When we drove Hyundai's new Sonata, we were impressed with its unique styling and features. Now comes its corporate cousin, the redesigned Kia Optima, and we're doubly impressed. The Korean carmaker's space-time TV spot for the Optima is called One Epic Ride. Turns out, Kia may not be overselling this midsize sedan by much.
Appearance: Kia's design director is Peter Shreyer, formerly of Audi, so the Optima has a more European look — chiseled and angular — than its Hyundai cousin. Kia says it looks like a "finely tailored suit." If that's so, then our compliments to the tailor. The Optima has Kia's signature tiger-tooth grille, and the front-end design integrates slender headlights and grille into an upswept arc. The look is smooth and the creases sharp. This "suit" also has just the right amount of accessories: chrome trim just under the roofline, LED taillights and chrome-tipped dual exhaust.
Performance: Our tester was the top-of-the-line SX, which puts out 274 horsespower from its 2-liter turbo 4 cylinder. The 6-speed automatic shifts smoothly and has a manual mode with steering wheel-mounted paddles that left us wondering how much better performance could be with a true stick (available only on the entry-level LX). The turbo kicks in powerfully and without much delay; you probably won't feel any torque steer unless you really push it. The sport-tuned suspension seems attuned to the turbo's demands, allowing for a smooth (and quiet) ride. The cornering is tight and the steering has just the right feel. In all, it's a spirited experience.
Interior: It has a cockpit feel, with the center console angled slightly toward the driver and the controls within easy reach. We found the leather-and-mesh seats comfortable, but would have liked more bolstering. The controls are laid out intuitively and are easy to use. (But why is the driver's seat heat/cool button on the right side of the shifter?) The attractive surfaces contain some faux carbon-fiber trim and plastic, and the fit and finish attest to how Kia is improving its quality. The panoramic sunroof — available in one of the premium interior packages — makes for an airy cabin. Another treat: a large trunk. Our tester also had a lot of higher-end features, such as alloy sport pedals, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, eight-way power driver's seat, push-button start and navigation with backup camera. In all, a cabin that is as impressive as the exterior.
Our 3 favorites
Styling: It's more edgy with a performance-sedan look.
Performance: I like turbocharging a 4-cylinder instead of going to a 6-cylinder engine.
Color: Our tester was an eye-catching "Spicy Red."
Price: $30K fully loaded. That's a lot for the money.
Turbo: Kicks in smoothly for some powerful accelerations.
Wheels: 18-inch wheels are flangeless, and the cutouts are painted black for a sharp and unique look.
The bottom line: The Optima, especially in its SX mode, is the cure for the ordinary midsize sedan. Kia vaults into the midst of the industry's most competitive segment with styling, performance and a price point that can't be ignored.