What's New for 2002
Now in its second year, Kia's midsize sedan gets an upgraded V6 engine. Four-cylinder LX models trade their 14-inch wheels for standard 15s, while SE models get auto on/off headlights and two keyless remotes. The optional Leather Package for the SE now includes a four-way power passenger seat.
Kia has the bottom of the car market cornered -- its Rio sedan is the nation's cheapest car, and its competitively priced Spectra offers a fresh-smelling alternative to those who might otherwise settle for a used Japanese compact. But with the introduction of the midsize Optima in late 2000, it was clear that the Korean automaker desired a place at the ever-lucrative family sedan table. Unfortunately, the VIPs in this class -- Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Ford and Chrysler -- had already taken the best seats. And what's this? Nissan's Altima and Toyota's Camry are riding high on wildly successful 2002 redesigns. So how can an underdog like the Optima stick around until dessert is served? By finding buyers who would rather drive a generously equipped Kia than a stripped-down Toyota.
The base four-cylinder Optima LX starts at just over $15,000 (with destination charge) and includes front and side airbags; air conditioning; power windows, door locks and mirrors; a first aid kit; variable intermittent wipers; a cassette player and 15-inch wheels -- an impressive array of features in this price range. The SE trim adds alloy wheels, heated exterior mirrors, a power antenna, auto-on/off headlights, foglamps, moonroof, remote keyless entry and alarm, cruise control, a 120-watt audio system with CD (optional for the LX), wood trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and an eight-way power driver seat. Should you opt for the LX V6, Kia will throw in the alloy wheels and cruise control; the latter is available as an option for base LX models. Additionally, SE models are eligible for the optional Leather Package, which includes leather seating surfaces and a four-way power passenger seat.
One possible annoyance for buyers is the limited availability of ABS -- if you want it, you have to get one of the V6 models and buy it as an option. Four-wheel disc brakes are also exclusive to the six-cylinders, but at least you don't have to pay extra for them.
The Optima's 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 upgraded 2.7-liter DOHC V6 engine now delivers 178 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque; this still isn't best in class but should be fully adequate for most buyers. The V6 model is offered only with an automatic transmission, but it does come with a Porsche-designed Tiptronic automanual shifter to allow up- and downshifts without a clutch. Its fuel economy is 19 mpg city and 25 highway.
All Optimas are fitted with four-wheel independent suspension, front and rear anti-roll bars, and rack-and-pinion steering with power assist, which combine to provide a responsive, supple and comfortable ride, especially on the highway. We could do without some of the Optima's body roll during cornering, but this behavior is to be expected from a non-sporting sedan with a softly tuned suspension.
Company officials readily admit that the Optima isn't going to steal any sales records from the leaders in this class, but the Kia's solid build quality, exceptional fit-and-finish, excellent standard suspension system, jackpot of features and low price could make it a welcome addition to families on a budget. Got an open mind? Want to drive something a little different? Go test-drive an Optima.