2009 Kia Optima / Magentis

Too Little Too Late

2009 Kia Optima / Magentis

FAST FACTS

1. The 175hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder delivers power and fuel economy (22/32 mpg city/highway) on par with Japanese and American competitors.

2. Stability Control and Traction Control, optional on most of the Optima’s competitions, comes standard on US models.

3. Interior design/materials and the driving experience are not up to snuff.

4. Priced well below the competition, the Optima gives you plenty of bells and whistles for very little money.

At first glance the redesigned 2009 Kia Optima (sold in Canada as the Magentis) looks like a marked improvement over the outgoing model.

The design itself, while not exactly breathtaking, is on par with Japanese and American competitors. In fact, one could even say it is handsome.

The car is just 2.5-inches longer than the ’08 model but due to the robust styling looks even larger. And combined with the bold new chrome grille and chrome trim around the windows it has an appearance that is both serious and just a little sophisticated. In short, it’s an immense upgrade and no longer looks like a wannabe in the family sedan segment.

FULLY LOADED YET DISAPPOINTING INTERIOR

The same cannot be said for the interior. While the swooping design of the dash is nice, it’s really only visible on the passenger side. As for the temperature controls, they appear out of place – protruding from the dash as they do. Worst of all, however, is the radio that looks like an aftermarket unit from the mid-‘90s.

Combined with the less-than-pleasing material used for the seats in our four-cylinder tester, the car already felt as though it was a few years old.

The material on the seats got me thinking that this Optima was a pretty basic vehicle and so I was surprised when I couldn’t find my manual seat adjustment. The “adjuster” is located on the side of the seat and is actually an eight-way power unit.

Then it hit me… this is actually a well-appointed car, with an a six-speaker audio system with an iPod hookup and steering wheel-mounted controls, cruise control, air conditioning, power windows with a one-push up and down for the driver, a sunroof and heated seats.

Safety is up to par with six airbags, including dual front, side and curtain air bags. The car also has ABS, EDB, traction control and stability control (TC and ESC begin standard on US models but optional on the Magentis in Canada).

A COMFORTABLE AND SOFT RIDE (TOO SOFT)

Behind the wheel of the new Optima it’s easy to point out several more faults – although there are certainly some positive aspects to the driving experience as well.

On the down-size, the car rides far too loosely on its suspension. It bobs and sways and when you put your foot into it and change lanes on the highway the steering becomes vague as the sedan rolls back on its suspension.

POWER AND FUEL-ECONOMY ARE UP TO PAR

That description might have you thinking the Optima has all sorts of power. True, the upgraded 2.4-liter four-cylinder gets added power for ’09 with 175hp and 169 ft-lbs of torque, but it’s no monster. It is, however, right on par with standard four-cylinder engines in the Camry, Accord, Malibu and Fusion.

If more power is what you are after, we suggest you look elsewhere. Kia does offer a V-6 but at 2.7-liters and 190hp it is down significantly from larger engines offered by the competition that make in excess of 250hp.

Another gripe about the driving experience is the throttle pedal, which doesn’t really allow any modulation – it is either on or off.

On the plus side, the ride is smooth and quiet and is well-suited to long drives. The mirrors are, however, tiny – even if they are heated.

The Optima’s Steptronic five-speed automatic transmission gets the job done and Kia’s commitment to building a genuine competitor is obvious from the fact that they included the Steptronic shift-it-yourself option – even though no one really ever uses those things.

A neat feature on the Optima is the Eco Drive function that is accessible through the information display (which shows things like fuel range and fuel-economy) on the dash. By setting this function the transmission shifts earlier to stay in a higher gear. Not only does this improve fuel economy (the four-cylinder Optima is rated at 22/32 mpg city/highway) it actually improved the driving experience, as the standard transmission program seems to hold on to gears for too long.

THE VERDICT

Just a few years ago, the Kia Optima would have been a genuine competitor to the American sedans in the family car category. Unfortunately for Kia, companies like Ford and General Motors have made tremendous strides in recent years with cars like the Fusion and Malibu. As a result, the Optima suffers from being too little, too late.

POSITVE

Solid new design Quiet and comfy ride Fully-loaded for the price of a base-model competitor

NEGATIVE

Sloppy ride quality Poor interior design and materials Less than the sum of its parts

We would, however still consider it an option if your list of potential cars includes the Mitsubishi Gallant, Chrysler Sebring or Pontiac G6. After all, it’s not all bad, remember, power and fuel economy (with the four-cylinder) are on par with the competition.

What may make the Optima attractive to certain buyers is that you can purchase the well-equipped automatic four-cylinder LX model for $18,950 – thousands less than an Accord, Camry or Malibu that has fewer options. In short, it’s a car for someone who wants all the bells and whistles but can’t (or doesn’t want to) afford the same package on another vehicle.