchange.The main attraction, however, was the chance to drive the Optima SX Turbo up to Palm Beach, and onto Palm Beach International Raceway, a tidy little road-racing circuit. After a briefing, we were allowed to run some hot laps. The Optima was impressive, even when pushed to its limits. With front-wheel drive, those limits are easily detected, because the front tires want to scrub off traction before biting enough to make the tightest turns. I joked that if you didn’t hear the tires screaming, you weren’t going hard enough.
The MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear, with high-performance dampers, kept the Optima effortlessly in a flat and stable attitude around the curves. But I also wondered how much the tires had been over-inflated, in the name of improving cornering. When I asked, one of the Kia officials shrugged and said he didn’t know, but they hadn’t changed the air-pressure from what we drove on the streets. Kia wanted to impress us with the Optima’s manners during extreme performance maneuvers, but hadn’t even jacked up the air pressure to give us more stability with less squealing.
My third encounter with the new Optima came when I got the chance to spend a week with a pair of them on Minnesota highways. I like the look of the pearl white model, with the black roof that conceals the panoramic sunroof. The seats are outstanding, with even the front passenger seat getting 4-way power assist. The interior is well done, ergonomically designed controls and center stack. Very businesslike.
The SX Turbo was swift, and still got very good fuel economy — over 30 mpg — and had all the performance-minded sports upgrades. Realistically, though, true performance cars have simple, straightforward instrumentation, without a lot of fancy and possibly distracting gimmicks. And that’s what the Optima SX has. Some may find it austere, I find it an interior that would not be out of place in a BMW M3 or M5. The SX also has LED taillights, which work so well we can only wonder when all cars will have them.The SX Turbo I drove for a week proved you could boost the sticker price up to $30,000, but it included the Technology Package at $2,000 with navigation and a back-up camera, as well as Sirius traffic and an Infinity 8-speaker audio upgrade, plus a Premium Package that includes the panoramic sunroof, power front passenger seat, heated and cooled front seats and heated rear seats, topping out at $30,840. Still a bargain.
Technically, both the 2.4 and 2.0 have a direct injection system that puts the air-fuel mixture at extremely high pressure, which makes the usual spray of fuel injection more of an atomized mist. Direct injection sends that fine mist, under controlled low temperature, into each combustion chamber, and the result is a more complete burning of the air-fuel mixture. More complete burning means more power and more fuel economy.
Cory Bruckner, Kia’s engineer in charge of powertrain development, said, “When it comes to technology, the more you spend, the better your fuel economy.
“We paid to reinforce the pistons and connecting rods, and we have variable valve-timing on both intake and exhaust cams. We found that a small turbocharger was most cost-effective, and we designed an integrated twin-scroll husing, with a split wall between the 1-4 and 2-3 exhaust ports. Our intercooler air guide ducts lower the outlet temperature by up to 10 degrees centigrade, and lower temperature equals higher performance and more fuel efficiency. That’s a patented industry first.
“We use a twin-scroll turbocharger, and we’ve found a 10-15 percent improvement over a single-scroll turbo. Then with our gas direct-injection, we gain another 15 percent improvement. So when we combine the GDI synergistically with our turbocharger, we get the best of both.”
The Sonata also comes with a turbocharged 2.0 version, and a hybrid, which the Optima will later add as a third model. The Kia Turbo settings and timing are different from the Sonata’s, according to Kia engineers. For consumers, it’s a win-win situation.
Instead of the Optima being a cookie-cutter copy of the Sonata, the two cars have distinctly different personalities and images. In the hotly contested mid-size sedan battlefront, if consumers bring their final decision down to the Optima and Sonata, nobody loses — except competitors, who may be unable to match the Koreans in styling or technology, or may be unable to spend the money to do it.