2011 Kia Optima EX Review: It Hits The Hot Spot

March 1, 2011

Kia's 2011 sedan de grace ends Optima's dowdy image

In broadcast TV, network "up fronts" preview new fall shows.  By mid-winter, networks revamp their lineups.  An alternative:  drop in a blockbuster such as American Idol.    Hyundai and its Kia affiliate offer their own twists on TV land practices.  Hyundai was out first with its well-received Sonata.  Now, it's Kia's time in the limelight.  Each carryover nameplate snatches a newer, upscale audience--a programming coup.

Kia (ignoring its time-warp, overwrought computer-graphic laden Super Bowl spot) plays an entirely different game (particularly in EX trim).  It's a larger and certainly more attractive mid-size sedan than the one it replaced.  Verdict: it gets the Tinseltown go ahead.

Based on the latest Sonata, the Optima dons distinctive exterior metalwork and fetching interior décor.   Thanks to Kia's design master, Peter Schreyer, it gets a chopped Saab-like top, an elegantly sculpted Audi-like tail and its own signature tiger tooth grille with repeating windshield dip.  A bright accent line rides atop the greenhouse.  The only major only miscue: two faux fender vents.

Power plant: a direct-injection, 2.4-liter I-four 200-horsepower mill.  Transmission:  a six-speed automatic with "sportmatic" mode.

The result: perfectly adequate.  It throbs slightly at low rpm and gets rowdy at the upper end of its rpm range.  Those sensations are masked by road, tire and wind noise.  While vocal lessons and additional dance steps might help, it's a surprisingly capable highway hoofer.

If you like, there's an ECO mode that blunts performance.  Regardless, the cog catcher prefers low-rpm motoring (1,800 rpm at 60mph).  Up the pace; the rpm is still less than 2,500 rpm.  Nonetheless, it's a drivable, penny-pinching power train, 25-28 mpg overall during my cold-weather tryout.  The EPA says:  24 city; 34 highway.

Better than a St. Bernard?

Chilly outside?  Get in!  The Premium Package's heated steering wheel tames Chicago's frigid weather.  While you're warming up, you'll notice Kia's extreme makeover.  Contact points have soft-surfaces.  That includes the dash pad, center armrest and door panels.  It's an upscale treatment, further enhanced by real stitch work that surrounds the instrument panel.  Kia's three-gauge set is straightforward the center stack's controls are canted toward the driver.  That latter panel's switchgear snicks with precision.  Its ample-size buttons aren't separated or tiered, so you'll resort to squinting when depressing. Kia forces you to toggle/enter your way through radio channels.  A tuning knob please!

The leather-wrapped guiding wheel's satellite buttons control cruise, tunes, navigation and trip computer functions.  Voice-prompted navigation is possible but not intuitive.  For instance, say "previous destination," and the screen presents several numbered choices.  Yap "two."  Then faster than ABC canceling My Generation, your search is jettisoned.  One must say, "line" and the number.   Systems that aurally suggest choices rather than trashing your search are less distracting.

Leather trimmed seating is firm, with all outboard positions heated.  Yes, Virginia, even the back seat.  Front thrones are chilled too.  So too is the glovebox.

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