2011 Kia Optima EX First Drive

2011 Kia Optima EX First Drive

2011 Kia Optima Sedan

(2.4L 4-cyl. 6-speed Automatic)

Terminating Blandness With Extreme Prejudice

Imagine you're going into the witness protection program. You'll of course need a car, but the feds are moving you to a small town in South Dakota, so it's got to be mechanically sound to avoid trips to the dealer, where you'll sit unprotected in the waiting room, nervously pretending to read outdated celebrity magazines.

On the road, it has to be nondescript. It's got to melt into the background so you don't draw attention to yourself. But a thoughtful pause is required here. You must avoid the dreaded government-issue look at all costs.

The 2009 or 2010 Kia Optima sedan is your car. Kia's mechanical alliance with the ever-improving Hyundai gives it a certain bulletproof quality, yet its anonymous styling renders it practically invisible. (So invisible, in fact, that Kia sold fewer than 25,000 copies last year.)

But that's not the case with the 2011 Kia Optima. You're going to need to wait until the trial is over and you get your life back before you consider this one because, frankly, it's a stunner. People actually look at it on purpose. Passersby may even walk up to you in parking lots and start asking questions. You don't need that. "They" may have to re-hide you.

Full Metal Jacket and Tie
We're not in hiding. We have no qualms about standing in the vicinity of the 2011 Kia Optima and admiring its handsome new suit of clothes.

That suit isn't just a same-size re-tailoring job, though, because the 2011 Kia Optima now rides on the larger 2011 Hyundai Sonata chassis. This move allowed Kia designers, under the direction of design chief Peter Schreyer, to give the 2011 Kia Optima a curative dose of the longer-lower-wider treatment. Specifically, our Optima EX sample car is 1.7 inches longer, its 57.3-inch roof line is 1 inch lower and its 72.1-inch breadth is a full inch wider than the outgoing 2010 witness-protection special.

Additionally, the new chassis has a wheelbase that's 2.9 inches longer, and that simultaneously allows a more relaxed driving position while it preserves leg- and headroom under that lower roof line. Our 6-foot 2-inch test pilot fits easily with no trouble. Backseat passengers won't be as comfortable though as this Optima has less rear head and legroom than its predecessor. Meanwhile, trunk space has been increased slightly for a total of 15.4 cubic feet.

But the new Optima shares exactly zero external sheet metal or interior panels with the Sonata, so the vibe is entirely different. Whereas the Hyundai Sonata comes across as svelte — pretty, even — the 2011 Kia Optima looks taut, purposeful and ready to go.

Deportment of the Interior
This vibe extends to the inside, where a subtle wraparound cockpit is the dominant theme. The center stack is angled a smidge — 9.6 degrees in favor of the driver — which is, according to our field operative, just enough to enhance control visibility and reach for the driver without screwing up passenger access. It looks good, too.

If the Optima in question has the six-speed automatic transmission, the generously telescoping steering wheel now has manual-override shift paddles behind the spokes. Another new nod to the driver is the revised location of the shifter's manual plus/minus gate: Last year's push to the passenger side has been replaced with a pull toward the driver to engage Manual mode.

The Optima's seats are comfortable and supportive in corners and all but the most stripped-out base LX model comes with an eight-way power driver seat. EX and SX models can be upgraded with the Premium package, which brings heated seats to all but the center-rear passenger perched on "the hump," ventilated seats for those up front, a heated steering wheel for the driver and a four-way power-adjustable front passenger seat.

The Premium pack also includes a panoramic sunroof that spans the front and rear seating areas. The front half tilts and slides, and a power sunshade provides solar shielding for all. Kia refuses to talk (about pricing) at this point, but the Premium package cost around $2,000 last year. Back then the sunroof was less substantial, there were fewer bun warmers and a stereo upgrade was part of the deal. Call it a draw.

Meanwhile, that eight-speaker Infinity stereo upgrade has been bundled with last year's navigation package and rearview camera. They call it the Technology package this year, and we figure it'll cost at least $1,500 or so. But you don't need to buy this option if you simply want Bluetooth hands-free, a USB input or an iPod jack, because these are complimentary on all Optimas.

Tracking Device
Our test sample, an EX model, is powered by the same 2.4-liter direct-injected engine found in the 2011 Hyundai Sonata. Rated here at 200 horsepower, it pulls out of corners and up the hills at Road Atlanta with enough authority to satisfy most people you're related to. It runs a bit quieter than the Hyundai, too, as there's a little less underhood clatter from the direct-injection system than we hear in our long-term Sonata.

Shift feel from the six-speed autobox is smooth and crisp, and the gear spacing feels just about right. The Optima's Manual mode is pretty effective, too, because the steering-mounted shift paddles are able to command downshifts with little apparent delay. All in all, the 2.4-liter mill and six-speed automatic make a good team.

Those who need more firepower need only wait about 60 days after the initial Optima launch to get access to the EX-T and SX versions, which will be fitted with a 2.0-liter turbocharged direct-injected inline-4 that makes 274 hp. There's no six-speed manual available with this engine, however. Sources tell us that a hybrid powertrain will arrive in the first quarter of 2011.

Guidance System
Less inspiring, in our EX, at least, is the steering. Our tester found it to be a bit light and lacking in feel, especially at suburban speeds. Maybe it's the calibration of the electronic power steering (EPS); perhaps it's the tuning of the P215/55R17 Nexen Classe Premiere tires. Whatever the case, Kia operatives are quick to point out that these early-look prototype samples don't have all of the final production tuning bits installed.

That said, the Optima's chassis feels well-behaved and well-balanced. It doesn't understeer much and the tail stays in line. We'll need to get one back on home turf and put it through our usual testing regimen to draw an accurate bead on it, but the softer-feeling Hyundai Sonata made it through our cone slalom in 62.5 mph and pulled 0.79g on the skid pad. This one feels a tad tauter.

Turbo-equipped Optimas will come with grippier 225/45R18 tires, which should raise the performance bar a bit higher. The SX version will also get a sport-tuned suspension with firmer dual-flow dampers (DFD) and other undisclosed tweaks. We can't tell you what that ultimately does to the steering and handling, though, because Kia doesn't have one of those handy for us to sample.

Withheld Information
Our initial Optima drive raises as many questions as it answered. How much? No comment. How fast? No comment. What about the SX sport-tuned suspension? No comment. Answers to these and other questions will have to wait a few weeks more.

But that doesn't stop us from making stuff up. Based on current Optima prices and the rise in Sonata prices from 2010-'11, we estimate that a mid-line 2011 Kia Optima EX will start at something close to $22,100, including destination charges. Figure about $3,600 more for the two major option packages. Turbo prices are harder to gauge because Kia hasn't been there before, but an additional $1,200-$1,500 feels close.

EPA fuel economy figures aren't yet official, but Kia estimates that the 2.4-liter base engine will earn 24 city/35 highway mpg. The 2.0-liter turbo-4 will trail close behind at 22 city/34 highway mpg.

All of the withheld details will become clear soon, especially after we commandeer one for a thorough vetting at the track. Until then, sit tight in your shuttered safe house, drive your invisible plain-Jane sedan, watch out for laser dots on your forehead and admire the 2011 Kia Optima from a safe distance.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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