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Does anyone remember Matthew Perry on "Growing Pains" as Carol Seaver's college-age boyfriend? Or Matt LeBlanc in that Heinz ketchup commercial? How about Jennifer Aniston in that prestigious, artsy film, "Leprechaun"?
Vague recollections, right? Point is, all of these actors were pretty much condiment-mongers and two-bit hacks (they couldn't even claim "cameo appearance" status) until "Friends" launched them as fixtures in the collective American psyche. Rather than being the replaceable, nameless extras, their faces (and hair) are now instantly recognizable. Heck, we like them even better than our real life friends.
Kia is hoping that the Optima, their new flagship sedan, will be the breakthrough vehicle which will allow the company to come into their own, transcend the boundary of "cheap new car" into a destination car, one that you'll buy not simply because of its price but for its quality and value.
And from first impressions, they just may succeed. As the first progeny of 1998's Kia-Hyundai merger, the Optima shares its underpinnings with the current Hyundai Sonata, which we feel is often overlooked on midsize sedan shoppers' lists because of the less-than-illustrious taint of Hyundai's past. Since then, we've found most Korean cars to be better assembled (if not with the most luxurious of materials), with tight build quality, at least compared to some American counterparts.
No, they haven't reached the superior standards of the Japanese uber family-haulers, and if you have your heart set on the reliability, security and assured resale value of the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, you probably won't be completely satisfied with a Korean substitution - not yet. But if your mind is open, you want to drive something a little different than every Tom, Dick, Harry and their respective uncles, and you want to save a few bucks, you'll be behooved to consider the Kia Optima.
Optima is powered by either a 2.4-liter inline four-banger that makes 149 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 165 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 revs, or the 2.5-liter V6 with 170 horses that peak at six grand and 169 foot-pounds of twisting force at 4,000 rpms. We had a chance to drive both versions through California's pastoral Sonoma Valley, an Arcadian ideal seemingly realized as man harvests the earth of Bacchus' nectar.
The I4, mated to a five-speed manual, was a pleasant surprise, although Kia could improve its frustratingly notchy gear engagement. While the engine peaks at lofty revs, there's still entertainment to be found in cruising around town, and although it won't be winning any drag races, most family-car consumers won't feel a need to rev the engine, slip the clutch and burn rubber on their way to Chili's. And in the midrange areas you won't be bereft - by downshifting we were able to pass a V6 version going along at a pretty good clip.
Although that's not saying too much the V6 is a bit of a laggard, especially when paired with the four-speed automatic, which upshifts too quickly and downshifts only after pondering upon the matter. The 170 horses are lacking compared to the other six-cylinder, medium-displacement powerplants of this class. However, by fiddling with the Tiptronic (licensed from Porsche, built in Korea) automanual that comes standard with the V6 (not an option on the automatic mated to the I4), you might be amused enough not to notice. Sure, it's the kind that will shift automatically if it deems you too lax; you'll never even hope to bump the rev limiter. It's a lovely sentiment by Kia nonetheless. But again, most buyers of this car will tend to shift at a conservative point anyway, and will appreciate the automatic whilst languishing in the parking lot known as the interstate.
As can be expected of a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the Optima tended to understeer, although torque steer posed no problem; it's rarely an issue in low-horsepower cars. Although it provided no feel from the road, the direct and linear steering and a tight turning radius almost made the twisty, one-lane highway from Sonoma to Bodega Bay (the water-logged setting of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and why is that stupid seagull staring at me?!) enjoyable.
Almost, we say, because the Optima has a marshmallow-soft ride. The double-wishbone front and multi-link rear setup floats over road anomalies such as expansion joints, and will soak up most small-sized bumps to maintain a relatively tranquil cabin so Skippy won't rouse from those all-too-rare naps. Play that "Ocean Sounds" CD and pretend like you're on the high seas when you take a corner, however, because the body rolls a great amount. Hyundai/Kia will need to stiffen the chassis and improve torsional rigidity - and soon. Ah, well, given the choice, most drivers of this car will probably select a compliant ride over a firmer, more controlled one, and so far, at this price range, manufacturers have been unable to provide a car that combines the best attributes of both, save for the brilliant exception of the Volkswagen Passat GLS. C'est la vie.
So far, we've seen that the engine, ride and handling are competent but not particularly distinguished. What's Optima's selling point? It is this: Kia has crammed the Optima with thoughtful standard and optional features. Even in the lower-rung LX, which starts out at $15,749 including destination charge, you'll get surprisingly upscale touches like a strut-type trunk hinge, a rather tiny but dual-tiered center console, chrome door handles, a rear seat center armrest with two cupholders, dual illuminated vanity mirrors and a first aid kit in the trunk. There's even a third rear seat headrest, and lo, it's adjustable! Furthermore, seat-mounted side airbags are standard in both trim levels, which cannot be boasted in the Honda Accord.
Go for the swish SE and get the 15-inch alloys, a power antenna, a CD player, eight-way power seats and keyless remote entry. The SE V6 comes with the Tiptronic, which is encased in an aluminum-look case housing faux, but it looks quite sharp. Can't say the same for the obviously fake wood-tone decals; we'd prefer a nice, matte plastic or metallic trim. ABS is a rather steep $795 stand-alone option, and is curiously available only with the V6. But if you have the wherewithal, go for the ABS - it'll net you four-wheel disc brakes, an upgrade over the standard front disc, rear drum setup. Our V6 test car exhibited good pedal modulation and feel, with predictable ABS pulsing and linear straightline stability.
The SE allows you to opt for a leather package, which will get you adequate quality leather on the seats seats, Kia officials take pains to point out, that aren't from the Sonata but from Hyundai's new flagship, the XG300. They are quite comfy, especially with the lightly ruched leather, with a good amount of side bolstering and manually adjustable lumbar support. But even the standard, velour-type cloth (you know, the type that Floridians are prone to donning for their afternoon canasta club) feels pretty good, with soft insets on the door. OK, so it's not A-class material, but who doesn't enjoy being enveloped in a great big hug from Nana? The rear seat, while tight in toe space, had plenty of legroom, with a generously sized map pocket in the seatback as well as the aforementioned fold-down armrest/console.
The interior exhibited commendable fit-and-finish, and not a peep emerged from the cabin even when the chassis was upset. Climate control was idiot-proof, and the stereo, while a bit busy, was logically laid-out. Properly fit panels extended to the exterior, with only slight fluctuations in the size of the gaps between the sheetmetal. Overall, it's a good-looking vehicle; the chrome grille may be a bit much, but the rear eschews the bubble-butt trend of late and evokes the present-generation Camrys, with its crisp fold on the trunk decklid and thin, horizontal taillamps.
And we can't neglect to mention what has become the No. 1 reason that consumers are paying attention to Kia -- the Long Haul Warranty program, which is another byproduct of the Kia-Hyundai marriage. With the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, 5-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance and 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty, you can rest assured that the Korean conglomerate has some confidence in the quality of their cars, and can back it up with paperwork.
So what happens when you fully equip your Optima? It comes out to just under $23,000, which will save you a couple of grand over a similarly equipped Honda Accord, and even more over a Toyota Camry. The Optima is entering a crowded, popular field family sedans represent the largest percentage of car sales, with 2.3 million sold annually. Power duo Accord and Camry account for 800,000 of those. As Kia officials state, they have a hypnotic loyalty rate, with 60-70 percent of consumers returning for more. Kia wouldn't dare commit the sacrilege of luring away those who worship at the altar of the sacred cows.
Rather, they aim to chip away at the market inhabited by the likes of Mitsubishi Galant, Oldsmobile Intrigue, Chevy Malibu, Nissan Maxima/Altima and that stalwart, the Ford Taurus (see our Family Car Comparison Test). With projected sales of 25-35,000 units, we think they'll succeed in easily selling every Optima brought to the U.S. Of these second-tier competitors, the only sedan that'll cost less is the Ford Taurus, which isn't a bad choice, and considering that the utterly flawed Saturn LS costs more than the Optima, the Kia is definitely worth a look.
An itch that bothers us, however, is that you can save another grand or so by opting for the Hyundai Sonata, which shares the same underpinnings and powertrain choices, but lacks the flash of the new skin, the more upscale seats and the option of Tiptronic (available in the Sonata for the 2002 model year). Kia is hoping that through the Optima, a perception shift will occur. Rather than being considered the car chosen purely for its price, it seeks to represent a better value for the money. Semantics, we know, but there is a difference; rather than shout "It's CHEAP!" Kia wants to convey the idea of "it's a good deal and a smart choice." Maybe the Optima will become something that you won't be reluctant to show your friends.