Rivalries are a fact of life. When they are in the family, they can be troublesome. On the other hand, they can help to raise the level of game for both family members.
That's the case Kia finds itself in with the 2011 Kia Optima
First seen at the New York International Auto Show back in April, the Optima looked a stunning, almost Teutonic counterpart to the stylized and swoopy Hyundai Sonata
. This wouldn't much matter if the two cars came from separate automakers, but the Optima and Sonata are direct rivals offered by the same parent company.
At that point, the gauntlet was thrown, and all bets were off. It looks like Kia is not content to just play second fiddle anymore.
By the numbers
The Kia Optima is a five-seat mid-size segment passenger car that has an interior that the EPA will probably consider a full size interior.
Longer, lower and wider than the vehicle it replaces, it is the result of design work from Frankfurt, Germany, to Irvine, California, as guided by Kia design director Peter Schreyer - formerly of Audi fame. Hence the new found sense of style.
Utilizing the company's design facilities in Irvine, the Kia staff picked pieces from some of its rivals to make a car that is as intriguing as it is new. A direct-injection engine adds power where there was none before, and future models will go further with turbocharging and Hybrid engine design. Of course, the Optima draws most heavily from its platform mate, the Hyundai Sonata.
The Optima is staged to go head to head with several of the industry leaders, namely the Toyota Camry
, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord. Of course, Kia (and Hyundai) can't ignore the fact that the Sonata and Optima will both be on many buyers' shopping lists.
The Optima aims at the sportier end of the market, so buyers might do best to check out lower-trim offerings like the Audi A4
, Mazda Mazda6
and even the Saab 9-3, which the Optima bears a squinting similarity to from some angles.
First impressions mean a lot
At first glance, the Optima gives off more than a hint of a European vibe. A vast stylistic improvement over the namesake that it replaces, it sports larger dimensions than the outgoing model. Sure, you might not see the chrome arch piece over the top of the greenhouse on every BMW or Audi you run across, but this new Kia borrows influences from some of Europe's best. Just check out the gills on the front fenders that are reminiscent of those found on the outgoing BMW M5
if you are looking for proof.
The by-now familiar Kia front grille makes an appearance once again that offsets the front of the vehicle with a little bling, and rides above a new fascia that houses fog lamps that are standard in our EX test model. Scalloped lower body panels add interest to the doors while a glass roof features a panoramic front and rear sun/moon roof that you would only find in cars a class above this segment. Body colored door handles and 17-inch alloy wheels add further to the impressive styling.
Check the upcoming SX models for racier wheels, painted brake calipers, LED taillights and rear lip spoilers. All this on a Kia!
Making ourselves at home in the driver's power seat was easy. Equipped with optional heated and ventilated front seats, it was the perfect match for the available heated steering wheel, as welcome a feeling as a farmer's warm hands during an early morning milking session on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The one nit we would pick is the positioning of the heating on-off switch. Located under the turn indicator stalk, it is a push on, push off affair that has a light that is visible only if you pause to take your eyes off the road.
The center stack is canted 10 degrees towards the driver for ease of use while in motion. Our EX was equipped with the EX Premium Technology Package, wood interior trim and navigation system with back-up camera and Infinity AM-FM-Satellite Radio-mp3-CD system in an eight-speaker layout. This is in addition to the standard Bluetooth setup and Aux/iPod inputs located with two power ports in the lower part of the center stack.
All show... and go
As good as all this packaging is, it would be for naught if the Optima didn't or couldn't step up to the plate. In this regard, it did not disappoint.
Although it eventually will be offered with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine or a four-cylinder-based hybrid, this launch was about the standard 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder GDI (gas direct-injection) engine that it shares with the Hyundai Sonata SE (like our long-term vehicle). This is the same powerplant that puts out to the tune of 200-horsepower and 186 lb-ft. of torque. We found the pickup impressive, and we enjoyed rowing our own with the six-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic function. Although the EX model we tested was not so equipped, the SX version will feature sporty wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
The 200-horsepower engine could be wasted having to tug around, say, a 4,200-pound car. Again, this Optima hits the sweet spot by tipping the scales at a svelte 3,223 lbs. Gone are the days of portly Korean cars. Fuel economy levels check in at 24/34 with the automatic transmission; the manual hits the mark at 24/35 mpg.
With standard MacPherson struts, coil over shocks and anti-sway bar in front, and an independent multi-link setup in the rear, again with coil springs and anti-sway bar in the rear. The electric-assisted power rack and pinion steering transmitted good road feel, while at the same time seemed able to totally isolate the grooved road surfaces that seem to populate most of the state of Californi's highways.
Using the Sonata sistership for comparison sake, we like the firmness found in the Optima EX's ride. While the Sonata has a softer, more luxurious ride, we think the Optima favors a more-European-like configuration that offers firmness for wheeling through the turns with body roll kept to a minimum. Vehicle NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) hits a new low. Credit the Nexen tires for some of the tune up. Nexen is, not surprisingly, a Korean brand (look from within, eh?), and we're rather impressed with our first in-depth evaluation of the brand. We will report further when we gather more information on them. Wind noise is better controlled and was almost non-intrusive during our high-speed runs up the I-15 Escondido Freeway near Miramar Naval Air Base in San Diego.
Leftlane's bottom line
Kia is no longer content to be the butt of jokes or the car of last resort for those who may be fiscally challenged.
Although still very much a Hyundai rival, Kia finally has a design language and style of its own. The brand is making all the right moves, unlike a certain Japanese rival that seems to make all the wrong
decisions these days.
This particular Korean firm is succeeding in their quest to become a tier-one import that won't cause anyone to have to explain their purchases. Competing brands should do well to look over their shoulders for there is a new contender gaining on them.
2011 Kia Optima EX base price TBA.
Words and photos by Mark Elias.