Print Back To Article Turn Off Images
2011 Kia Optima Review – First Drive
When the car you should buy is the car you want to buy, shopping for a midsize sedan just got a lot easier
By Colum Wood , Photography by Kia, Sep. 24, 2010
The previous generation Kia Optima was a vehicle struggling to keep up with the times, having emerged on the scene as a lackluster model masquerading as a value proposition, when in reality it was just plain cheap. And the market responded with even Kia Motor America VP of Sales Tom Loveless describing the brand’s presence in the hugely important mid-size sedan segment as, “way down near the bottom.”

FAST FACTS

1. The Optima makes 200-hp from a standard direct-injection 2.4L 4-cylinder, while achieving best-in-class 24/35-mpg (city/hwy) fuel economy.

2. Optional class exclusive features include a panoramic sunroof, heated steering wheel and heated and cooled front seats.

3. After launch, Kia will introduce a turbocharged model with even more aggressive bodywork and a 274-hp engine.

What a difference a few years can make.

As part of a bold new product rollout that began with the Kia Soul, the Korean automaker is now delivering compelling vehicles with impressive fuel economy and much improved quality, all wrapped-up in a compelling package. In fact, Kia’s new design language works so well on the Optima, if we didn’t know better, we’d expect the starting price to be double.

That’s exactly what Kia wants you to think, showing media present at the launch a short video of the target Gen X customer followed by the cleverly crafted yet arguably true statement that, “Nobody ever dreamed of driving a mid-size sedan until now.”

Based on looks alone, the Optima will draw customers into showrooms, pulling decades-long Honda and Toyota supporters away from their brands with a flashy new look.

And while the Optima is unequivocally svelte, one could easily argue that the biggest drawback to previous generations of Kia’s family sedan wasn’t aesthetics. So… apart from the superficial reasons to purchase this handsome sedan, do the more practical aspects of the 2011 Optima represent a compelling alternative to the industry benchmarks?

In a word: yes.

IS BIGGER BETTER?

While we’d certainly argue that when it comes to cars bigger isn’t always better, the wider and longer Optima is now in line with its main competitors delivering added interior space. Rear seat legroom and headroom is plentiful for the second row passengers, although a lower roof section for the middle seat makes it all but useless for anyone but a child. Front seat space isn’t as generous. Even with the seat in its lowest position, taller drivers (those 6-feet and above) who don’t feel the need to drive with the seat half reclined will find it cramped with very little in the way of headroom.

The Optima’s increased dimensions have also benefited trunk space, showing that Kia’s dramatic new design language isn’t at the expense of functionality. The trunk holds a cavernous 15.4 cubic feet, although the pass-through space is quite narrow.

DRIVER-ORIENTED INTERIOR DESIGN

With the 2011 Optima, Kia has made big strides forward in the use of cabin materials, while interior layout and design are also strong points. Much like how the exterior conveys a dramatic message, the cockpit has been designed with the driver in mind, with the center console angled towards driver – we could, however, do with a less monotone center stack.

The instrument cluster is simple yet elegant with a nice brightwork surround; the wood detailing on the doors actually looks like high-grade stuff and then there are small touches like moving the automatic transmission gearbox lettering to the driver’s side of the lever, making for a more driver-oriented package. Our EX test model (a mid-level trim and the only one provided at the launch event) also featured a two-tone interior – something that always gives a more high-grade look.

Standard on EX models are items like dual-zone climate control with rear vents, power windows with front auto up/down, an 8-way power drivers seat, leather interior trim (including the center arm rest and the door inserts), a bush-button ignition with Smart Key, rear view camera and the SYNC-style UVO system for hands-free use of the entertainment and communications systems. Also included is a leather-wrapped steering wheel, although judging from the feel, it would seem the folks at Kia may have skinned a plastic cow.

As mentioned, generally the use of materials is quite good with soft-touch buttons and knobs that turn smoothly. Still, some lower grade materials are bound to make their way into a sub $20,000 car – Kia hasn’t released official pricing but it’s certain to start below the 20K mark. Along with the steering wheel leather, we did notice that hard plastic is used for the center of the wheel and for much of the dash – even though our tester featured a small amount of leather dash trim.

The only other small issue we noticed with the interior are the single-size cupholders that won’t properly secure smaller drinks – Red Bull anyone?

LUXURIOUS CLASS-EXCLUSIVE FEATURES

Upgrading to the Premium Package (as with our test car) adds items like wood interior trim, heated rear seats, a driver’s memory seat with 4-way adjustability, and class-exclusive features like heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and a panoramic sunroof – which might be the reason why headroom is so limited. A Technology Package then allows you to add Navigation and an impressive 8-speaker Infinity audio system that, as the folks from infinity showed us, can really pump out Sandstorm by Darude.

While not as fancy, even base models come well-equipped with items like driver’s power lumbar support, power windows and locks, a tilt and telescopic steering wheel, a cooling glovebox, USB and Auxiliary jacks and Bluetooth compatibility with steering wheel controls. Plus, the addition of the automatic transmission adds cruise control and an Eco mode that upshifts sooner and downshifts later to improve fuel economy.

Those looking for more, like HID headlights, LED taillights, added power and an even more aggressive design will be able to get it later after the initial vehicle launches with the introduction of a turbocharged model in EX and a higher-grade SX trim.

SOLID RIDE WITH POWER TO SPARE AND EXCELLENT FUEL ECONOMY

In terms of driving characteristics, the Optima is very much in keeping with the Hyundai Sonata, which shares the same platform. The cabin is quiet and the drive is smooth, with the Optima feeling substantial (though not big) out on the road.

Handling isn’t what we’d call sporty, but is good for the mid-size sedan crowd. EX models benefit from larger 17-inch alloy wheels and wider 215 tires, although the low-budget Nexen rubber doesn’t do much to aid in cornering. Steering feel is generally good and is weighted quite heavily, although, like the Sonata, the electric power steering system is initially vague, with a split-second delay (or about an inch of movement) where there’s very little response.

Power is more than adequate, with 200 ponies standard from the direct-injection 2.4-liter 4-cylinder. Importantly, this isn’t some strung-out torqueless four-banger either with a total of 186 ft-lbs available at 4500 rpm. Combined with either a six-speed manual (base trim LX models only), or a 6-speed automatic the new powerplant is both efficient and capable, delivering some of the best acceleration in its class (thanks to having the most power of its competitors) while also delivering fuel economy numbers that tie its Sonata sibling with best-in-class fuel economy of 24/35-mpg (city/hwy). And better yet, those numbers are actually achievable in real-world driving.

Another big reason for the notable acceleration and fuel economy is how light the Optima is with a 3,200 lb cub weight. And yet what’s so surprising is how solid it feels on the road.

THE VERDICT

Kia won’t release pricing for the Optima for another few weeks, but we’re assured it will come in at under $20,000 to start and we expect it to undercut (slightly) the Sonata, which starts at $19,195. At that price, with the quantity of features, quality of the package, as well as class leading fuel economy and power, the Optima has leapfrogged much of the competition to establish itself as a front-runner in the mid-size sedan category. And that’s before you even begin to consider the emotional side of the equation – something that’s never really been much of a factor before when purchasing a mid-size sedan.

Targeted at Generation X, the Optima was built to out-do its competitors when it comes to sensible family-sedan characteristics, making it a car you should buy. And by packaging it in dramatic sheetmetal it’s also something you’ll want to own. Kia then tosses in some class-exclusive options and is certain to slap a sticker price on the window that won’t leave much room for argument.

LOVE IT
  • Class-leading fuel economy and power
  • Class-exclusive features
  • Reasonably sporty but also a comfortable ride
LEAVE IT
  • Little headroom for taller drivers
  • Still some lower-grade interior trim
  • Electric power steering needs work

RELATED READING

2011 Hyundai Sonata First-Drive
2011 Hyundai Sonata GLS Review
2010 Toyota Camry Review
2010 Honda Accord EXL Review
2009 Chevrolet Malibu Review
2010 Nissan Altima 35 SR Sedan
2010 Ford Fusion Sport Review
2010 Subaru Legacy First-Drive
2009 Mazda6 Review
2010 Suzuki Kizashi First-Drive
2010 Dodge Avenger Review
2010 Subaru Legacy 25i Premium PZEV