Excellent build quality; upscale styling and ambiance; refined performance; strong value proposition.
Limited rear headroom; exposed iPod location.
With the 2011 Kia Optima, the little-known car company from South Korea has its breakout vehicle, a midsize sedan of such style and charm that it will change what you think about every Kia. Beneath the skin, the Optima might share its platform and engine with the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, yet this Kia has its own style, both inside and out. Where the Sonata has an American vibe, the Optima has a European flair in both the way it looks and the way it goes down the road.
There's plenty of substance underneath the style, too. A feeling of higher quality permeates the Optima, from the solid thunk of a door closing to how it feels on the open road. And the Hyundai/Kia value philosophy is here in full effect as well, with plenty of standard luxury features as well as that long, peace-of-mind warranty.
The Optima's 2.4-liter inline-4 makes 192 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, an impressive output from a naturally aspirated (not turbocharged nor supercharged) four-cylinder engine. However, against the EPA combined estimate of 27 mpg, we averaged just 22 mpg in over 1,000 miles of driving. In fairness much of the Optima's time with us involved both legendary L.A. gridlock and our staff's leadfoot tendencies.
This engine is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission, which helps to, yes, optimize its performance. And the willing engine and smooth transmission appear to be a happy couple. Although the 2011 Kia Optima's 0-60-mph sprint of 9.2 seconds is just about average for this segment of sedans, the power spread from low- to midrange rpm is generous, so this 3,407-pound car never feels flat-footed when dicing with city traffic or when thrust is needed for swift merging on the freeway or passing on the open road.
Though it offers manual gearchange capability, the cooperative automatic is always on point, making DIY changes unnecessary unless you just want to play. The six-shooter swaps gears seamlessly without a bit of shift shock and it's quick to step down a gear or two when needed. The Optima's brakes are likewise competent, with a solid pedal feel and a smooth, linear action. The Kia's 121-foot stopping distance from 60 is excellent for this segment, where distances of more than 130 feet are the norm.
Whether dawdling through city traffic or given the crop on a curving on-ramp, the Optima has an amenable temperament. The suspension is compliant enough to take pockmarked pavement in stride while still keeping its composure when driven spiritedly through the turns. It's biased toward comfort rather than cornering, but for most folks it'll likely be just right. The Kia's precise steering feels more natural than most electric-assisted systems we've sampled, and indeed provides more satisfying weighting and linear action than the setup of the Hyundai Sonata.
The tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and power seat offer a wide enough range of adjustments so you can get comfortable. And all outboard passengers are treated to sculpted, supportive seating. Yes, the rear middle seat is a bit tight for adults, but the same goes for any sedan in this midsize category. Rear passengers are treated to a large fold-down armrest as well as their own air vents, the latter an uncommon nicety in this segment. Most folks should find the rear compartment roomy enough, and only those over 6 feet tall may find accommodations a bit tight.
In addition to the aforementioned supple ride, the Optima provides peace and quiet, with road and wind noise levels amply muted. And even when subjected to the blown-out streets of downtown Los Angeles, the Optima never protested with a squeak or rattle.
Walk up to the 2011 Kia Optima EX and the cabin lights thoughtfully come on before you reach the door, as if to welcome you inside. With the standard keyless entry/ignition, you just leave the key in your pocket as you enter the car and fire it up.
The gauges and most controls are clear and intuitive, with the electronic displays for fuel level and coolant temperature having a more conventional, easily read design than that seen in some competitors. Stowage space is respectable, with a generous console box, usable door pockets and large cupholders.
Working the Kia's navigation system is second nature, with common adjustments (such as map orientation and scale) done without the need to dive into a menu. Entering addresses is quick, as are finding POIs and issuing cancellation commands. Visual and voice prompts are clear as well.
The standard iPod jack and a small cubby are located in front of the shifter. That makes for a convenient if not wise location, as it requires you to unplug the device and stash it out of sight to minimize the risk of theft. Then again, this may be a nonissue — doesn't everybody have an iPod now? Choosing your music is easy, thanks to big virtual buttons, while the audio system itself provides clear sound with enough punch for everyone short of overzealous head-bangers.
The Kia Optima passed our usability tests with flying colors. At 15.4 cubic feet, the Optima's well-shaped trunk is fairly capacious and our reverse-facing baby seat still left enough room for a 5-foot-10 front passenger when installed in back.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Optima projects the image of a luxury sport sedan and overall appears more upscale than nearly every other car in this class. Its lines are dramatically expressed, yet all the elements are cleanly integrated, notably the swept-back headlights, clean flanks mercifully free of the usual rising character line and an elegant greenhouse with a single chrome strip accenting the roof line's sweep.
With its quality materials, tight panel gaps and tasteful wood-tone accents, the Optima's cabin could pass for that of a premium-branded sedan. It tells you that it's a driver's car first and a family car second, with the center stack of feature controls canted toward the driver and stylish French stitching on the leather upholstery for the dash, seats and door armrests.
Who should consider this vehicle
More stylish and upscale in feel than the common Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, the very well-equipped 2011 Kia Optima offers midsize sedan buyers not only the feeling that they're getting a well-made, well-equipped car for the money but also one that they'll look forward to commuting and taking road trips in. Those looking for sportier performance from the Optima might want to consider the turbocharged EX-T and SX variants that are due out a few months after the 2011 Optima debut in late November.