Kia's Optima brings stylish design to bland midsize category
Automotive newcomers sometimes push the boundaries of styling because they have less to lose than the established brands.
South Korea’s Kia has been making major inroads in the U.S. market for several years along with its parent company’s main brand, Hyundai. Both are providing well-equipped cars at value pricing and backing them with a 10-year 100,000-mile warranty.
Now comes Kia’s Optima, a midsize car that looks like an entry-level Lexus, with clean lines and thin stylish taillights to complement its graceful roofline. That’s a good thing for this segment’s generally blah styling.My bright metallic red test car was the midlevel EX with a starting price of $22,495, comparable to Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord.
Optima is good looking, appropriately sized for a family of four, and performs near the level of its competitors.
The Optima checks in at 190.7 inches long, about 5 inches shorter than the Accord and about an inch longer than Camry. It rides on a 110-inch wheelbase, smack dab between its two major Asian competitors.
Power comes from a 2.4-liter direct-injected I4 that kicks out 200 horsepower – 31 more than the Camry and 23 more than Accord. Unlike the others, Kia sticks with four-cylinder engines throughout its lineup. Instead of bumping up to a V6, like the others, it offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter I4 that cranks out an impressive 274 horsepower. Its advantage? Better fuel economy.
The test car’s non-turbo engine was sufficiently strong for an average family’s driving habits, with solid acceleration, but not kicky when getting onto a highway. Its silky six-speed automatic, which you can shift manually if you want, brings it up to highway speeds with a smooth luxury feel.
The EPA rates the Optima at 24 mpg city and 34 highway. The turbo drops the city rating to 22 mpg. I drove about 60% highway miles, frequently with four to five adults aboard, and still got 26.3 mpg.
Everyone was comfortable inside and the ride was good, feeling only a few large bumps. The 17-inch wheels help. They’re an inch larger than what is standard on the competition.
Handling is middle of the pack for the segment, with a little lean in turns. But the steering effort seems artificially heavy for a car weighing just 3,223 pounds.
Kia appears to have tried making the Optima feel more substantial, like a Lexus, by firming up the steering beyond what seems appropriate. Feedback and road feel are imprecise, giving the steering a more mechanical feel. There’s no problem adapting to it, but it doesn’t fit the overall quality delivered by the rest of the car.
Braking is fine from the four-wheel discs, and ABS is standard along with traction and stability control systems.
Inside, everyone liked the car because of its quietness and comfort.
The test car featured a black over tan interior with perforated leather seats – other makes would offer cloth at this price – that are flat and comfortable on the bottom, but with well contoured backs. The front seats were both power operated, with the driver’s seat having a memory function, part of the $2,250 EX premium package. The package adds heating and cooling to the front seats, and heated outboard rear seats, a treat for back seat passengers. The package also added a one-speed heated steering wheel.
A panoramic sunroof with front and rear sunshades is also a part of that package.Dash trim includes fake black and gray wood accents, including around the center stack and shifter. It creates a clean, modern look, which the gauges also reflect with crisp white numbers and a snazzy round red trip computer readout that seems to float above the other gauges.
That computer is controlled via a button on the wheel hub. The dash is laid out well and simple to understand and use while driving. Oddly, the automatic lights were stubborn, only coming on if it were nearly dark outside, never on an overcast day.
This model added a technology package with navigation system and a useful backup camera. The $2,000 option upgraded to a premium Infinity audio system with eight speakers. If you can avoid adding too many packages, you could get into a nicely equipped Optima for $25,000. This one was north of that, at $27,440.
A base LX with manual transmission is available for $18,995, again with the same 200-horsepower engine. Moving to an automatic pushes the cost to $19,590. An EX Turbo begins at $24,495 and the uppermost SX model lists at $25,995.