The Kia Optima is entering a real snake pit in terms of market competition. In fact, the midsize family sedan segment is probably the toughest one of all, as it represents the largest percentage of car sales, with 2.3 million units sold each year. A quick perusal of the big ones tells the story. From the Japanese makers, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry serve as perennial benchmarks with their well-known reliability, surefooted driving dynamics and solid resale value. And furthermore, these two cars combine to sell more than three quarters of a million units per year. Other Japanese cars like the Mazda 626, Nissan Maxima and Mitsubishi Galant are quite comparable to the Honda and Toyota entries, though their sales numbers are considerably smaller. American cars like the Ford Taurus (and its Mercury Sable twin), Chevy Malibu and Dodge Stratus will also make life tough on Kia's nicely appointed Optima.
Kia touts that the Optima completes a string of three new-model introductions by the automaker in the 2000 calendar year. Although the car was in dealerships by the end of last year, the first quarter of 2001 was when Kia started its marketing efforts on its top-of-the-line model.
As Kia's flagship sedan, Optima is the company's attempt to enhance its reputation for good value while simultaneously taking the marque to upper-crust levels of refinement and luxury in the segment, at least. Don't go mistaking the Optima for a Lexus LS 430 or even a loaded Accord EX, but with a sticker of well under 25 grand for our Crystal Silver test car, you'll be a happy camper when it comes time to sign on the bottom line.
Kia claims the Optima prices out thousands less than its Japanese rivals and with an MSRP starting at just over 15 bills, it's probably justified in saying so. Featuring a choice of two powerplants, Optima is powered by either a 2.4-liter inline four that makes 149 horsepower and 159 foot-pounds of torque, or the 2.5-liter V6 in our test car with 170 horsepower and 169 foot-pounds of torque. The four-cylinder engine uses a cast-iron block and an aluminum head, while the V6's block and cylinder heads are all made from aluminum.
A five-speed manual transmission comes with the four-cylinder cars, and a four-speed automatic is optional. Opt for the V6 engine and the four-speed auto is standard, using Tiptronic technology designed by Porsche that allows it to be shifted manually.
Fuel economy for a four-cylinder Optima checks in at an EPA-rated 21 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway with a manual transmission, while the same car with an automatic is rated at 20 mpg and 27 mpg, respectively. The V6 is rated at 19 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. Overall our V6 Optima backed up the EPA numbers well with an overall average of 23 mpg during our test.
Kia bills the Optima as having "conservative good looks." We'd agree, as we think the Optima has a clean and subtle look that adds up to a well-proportioned car. Various staffers weren't all that crazy about some of the chrome trim, but most didn't object to it too profusely. Built on a unibody platform, as is the case with most cars these days, the Optima rides on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, which is just about identical to an Accord's 106.9-inch measurement. At 185.8 inches overall, the Kia is 3 inches shorter than the Accord or the same as a Nissan Altima. Further illustrating that the Optima is quite similar dimensionally to other cars in this class, we'll note that by SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) volume, Optima's cabin (at 100 cubic feet), is 6 cubic feet larger than the Altima and 1.7 cubic feet smaller than the Accord. The Optima's trunk is a tad smaller than the Honda's and Nissan's at 13.6 cubic feet compared to 14.1 and 13.8 for the Accord and Altima, respectively.
Underpinnings on the Optima are contemporary, if not cutting edge. Up front are double wishbones, coil springs and shocks, while at the rear is a multilink design with coil springs and shocks. Antiroll bars are fitted at both ends of the car and power rack-and-pinion steering provides a nice feel that will come across as a bit numb to some drivers. Standard tires on the Optima are 195/70R14 tires on 14x5.5-inch steel wheels. Our upmarket SE model was fitted with better-looking shoes in the form of high-quality 205/60R15 Michelin treads and 15x6-inch alloy wheels.
Trim level variations are short and sweet on the Optima. The base LX model gets you plenty of standard features that make the car seem somewhat more than just "base." LXs include front side airbags; air conditioning; power windows, door locks and mirrors; a first aid kit; and variable intermittent windshield wipers. Stepping up to the fancier SE model, like our test car, adds the nicer wheels and larger tires, heated exterior mirrors, a power antenna, foglights, a sunroof, remote keyless entry and alarm, cruise control and a premium 120-watt stereo with a CD player. The SE also comes with a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an eight-way power driver seat and wood trim.
Regardless of whether the car is an LX or an SE, if it's a V6, getting the V6 engine nets the buyer rear disc brakes, as well as the automatic transmission. Stand-alone options include ABS on the V6s (not available on four-cylinder models), cruise control on the LX four-cylinder (it's standard on all other cars) and a leather package that's optional only on SE models.
Kia's Long Haul Warranty program includes a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, 5-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance and 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty. As one of the best warranties in the auto industry, it certainly attests that Kia has confidence in the quality of its cars.
Our Optima test car definitely invoked a feeling of quality that was universally appreciated by those who drove the car. Optioned out with ABS, the leather interior package and carpeted floor mats, our Optima SE was a pleasant car to drive if not passion-inspiring. Also a comfy ride for passengers, the Optima does everything well enough for it to be considered a good car, if not outstanding.
Inside the car, fit-and-finish was impressive and not a squeak or rattle emanated from the cabin. The climate control and stereo systems proved to be very easy to use.
As can be expected of a front-wheel-drive car, the Optima understeers when pushed hard, although torque steer was thankfully non-existent. However, don't expect the car to feel like a sport sedan because it has a relatively soft ride with what we feel to be a bit too much body roll. Firming up the suspension tuning just a little in exchange for some ride quality would be a compromise we'd like to see.
At the test track, the Optima performed well enough to be considered competent, but again, don't look for automotive nirvana. The 0 to 60 mph run was completed in 9.2 seconds on the way to a quarter-mile time of 16.9 seconds at 82.6 mph.
Braking was sure and true as the car halted from 60 mph in 126 feet, exhibiting good pedal modulation and feel, with predictable ABS pulsing and straightline stability. We were also impressed with the 60.4-mph slalom speed despite the car's considerable body roll.
Some felt the four-speed automatic upshifted too soon and didn't downshift soon enough. However, the Tiptronic automanual that comes standard with the V6 (which isn't available on the automatic mated to the inline four), allows you to make the gear selections yourself. But some of us wondered if the sequential shift mode for the four-speed automatic is worth bothering with in this type of car. "Who is going to use this?" asked one editor. "Actual operation was good, with quick upshifts and downshifts," he noted. But he concluded that it's "gimmicky on a car like this."
If you're really considering the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, you might not be completely satisfied with a Korean alternative. But with projected sales of 25,000 to 35,000 units, Kia will likely sell every Optima brought to the U.S. And if your mind is open, and you want to drive something different, we think considering the Kia Optima is good use of your time.
Road Test Summary
System Score: 6.5
Components: This system represents a major improvement over other Kia systems we've seen recently. It's almost like a different world. Not only are usability and ergonomics vastly improved, but sound quality has taken a quantum leap.
This system begins with a head unit perfectly positioned in the dash. It offers a single-play CD and no cassette, and the radio is at just the right height for easy accessibility. In addition to this, the head unit boasts a number of other niceties, such as a large LCD display, four handy preset EQ curves, and user-friendly pop-out controls for bass/treble and balance/fade. As if that weren't enough, the radio offers a wide-open topography with great spacing between all the major controls. It's exceptionally well done.
On the speaker side of things, this system shows similar improvements. The setup in this car includes a hefty pair of 6-by-9s along the rear deck, complemented in the front by a combination of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors and a matching pair of 1-inch dome tweeters above, tucked inside the side mirrors. It all blends together to produce great sound.
Performance: As stated above, this system really sings. Lush female vocals, a full and round bass response for a car in this price range, it doesn't get much better. Highs are smooth and textured, midrange is intricate and detailed. It really is an impressive little system that, frankly, we're surprised to find in a Kia.
The only complaint and this could be considered a build-quality issue and not a fault of the sound system is a loud buzzing in the right front door when the system gets turned up. Very annoying.
Best Feature: Superb head unit layout.
Worst Feature: Loud buzzing in right front door.
Conclusion: This is probably not the kind of car you'd buy for the sound system, but it's a nice little bonus for the consumer.
Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
The Optima reminded me somewhat of the Hyundai XG300, even though it shares components with the smaller Hyundai Sonata. Several things brought to mind the XG300, such as the Optima's softly sprung suspension, the luxurious cabin and the puzzling presence of an automanual transmission in a car that is decidedly not enthusiast-oriented.
As with the senior Hyundai, nice touches are everywhere with Kia's flagship; chromed door handles in and out, damped cupholder and ashtray doors that glide open, rubber inserts in the console's open bins and a center armrest in back with (fake) wood trim and built-in cupholders.
The Optima's on-road demeanor continues the soft, plush theme of the car's interior. The ride is comfy but when the Optima is pushed through curvy sections of blacktop, there is body lean a-plenty and not much road feel through the numb steering. The soft suspension tuning also results in major nose-dive when the brakes are hit hard, though this didn't seem to hurt the braking performance. Even though the car didn't post ripping acceleration times, the little V6 felt eager, especially when midrange punch was needed, such as when getting onto the freeway. And the tranny was as good as anything from Japan providing timely yet barely noticeable gearchanges.
I realize that some folks are not interested in strafing apexes and just want a quiet, smooth and stress-free driving experience and I point to the wildly successful Toyota Camry as proof. And I acknowledge that the Optima is a pleasant and very well-equipped car for the money. But I happen to enjoy driving, so if it were my $22,000, I'd be looking at a base VW Passat.
Photo Editor Scott Jacobs says:
My first impressions of the Optima's looks were positive. It doesn't appear to be a "cheap" luxury car. I'd go so far as to say that it looks better than some of the other cars in its class. It reminds me of a cross between the Mitsubishi Diamante, with its angular trunk lid and sharp sidelines, and a Honda Civic in its silhouette. The use of chrome trim ups its look to a more stylish level.
The interior was rather bland with its drab gray color. There wasn't too much that made it exciting inside. It had good build quality, but seemed rather plain. The instrument panel to me was an odd mixture of knobs and buttons, and I would have preferred dials to the climate control knobs.
For me, one of the bigger flaws of this car was its flaccid suspension. Body roll seemed excessive. The sensation was like turning a motorboat quickly in the water. The front of the car also dove a lot when braking and squatted when accelerating. The underpinnings did give the car a smooth ride, but at the cost of livelier handling.
The Optima has a decent amount of power for the segment, though more passing power would be helpful. The steering seemed numb and was slow to respond to sharp inputs. I liked that the transmission would let you shift to and from first gear with the manual gate.
The Optima isn't a bad car, but its price of 22 grand makes me think of other choices for the money. The competition in this segment is tough with a wide variety of choices. And that, combined with the Optima's shortcomings, make me pause for thought in recommendation.
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
There are so many choices to make in this world. Coke or Pepsi? Plastic or paper? DSL or 56K? And now Kia is making it even worse with its new Optima sedan. Optima or Accord? Optima or Camry? Optima or Sonata? It's enough to scramble your average automotive journalist's brain.
Placed head-to-head, the Accord and Camry are better cars than the Optima. But are they $5,000 better? That's a lot harder to answer. In terms of content, the Kia certainly fares well. I appreciated the power driver seat, sunroof and useful storage areas. The Optima also drives similarly to other family sedans, though the suspension is too softly tuned for my tastes.
In the big picture, this car lacks two main ingredients: personality and a reputation for reliability. Our silver test vehicle elicited zero emotion out of me. This, I suppose, I could live with; after all, cars don't get much more vanilla than a Camry. I would be more concerned with how well the Kia is going to hold up. Until these cars are on the road for a few years, Honda and Toyota are still going to have the incumbent advantage.
The Kia surprised me in its competence, but my choice would still be a Honda Accord. Ask me again in a couple years, and the answer might be different.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Agreeable best describes the Kia Optima driving experience. The driver seat is comfortable, visibility is good and the suspension is tuned more for a soft ride than surefooted handling. Optima could use improved dampers, as well as thicker stabilizer bars. Body lean in curves is excessive, and the tires give up quickly, succumbing to significant understeer when pushed to their conservative limits. Steering feels heavy at slower speeds, but on the freeway, the Optima tracks straight and true. Brakes work quite well, with a firm, responsive pedal and quick response.
The Optima's V6 makes most of its power high in the rev range, which makes low-speed and off-the-line acceleration sluggish. The four-speed automatic, which features a manual shift gate for the sporty kind of driving that Optima owners will never perform, isn't geared to maximize oomph from the engine, and when you put your foot in it to get passing power, the tranny hesitates before downshifting.
The cabin is trimmed cheaply, as the sheen on most plastics and mismatched seams will attest, but the fake wood inserts on the doors and center console do a decent job of emulating a Lexus. Twist the climate controls, and you'll wish for more substantial knobs. Push the buttons on the stereo, and you'll wish for larger, better-marked controls and a tuning knob. The cruise "set" and "resume" buttons are on the steering wheel, but the activation button is on the lower left portion of the dash. The sunroof doesn't offer one-touch open.
Ah well, whaddaya expect for $22,600? The Optima looks good (except, of course, for that garish chrome eggcrate grille), drives nicely and offers reasonable value for the money. But the competition in the midsize sedan segment is fierce, with myriad opponents serving up rebates, discounted financing, flawless reliability records and class-leading resale values.
Playing with the big boys ain't easy, is it Kia?
I just bought a 2001 Kia Optima SE V6. This car is the Steel Blue, I went for the leather interior and the sticker came in at $21,474. My [job] promotion included a vehicle allowance, so I went out and drove 16 cars including the Altima, 626, Protege', Golf (I know, different class, but in my range), Impala, Focus, and the list goes on and on. The Optima was, hands down, the finest car I drove
. The leather and wood look great, and the styling (especially the front end) has a more upscale look than the Hyundai Sonata. It handles well, and has plenty of punch when it's needed. The shiftmatic is fun, but overall this is just a remarkably solid, well-performing car that is ridiculously roomy and comfortable. All I know is that I got all the features and comfort I could possibly hope for, and I'll still be able to buy my gas from the allowance!" stormwing, "Kia Optima," #51 of 120, Jan. 29, 2001
"I bought my Kia Optima in February and have received many compliments. I have the four-cylinder SE model, which includes all of the following: alloy wheels, Michelin tires, leather seats, sunroof, chrome package. While I am pleased with the ride, comfort and gas mileage then it's really the little things that people fail to mention: automatic headlight shutoff when you turn off the car (should you forget); chrome kick plates in the thresholds of all four doors; overhead handgrips for all four passengers; rear armrest with storage and cupholders; lumbar support for the driver seat (in addition to eight-way power adjustment); interior trunk release (for those times you are kidnapped); first aid kit. Too many pros to mention so I will give you the 'cons.' (1) It's new so there is no 'reference' for value or measure of depreciation as it gets older. In purchasing this car, you are a pioneer. (2) My model was recalled for a timing belt cover (the existing cover was not narrow enough to hold the timing belt on adequately). My wife was in and out of the service department in half an hour. (3) Intermittent squeaky front brakes (most notably the right one) I have 2,800 miles, and this just started. (4) 'Thumping' noise when the car is lowered or driven onto elevated pavement while turning (best I can explain it). Sometimes I get the noise while just turning. (5) Transference of the Warranty clearly states that the second owner is not entitled to the same coverage as the first. Be sure to read the warranty a copy of this is available on the web at Kia.com. I have a free 3,000-mile oil change they will certainly check out my maladies at that time. I envisioned a Honda or Toyota or Nissan when I started shopping. I checked Kia because of their used car lot and wound up with the Optima. I am not sorry." t_dugan, "Kia Optima," #92 of 120, April 20, 2001
"Almost a month and about 1,850 miles on my Optima LX I-4 five-speed now, and I love it. I still have a lot of people asking me about the car, ('What kind is it? Really!? I'm going to check out the dealer.') Very quiet on the road, it has good sound dampening, smooth ride, and great handling. I can't complain about performance. The power-curve is on the upper end of the tach, just where I need it for passing on the mountainous California high-desert highways. It is common to drop to third gear when overtaking a vehicle moving under 60. For max acceleration getting onto the freeway I might take 2nd gear up to 5 grand or so, about 50 mph, before grabbing third on the on-ramp. This car loves the revs. I visited the Kia dealership service department close to my home (not where I bought the car, by the way). My power mirrors were not adjusting, and rubber around one corner of the driver's side window was poorly cut and let a bit of noise through, something I didn't notice the first week or so. For the mirror problem they found I had blown a fuse with a light I plugged into my cigarette lighter. They replaced the fuse and suggested I use only the auxiliary power outlet down on the console for my light. A new rubber piece has been ordered which the warranty will take car of. The Kia service guys also gave it a close inspection and found a minor power steering fluid leak and said that they would replace the PS pump when they replace the rubber. We agreed to wait for this repair, as the leak was minor and no fluid needed to top it off . I left there with a confident feeling the service department was interested in my satisfaction and performing quality work ." serpentki, "Kia Optima," #76 of 120, April 2, 2001
Compiled by Erin Riches