Looking for an affordable mid-size family sedan, most people would head out to their Toyota or Honda dealers. The Camry and Accord have been the standards of the class for years.
Yes, there are other alternatives, from Nissan to Volkswagen, but now there is another serious contender — Kia’s Optima. Before thinking that a Kia is going to be some cheap car put together like a card board box, it’s time to get educated. The Hyundai/Kia group (yes Hyundai and Kia are sister companies) is the fourth-largest automobile manufacturer in the world and recently surpassed Ford in total sales.
The new, mid-size Optima sedan looks very competitive on paper, so we got our hands on the Optima EX model to see how it stacks up in the real world. We were blown away — it’s not only competitive, it’s probably one of the best.
Just in the styling, there is no competition. The Optima looks more like a premium-level Audi than an everyday mid-size car. Boldly flared wheel arches and a raked cabin create a sedan with a graceful muscular stance of a sports sedan.
Inside, the premium theme continues. From the moment the door opens, Optima presents an immediate sense of a driver’s car. The instrument panel is contoured toward the driver to suggest a cockpit, with precise gauges and controls, for an overall sport performance experience without sacrificing comfort or roominess. Our EX model came with the optional Premium Package that included heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel and panoramic sunroof. The package costs $2250 and is well worth it. It really creates a car that feels more expensive than it is.
Standard interior features include dual-zone climate control, CD and MP3 player stereo with six speakers, leather seats and steering wheel, and cooled glove box. Our car’s only other option was the navigation system, which also included an 8 speaker Infinity audio system for $2000.
The interior matches the exterior’s sports sedan feel, but we wish there was a bit more. The tachometer is a little too small and the EX is only available with an automatic transmission, with manual shifting but no shift paddles. You can get a six-speed manual, but only on the base LX model. On the positive side the fit and finish of the interior is superb and everything is within easy reach.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and the cooling and heat functions are very well appreciated. The rear seats are also very roomy for three adults, but headroom in the rear could be an issue if the rear passengers are very tall. The trunk is huge and is able to accommodate the largest suitcases with ease. The only thing that gets in the way is the old-style economy hinges that cut into the trunk space.
The Optima is available with a choice of three engines. At the moment, the only choice is the standard four-cylinder that was in our car. Coming soon you will have a choice of a hybrid model as well as a turbo version. The regular four-cylinder in our car is a 2.4-liter DOHC all-aluminum engine that produces an even 200 horsepower using direct injection. While 200 horsepower is a pretty good number, the Optima has to haul around 3,200 pounds, so acceleration is not breathtaking.
That is perhaps the worst part of the Optima; the engine revs up slowly and if you are attempting to make a pass, you have to be deliberate. If you want to merge onto a fast moving freeway, you better plan ahead. At idle, the engine is a little noisy and rough but only if you really pay close attention. In everyday driving, the engine is quiet and so is the cabin. The only thing we noticed was a bit of wind noise.
That isn’t to say that the Optima is poorly designed. If you compare the four-cylinder Optima to a four-cylinder Accord or Camry, you will find them to be very similar.
Having a low engine output usually means that you have fuel efficiency and the Optima shines here as well. The four cylinder automatic gets 24 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. We got about 23 mpg in our city testing and 31 mpg on the highway which was very good for such a roomy car.
Handling of the Optima is also going to remind you of a sports sedan. The car turns in to corners well and can rotate with the throttle easily. The electric power steering is good at communicating to the driver about what the front tires are doing. Ultimately at the limit, the Optima does understeer but not severely. Kia engineers have also done a great job to ensure that while the Optima handles well, it also rides nice. And there again, the Optima shines as it rides better than many luxury cars when we tested it on some of the rough roads in the area.
The most impressive thing about the Optima’s driving dynamics is not about what kind of numbers it generates. The Optima just drives like a very expensive premium sedan from Audi or Volvo or Infiniti. The only time you are reminded that this is not a $50,000 premium sedan is when you floor the throttle. But Kia has a solution for that as well which should arrive soon with the addition of the 274-horsepower turbo model.
Perhaps the best thing about the Optima is not that it looks great or that it drives so well. It is that it does it all for so little. The entry level LX with the manual transmission (which would be the driver’s choice) is only $19,000. That is a ridiculously great deal today. Our fully loaded EX model cost $22,495 and with the Navigation Package and Premium Package, our car was listed for $27,440. This makes you think why you would ever spend $50,000 on some premium brand car. No wonder why they are the No. 4 automaker in the world.