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.

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