What's New for 2001
Kia joins the high-stakes poker game that is the midsize sedan market with the all-new Optima. Available in four- and six-cylinder models and two trim levels, the Optima offers a loaded deck of standard features, including air conditioning, side airbags, four-wheel independent suspension and power windows, locks and mirrors.
Ante up! If you want to join the big dogs in the midsize sedan market, you'd better come to the table with a good product. Korean automaker Kia hopes to get a place at the table with the Optima, its all-new five-passenger sedan. The midsize sedan market is no place for bluffers or beginners, though -- the sharks will have you for dinner. Already seated at the table are Toyota, which chips in the super-popular Camry; Honda offers its bulletproof Accord; Nissan bets with the competent Altima; Ford plays with the value-packed Taurus; and Chrysler recently tossed the surprisingly good, redesigned Sebring into the pot.
Kia is betting heavily with the Optima. When the front-wheel-drive sedan was introduced late in 2000, the automaker was already touting it as its flagship vehicle. That's some pressure to put on a greenhorn in the big city for the first time. Though unproven, the Optima looks pretty good at the first cut. The base four-cylinder LX model starts at $15,749 (with destination charge) and includes front and side airbags; air conditioning; power windows, door locks and mirrors; a first aid kit; and variable intermittent wipers. The SE trim adds alloy wheels with 205/60R15 Michelins, heated exterior mirrors, a power antenna, foglamps, moonroof, remote keyless entry and alarm, cruise control, a 120-watt audio system with CD, wood trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an eight-way power driver seat. That's a pretty potent wad of features with which to bet.
The standard 2.4-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder engine with five-speed manual transmission pumps out a credible 149 horsepower and boasts fuel economy of 21 mpg city and 28 highway (20/27 with the four-speed automatic). The optional 2.5-liter DOHC V6 engine delivers 170 horsepower, but feels a bit anemic compared to its competitors in this segment. The V6 model is offered only with an automatic transmission, but it does come with a Porsche-designed Tiptronic manu-shifter to allow up- and downshifts without a clutch. Its fuel economy is 19 mpg city and 25 highway. V6 models are also equipped with rear disc brakes instead of the standard drums. Antilock brakes and leather upholstery are optional for both trims. All Optimas are fitted with four-wheel independent suspension, front and rear antiroll bars, and rack-and-pinion steering with power assist, which combine to provide a responsive, supple and comfortable ride.
Company officials readily admit that the Optima isn't going to steal the Camry's or Accord's sales records, but its solid build quality, exceptional fit-and-finish, excellent standard suspension system and jackpot of features should appeal to many buyers, especially considering the Optima's miserly price. We expect Kia to win a few hands in the midsize sedan game and have no trouble meeting its 25,000-unit sales goal for the Optima's first year of availability. Whether it can play well enough to be considered a shark remains to be seen.