I am not drinking any merlot!
Kia introduced its all-new 2006.5 Optima in scenic Napa Valley, California, where wine is king and Sideways the movie of choice. The sandy, hilly ground is ideal for growing grapes, and the curvy roads are perfect for test-driving cars. Even intermittent rain did not hamper our car-tasting pleasure.
A fine blend of value and comfort, with subtle hints of sport
Built in Kia's Hwasung manufacturing facility in South Korea, this second-generation Optima sits on a unique platform, no longer shared with Hyundai's Sonata. Kia says it took cues from European styling and lengthened the Optima's wheelbase, although the increase is less than an inch. A sleeker design lends a more upscale line to this midsize sedan and allows for more interior space.
Two varietals are available, the economy-minded LX and the premium EX, each with either an inline four-cylinder or V6 engine. The absolute base model is the 2.4-liter four-cylinder LX with a five-speed manual transmission. This is the only trim level that offers a manual transmission and allows Kia to say the Optima starts at well under $17K. At $16,355, this base trim is $45 cheaper than the car it replaces.
Standard equipment includes 16-inch wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, power windows and locks, an AM/FM/CD player with six speakers and 60/40-split folding rear seats.
Opt for the five-speed automatic with Sportmatic manual shifting and you'll get cruise control, keyless entry and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel with audio controls for $17,650. Kia predicts 80 percent of Optima buyers will drive home in a four-cylinder with an automatic transmission, which sounds right when you realize the 2.7-liter V6 LX adds a mere 24 horsepower and bumps the price to $19,345.
Four-cylinder models are rated at 161 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 163 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm. That's more horses than the current four-cylinder versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Mazda 6 and Toyota Camry and 23 more than the previous Optima. The small V6 only offers 185 hp at 6,000 rpm and 182 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, a pittance compared to the larger V6s in the Optima's competition.
Combines depth, softness and much character
Although we like the look of the dual exhaust pipes exclusive to V6 models, the EX four-cylinder is the one to get. It starts at $19,395 and includes alloy wheels, power-adjustable driver's seat, automatic temperature controls, a trip computer, chrome-accented exterior door handles and an Infinity premium audio system. The EX with a V6 starts at $20,400.
Actually, our favorite configuration is the EX four-cylinder with the Appearance and Leather packages. It provided enough zest for romping up and down the valley and looked cool too, especially in Ruby Red. And we all know red goes with everything.
The Appearance package gives a more aggressive look by adding a blacked-out front grille and headlights, foglights, aluminum interior trim, leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob. It also adds 17-inch Michelin tires that gave the car "legs" and felt more secure than the standard 16s as we curled around the damp vine-lined roads of wine country.
Available only on the EX, the leather package offers perforated leather seat trim, five-level heated front seats, power-adjustable pedals and a manual rear-window sunshade.
Balanced, with a firm structure and medium acidity
Independent MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear suspension featuring coil springs and stabilizer bars replace the double wishbones found underneath the previous vintage. The ride is pleasant, even with the 17-inch wheels and tires, and body roll is kept in check in the corners.
Power-assisted rack and pinion steering is crisp and lively, but driving the rolling curves of the Napa Valley was a little more work than flat-out excitement. Response is good, but nobody should buy an Optima to tear around in.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, but ordering the $600 Electronic Stability Control package is the only way to get ABS and a traction control system. It's worth the cash; however, the option is not available on the four-cylinder LX model. A tire-pressure monitoring system is standard.
Smooth and mellow, with generous amounts of sweetness and strength
Where this car shines is inside the cabin. A lot of work has gone into providing space for people and cargo and improving the look and feel of the interior materials.
Nothing feels cheap. Knobs and dials feel substantial and the gauge cluster looks more upscale with blue and white lighting, instead of the previous yellow/green scheme. The leather is supple and even the standard seat cloth is soft and appealing. The seats are comfortable, yet lack lateral support and don't hold you in place as securely as we would like. Standard safety features include adjustable headrests and six airbags, including full side curtains.
Front headroom has increased by almost an inch and front legroom by about half an inch. The overall length of the car has only increased by half an inch, but Kia has managed to add an inch and a half of legroom for rear passengers, enough to match the Camry and out-knee the Accord, Malibu and Mazda 6.
Luggage capacity has increased slightly to 14.8 cubic feet and there's a wide, low entry to ease loading. There's also a pass-through to the rear seat for carrying long items, but it's only accessible from the trunk.
Ripe, full-bodied with big flavor
We enjoyed our tasting of the Kia Optima. In the crowded midsize sedan segment, it stands out as an inexpensive alternative. The option packages allow you to configure your Optima multiple ways, and even the base versions pack a long list of thoughtful features. And because the Optima weighs only 3,179 pounds, the four-cylinder packs enough spice that you need not splurge on the V6.
Kia continues to improve with age.