- Handsome, chiseled shape
- Interior looks sporty, refined
- Engaging handling
- Seats have short, flat bottom cushions
- Fast roofline cuts down on head room
- Nav system eliminates UVO
The basics don't have to be boring: the 2012 Kia Optima evades design and driving boredom with suave looks, good performance and great gas mileage and features.
When it was redesigned in 2011, the Kia Optima pitched its bland, unremarkable past and went for broke. The gamble paid off handsomely, and today's Optima isn't just one of the best family sedans for economy, it's also one of the best-looking cars of its kind--and some other kinds, too.
It's squarely in the same class with the likes of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and a host of other family four-doors, but there's very little square in the Optima's arresting profile. Kia's distinct styling direction is a polar opposite of the exuberant, sculptural look that's all over the Hyundai lineup and the Optima's fraternal twin, the Sonata sedan. The Optima contrasts with a sporty, European-tinged look with a lower roofline, stretched headlamps, and a nifty upkick in its rear quarters. It's exciting--focused, clean, laid-back, with an athletic stance and flashy chrome wheels. The interior's a fine match, with a big set of gauges and a wide rectangular bank of controls canted toward the driver, ersatz Audi with almost all of the sophistication and less clutter.
In performance, the Optima caters to three types of drivers. Base cars have a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with direct injection, 200 horsepower and just a touch of unremarkable noise and vibration when it's wound out. A manual six-speed is offered; we've tested the six-speed automatic, which teams expertly with the four. A turbocharged SX variant whistles along with 274 horsepower and paddle controls for the automatic, upconverting the Optima's personality into something authentically sporty, along the lines of the latest Buick Regal or the VW CC.
On top of the complexity curve is the Hybrid, which teams up the basic four-cylinder with electric motors and batteries that, in our opinion, could use more work on smoothing and integrating the juddering that sometimes comes at midrange speeds, when the hybrid drivetrain drops gas power to operate on electric charge alone. With all powertrains, highway gas mileage hits a minimum of 33 mpg in turbos, with four-cylinders hitting a stellar 35 mpg and hybrids reaching to a rated 39 mpg. We've had difficulty hitting the hybrid's high-water marks, but the basic Optima offers repeatable, real-world gas mileage that's tops in its class, and equal to some economy cars.
Ride and handling fit into the upper echelon of the segment. The engines work well in concert with the independent suspension, giving the Optima a quick, nimble feel. The Optima's steering is a little hefty and responds quickly, doing a better job than the similar Sonata at controlling a little bit of wandering that comes with some kinds of road surfaces and its fuel-economy-aiding tires. All the while, ride quality is firm but comfortable, and the Optima's cabin is a quiet, refined place to be.
Space is a virtue in the Optima, save for a little less head room than we've found in the Sonata and by a wide margin in the cathedral-like 2012 VW Passat. The Optima's front seats have flat, short bottom cushions, which cuts into the kind of long-distance comfort that the Accord delivers mile after mile. Leg room is a long suit, especially up front, and the Optima's back seat accommodates all but the tallest passengers with ease. Heated and cooled front seats are an option, and the back seats can be heated, too.
The Georgia-built Optima has an excellent safety record. The NHTSA awards it five stars in all categories in which it tests, and the IIHS calls it a Top Safety Pick. Aside from the usual airbags and stability control, the Optima also has standard Bluetooth and an available rearview camera, which mitigates the visibility issues its rear-end styling creates.Features remain a strength throughout the Kia lineup, and the Optima is no exception. It's a lot of value for the money, with standard power features, cruise control, a USB port and satellite radio. Even mid-level EX trims get things like dual-zone climate control and a smart-key system, with options for leather trim, a panoramic sunroof and Infinity audio. A navigation system is available, as is UVO, Kia's flavor of the Microsoft-written software also sold as Ford's SYNC. The Kia version has fewer voice commands in its vocabulary--and it's also deleted when the navigation system is ordered.