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Published: 08/09/2006 - by Kelly Toepke, News Editor
"Kia Optima's been Optimized," "Optimal Performance from the Kia Optima," "Optimum New Optima."
Since the second-generation Kia Optima went on sale in March 2006, automotive journalists have used a variety of hokey, "optimistic" headlines to announce the midsize sedan's substantial improvements.
Although Kia is undoubtedly enjoying the complimentary reviews, the serious-minded Korean car company is anything but lighthearted about the Optima's mid-model-year makeover. This is the 2006.5 Kia Optima, it's an all-new car and it's looking to take on the heart of the midsize sedan market, which includes the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Hyundai Sonata and of course the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.
Not an easy task for sure, but after spending some time behind the wheel of the new Optima, we're feeling pretty Optima-istic about Kia's chances.
Cheap price, quality package
Kia entered the U.S. car market in the early '90s, and has since earned a reputation for selling cheap cars. That hasn't changed, what with an entry-level four-cylinder Optima currently priced under $17,000, and the top-of-the-line 2006.5 Optima EX V6 starting at just $20,400 before options.
Today's Optima may still be low priced, but Kia's quality has moved way above cheap. The Optima has been seriously upgraded, and improvements in materials and build quality are as readily apparent as the number of features now offered, many of them standard. Our Optima EX V6 test car had a five-speed automatic transmission, heated leather seats, six airbags and a six-speaker Infinity sound system. Not too shabby for less than $24,000.
Comfortable, spacious cabin
A new, longer 107.1-inch wheelbase puts the Optima on par with the rest of the competition, and with 104.2 cubic feet of interior volume, the Kia offers one of the most spacious cabins in the segment. Front seat passengers will be especially grateful for the class-leading 43.7 inches of legroom, while rear-seat riders will find 37.8 inches, slightly less than the Malibu's space. Although the legroom is good, the seat bottoms are a little short, offering less support for long-limbed occupants. The rear bench splits 60/40 to reveal a total of 14.8 cubic feet of trunk volume, a 10-percent increase over the old Optima.
A telescoping steering wheel and a full set of adjustments for the standard eight-way power driver seat takes care of most complaints from the cockpit. Front passengers get a four-way power seat when it's combined with leather. Both seats are well-shaped and supportive, with well-padded bottom cushions.
Interior materials as a whole give off an impression of quality, with some really nice textures, smooth leather and better plastics than in Kias of old. New blue gauge lighting is a knock-off of the Accord's and that's no bad thing either. Combine those upgrades with alloy wheels, foglights, dual exhaust pipes, automatic climate control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and you've got a good-looking car, both inside and out.
Short on high-end power
The Optima's 2.7-liter V6 engine has been tweaked to make 185 horsepower at 6000 rpm and 182 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Although that's a 15-hp bump from the previous V6 rating, the engine is still smaller and less powerful than every other V6 in its class, so the front-wheel-drive Optima is no hot rod.
Zero-to-60 runs take a leisurely 9.2 seconds. The quarter-mile performance of 16.5 seconds at 84.8 mph is also slow compared to its V6 competition. We've run a 16.2 in a Malibu and a 15.7 in an Accord.
Between city stop lights, the 3287-pound Optima feels adequately spunky, but the low-end punch is just a teaser. Passing power at higher speeds is noticeably absent. The V6 makes most of its grunt between 4000 and 6000 rpm, but the Optima's five-speed automatic transmission isn't quick to deliver a downshift. Usually, full throttle or manipulation of the transmission's manual gate is needed to slip through that hole in the traffic.
The new five-speed also has an unusually tall top gear, which doesn't do much for performance, but helps the Optima get 30 mpg on the highway according to the Environmental Protection Agency. We averaged 20.7 mpg during our week of mixed driving.
Quick spin of the wheel
Around town, the Optima feels a bit like a sport sedan thanks to its quick power-assisted rack and pinion steering, tight suspension and unexpectedly generous helping of road feel. An independent MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear suspension with coil springs and stabilizer bars help it feel lighter and less encumbered than the Sonata, but the trade-off is that it has a less substantial, less luxury car-like feel.
However, if you start getting serious with the Optima on twisty roads, despite its optional 17-inch alloys with Michelin Pilot rubber, much of that quasi sport sedan feel goes away. It's still kind of entertaining, but there's considerable body roll to contend with and more than a little understeer.
At the track our timed slalom runs confirmed our seat-of-the-pants finding. The good news is that the Optima's handling is benign. Even with the car's electronic stability control (ESC) turned off, the Kia never does anything spooky no matter how hard you push it. Still, its 62.6-mph slalom speed and 0.77g on the skid pad are average for a car in this class.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard on the Optima, but adding the ESC package for $600 is the only way to get ABS and a traction-control system. Even with this package, brake feel is unimpressive and not very progressive, and the pedal travel is too long. Our best 60-0-mph stopping distance was 131.89 feet. That's substantially longer than the 2006 Ford Fusion's 124 feet, but better than the 2004 Chevrolet Malibu's 140.2 feet.
With a small V6 engine, average performance numbers and no standout driving dynamics, it's not easy to quantify what makes the new Optima so good. It's better than the old one, but that's not reason enough to buy it. Maybe it's because Kia has injected some life into this midsize sedan through comfort and build quality, making it a worthwhile place to spend time without spending a lot of money. Others may feel more refined overall than the Optima, but the Kia wins for personality.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
System Score: 8
Components: Our EX Optima came standard with an Infinity sound system that includes a cassette player and an in-dash six-CD changer with MP3 capability. The system also includes six Infinity speakers and a subwoofer. Steering wheel-mounted audio controls are standard on all Optimas except the four-cylinder LX when equipped with a manual transmission.
Performance: Kia and superb sound system — two things that definitely don't go together, right? Not anymore. The Optima EX's standard stereo is fairly exceptional, especially when you consider the Optima's price and how far Kia has come in the past few years.
The Infinity branded system sounds very good and has the added bonus of a cassette player, something that's becoming quite rare. Bass is deep and adds to the overall rich, full quality of the sound, and the highs and mids are also clear. Separation is good but not excellent but the system is not prone to distortion even at high volume. There are pre-programmed EQ settings like "Rock" or "Jazz" but adjusting the tone yourself results in a cleaner sound. For example, "Rock" adds too much bass and the pop setting sounds hollow, with too much midrange.
The controls are straightforward and easy to use. We especially like the fact that there's a midrange adjustment. The system can play MP3 CDs but the small display screen makes managing your files a little bit of a chore.
Best Feature: Overall sound quality
Worst Feature: Small display screen
Conclusion: An excellent stereo from an unlikely source. The flexibility of MP3 CDs and cassette player almost make us forget there's no way to connect your iPod. — Brian Moody
Edmunds.com Editor in Chief Karl Brauer says:
The new Optima is, overall, an impressive effort. I can't sit in the cabin without thinking Honda Accord, which isn't a bad thing. The look and feel of the materials and controls is very Honda-like. There's a weightiness to the dials/switches and a richness to the textures and surfaces that some other car companies (cough-GM-cough) could learn from. It's still not quite up to Honda standards in every area, but close. For instance, the center console is a very basic hard plastic. But the texture and paint give it a higher-quality appearance. You have to actually tap on it to confirm it's really just hard plastic. Those are the kind of subtleties that could go a long way toward improving other cars on the market (cough-Caliber-cough).
Driving dynamics are not quite up to Honda as well. The steering isn't as intuitive and the suspension allows for more wallow around corners. But neither aspect is worrisome, particularly considering the target buyer for this segment. One Kia trick I have seen before is to use very low gearing and/or low rpm tuning to make its cars feel faster than they really are. The last version of the Sedona did this, and it made the van feel very punchy at low speeds and light throttle. The new Optima feels the same way, but in both cases the jig is up once you go past half throttle and get out of first gear. It's not that the car feels terribly underpowered, but if you've been tooling around at city speeds and then get on the freeway and try to pass someone, you might be disappointed. Still, in terms of overall execution, particularly when you wrap price into the equation, the new Optima deserves to be on your shopping list in the family sedan segment.
Inside Line Editor in Chief Richard Homan says:
Price, build quality and interior fit-and-finish are the gold coins of the realm when it comes to the Kia Optima's class of car. Performance is little more than a convenience feature. Taking full advantage of this fact, Hyundai and Kia have been enjoying best-selling years of late, putting together good-enough-to-be-competitive cars at don't-think-twice prices — always with the most brilliant warranty in the business, and often with six cylinders priced at what the Japanese competition charges for four.
That's certainly the Kia Optima V6 plan. The car is just as good as it needs to be (maybe a little better), at a price point that makes it look like a relative bargain. It looks right and drives right, with the right set of features. Some things are better than the competition (in around-town driving, the brake-pedal feel in our test car should be the model for moderately priced sedans), and some things are worse (interior noise was a constant irritant, some of the touch-point plastics were subpar). And at least one thing stood out as superior for the class: Rear-seat legroom stretches out bounteously before you.
The Kia Optima may (or may not) be the car for you, but unless you're hanging on to the old clichés about Korean cars, it certainly makes sense to put it on your comparison-shopping list.
"This car replaced a Buick Century and I must say it has many better features than my GM auto did. It is roomier, much better protection for all riders, handles like a dream, and has the very best finish I've ever seen on a new car. I've owned many new cars in my lifetime (I'm 75 years old) and this Kia is the best! The feature I like the best allows one to change gears, with the auto shift lever, when going downhill. I think the car should include a trunk package net as a standard feature. The net is available but must be purchased extra." — Albert Gibes, July 26, 2006
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