2011 Kia Optima: First Drive

September 27, 2010
Kia quite simply gets it: Basic doesn't have to be boring.

We've seen it in the host of models the brand has introduced over the past model year: the Forte small sedan, the Soul tall hatch, and new versions of the Sorento and Sportage crossovers. And now, the all-new 2011 Optima. Yes, shoppers with limited budgets don't want to settle; they want a vehicle that's stylish, smartly designed, and well-equipped, so it's not surprising that Kia is on a roll, with sales surging amid a recession.

The 2011 Kia Optima doesn't have much of anything in common with the competent but unremarkable Optimas of the past, and that's just fine.

From the outside, there's more than just a hint that it's different this time; the new Optima is a bit larger, and it has way more visual punch overall. Kia and Hyundai are products of the same parent company, but run as separate automakers in the U.S., so the Kia has different features, appointments, styling cues, and driving attribute than the closely related Hyundai Sonata.

Punchy, handsome design...with a dash of Euro-chic

While the Sonata is swoopy, curvy, and elegant—and, to some (this author included)—a little busy, the Optima comes across as clean, upright, and focused, with just a dash of Euro influence. Cover up the badge, and from the outside we wouldn't be surprised if it were a Saab or a Volkswagen. Comparing the Sonata's design to the Optima's, which we were able to do on an Orange County highway, the Optima looks handsome, like it would age well, while the Sonata is perhaps a little overwrought in the sheetmetal department.

About the only exterior detail we haven't warmed up to is the side 'vents' at the back of the fender. They're cosmetic only, and even at ten or fifteen feet away you can tell they're just plastic inserts, finished with bright accents.

Inside, the Optima holds up just as well to the critical eye. Most other mid-size sedans on the market have an instrument panel that sweeps straight across, with the controls in equal reach to the driver and passenger, but in the Optima the instrument panel sweeps over and abruptly down around the center stack, clearly framing off those climate control and audio controls and canting them at an angle toward the driver.

Oh what a difference tuning makes

The 2011 Optima is comfortable, economical, and responsible overall, yet surprisingly enjoyable to drive. No question, it's more sporty and confident-feeling, compared to the Sonata, because of its nicer suspension tuning and much better steering feel. The Optima uses essentially the same steering gear and electric power steering unit as the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, but oh what a difference tuning makes. The assist feels to be from a good hydraulic system—which is to say, we like it—building weight with a natural feel off center, and not displaying that binding-then-light tendency we noted on curvy roads in the Sonata. Engineers told us that the Optima's speed-dependent steering system has three main levels of boost, but we found the transitions imperceptibly smooth.

The powertrain in the Optima (the same base engine as in the Sonata) is quite simply sweet, and the base 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter GDI (gasoline direct-injected) four-cylinder engine in this new Optima feels perkier than the optional V-6 of just a few years ago. Even when driving along gently in traffic, shifts aren't lumpy. Full throttle from a standing start is pretty uneventful, and there the Optima doesn't feel any faster than base four-cylinder mid-size sedans with lower power ratings; but hold on a second and it all changes when the engine reaches about 2,000 rpm. From there on up the engine builds power and churns out the torque like the low-pressure 2.0T turbos from Audi and Volkswagen. If you're in sixth gear on the highway, squeeze the gas a bit and the transmission might not even need to downshift; you'll just gather speed much in the way you would with a much larger engine.

A 274-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine will join the lineup in a sportier SX (and EX upgrade) model by the end of the year, and late in the model year a Hybrid model will also make its debut. On the base LX model, there's a six-speed manual (we didn't get the chance to drive it), but all other models come with a six-speed automatic with Sportmatic manual control.

Responsive powertrain; head of the class for MPG

In the meantime, the base engine provides plenty to be delighted with, and the six-speed automatic works well with it. Ratios are a bit tall, but nudge the shift knob over to the left, and you can tip up or down a gear with manual control. It even holds the gear you manually selected if you put your right foot in it. But unlike many newer sedans with sporty pretenses, there's no 'S' mode—with delayed upshifts, earlier downshifts, and less hunting—that you can simply leave it in for curvy roads.

Just as with the Sonata, fuel economy is great; EPA ratings are right up at the top of the class, at 24 mpg city, 34 highway with the automatic, and the manual gets 35 mpg highway. The turbocharged engine will get a surprisingly good 22/34. With the base engine and automatic, on a 160-mile Southern California driving route that included mostly high-speed freeways and mountainous two-laners, we saw our trip-computer average approach 25 mpg. An Eco mode, plus mindful driving, can improve fuel economy by up to seven percent, Kia says.

Underpinnings are pretty ordinary for this class of car—struts in front, a multi-link layout with coil springs in back, and front anti-roll bars. But it's all been tuned in a way that makes the Optima feel as refined and comfortable-riding as the Volkswagen Passat but as responsive, nearly, as the Mazda6. Hit the tightly curved canyon roads, and the Optima doesn't lean and roll overtly; response is crisp, and rough surfaces don't throw you off-course. All the more impressive is that the Optima's cabin stays quiet inside. Weight, at just over 3,200 pounds for the base LX, is at the light end of the mid-size sedan class—perhaps one of the keys to its nimble feel and great fuel economy.

Disappointing seats...but they're cooled!

After just a few minutes in the Optima, it was obvious that my co-driver and I were not going to like the seats. It's the single most disappointing packaging choice in this otherwise stellar sedan. Both of us—me 6'-6" and he about average height—thought that the lower cushions especially felt flat and hard, lacking proper padding and more importantly contouring. On our upscale EX, which comes with a power driver's seat, the passenger-side front seat doesn't adjust for height or tilt, making our complaint about the lack of padding even more dire. But...they're cooled! Heated and cooled front seats, as well as heated rear seats, are optional on both EX and SX models as part of a Premium Package, and we appreciated their effectiveness in the hot sun.

Backseat space is good though, with decent legroom and just enough headroom (provided I was leaning forward slightly as the downward sloping rear roofline gets in the way slightly).

Over the course of the day we grew to appreciate the asymmetry of the dash and how audio and climate controls don't use seemingly identical knobs and buttons. After a quick orientation, we didn't have the same which-is-which moment that we have in, say, Ford products, where the two sets of controls are often lined up perfectly, with identical knobs. And the Optima's interior isn't drowning in matte-metallic grays—instead the matte-black surfaces feel sporty and just fine—while the dash is surrounded by a somewhat soft, synthetic-leather-like trim material.

The 411: A mother lode of features

Front active headrests are standard in the 2011 Optima, along with front seat-mounted side airbags and side-curtain bags. Stability control and anti-lock brakes are of course standard, too; so is Brake Assist, and Hill Assist Control, which helps avoid rolling back when starting uphill.

In addition to the Hybrid model set to join the lineup late in the model year, the 2011 Optima will be offered in three models: LX, EX, and SX. All SX models will get the upgraded turbocharged engine, while EX models will be available with either powerplant. But you don't have to step up to one of those top models to get the sporty appearance cues; LX trims come with the chrome-tipped dual exhaust and integrated mirror turn-signal lights, and EX models get extra chrome trip, chrome door handles, fog lamps, heated outside mirrors, and 17-inch alloys. SX models will be easy to pick out though with their unique front grille (shared with EX Turbo), more sculpted side sills, black brake calipers, a rear spoiler, and showy 18-inch wheels. The premium audio system in the Optima includes 12 speakers and has a rear-deck-mounted subwoofer, and is optional on all trims but the base LX.

While many automakers insist on relegating Bluetooth to top trims, the Optima looks like quite the deal for those who want to stay connected. All Optima models include USB audio inputs, Sirius Satellite Radio compatibility, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, voice and steering wheel controls. And with the EX, you get Kia's new Microsoft-powered UVO system, which will bring expanded voice control of audio players and smartphones.

Advanced voice controls, Bluetooth connectivity standard

We had the chance to get a brief tour of UVO features and appreciate—as we do with Ford's Sync—the flattened command structure, which would allow you to, say, quickly request a different song from the iPod while you're in the middle of following navigation directions. However, that leads to one of the significant equipment issues: you can't yet get UVO and the navigation system together. Due to the separate way in which the systems were developed—UVO through Kia and Microsoft, and the nav system by the parent company in South Korea—they simply don't play with each other at this point, though Kia expects to soon have a solution. If you do opt for the nav system (packaged with the upgraded audio system), you get a the same Bluetooth system that base Optimas have—by Parrot instead.

Inside, the Optima LX includes cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering, a cooled glovebox, and 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks. A roomy trunk and low, flat floor completes this very travel-friendly package. Stepping up to the EX gets you push-button start, a smartkey system, dual-zone climate control, leather trim, a power driver's seat, auto up/down windows, a Homelink garage-door opener, and upgrades to illumination and trim. On SX models, there's an upgraded gauge cluster, black leather woven seat trim, French seams, steering-wheel paddle-shifters, and lighted scuff plates.

Just as with other models from Kia, expect to see the Optima price about the same or slightly less than rival base models, yet with more standard features. Our best guess would be that the loaded EX Optima we drove prices in the $26k-$27k range.

All in all, this new, more exciting Optima no longer feels like a stripped down sedan delivered explicitly for those who need low monthly payments. It's a genuine rival to more engaging mid-sizers like the Mazda6, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion, and less so to the Hyundai Sonata and the understated Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu.

Kia in recent years has carried the tagline 'power to surprise' and has been building increasingly good products. This time, we were ready for a full-on personality change, but the brand delivered an even better car than we expected. Count us, again, as very pleasantly surprised.

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