There was a time when friends didn't let friends drive Korean branded cars. But that was before Hyundai, and its now sister brand Kia, began producing some of the highest quality, sharpest models going. An excellent example of this is the 2011 Kia Optima, a striking sedan that shows just how far Kia has come. But is the Optima the "optimum?" And how much further should Kia go?
The first time you see the 2011 Kia Optima, your initial thought is likely to be, "Who makes that?" And we wouldn't blame you, because the sleek, Euro-styling of Kia's newest mid-size 4-door is a long way from the chunky, bland lines of the previous Optima.
Now fully embracing the progressive design of the smaller Forte, the longer, lower Optima rides on a 110-inch wheelbase taken directly from the Hyundai Sonata. In fact, most mechanical aspects of the Optima are clones of the Sonata. But not so styling, which is decidedly sportier on Optima. The wedge-shaped lines of our SX Turbo test car sweep upward from a ground-hugging fascia with faired-in fog lamps, a flush fitting honeycomb grille, and self-leveling high-intensity discharge headlights.
The high belt line and scooped-out rocker panels add depth to the Optima's profile. While the rear end's high trunk lid, subtle spoiler, and insect-eye taillights remind us of certain high end Toyota products. As do standard features like the heated side mirrors with integrated turn signals and 18-inch 10-spoke alloy wheels, a point driven home when we received multiple comments on the styling of our new Lexus.
Under those graceful lines, Optima power plants are again shared with Sonata. All based on Kia's direct-injected Theta II I4, they include a standard 200-horsepower 2.4-liter and our SX test car's 2.0-liter dual-cam turbo, with a healthy 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque.
The base LX model can be had with a 6-speed manual transmission, while all other Optima variants use a 6-speed automatic with manual-mode paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Later this year, the Optima line will expand with the arrival of Kia's first gasoline-electric hybrid.
But today it's all about turbos, and our SX did not disappoint. Power is strong off the line with minimal lag from the exhaust driven induction. 0 to 60 runs in only 6.5 seconds are routine. Once all the spinning parts are up to speed, the turbo engine delivers a smooth midrange punch that's great for quick passes in tight traffic. It's a little noisier and rougher than a comparable V6, but what turbo four isn't?
The transmission is slick in auto mode, and when booted manually is clean on up shifts with just a slight stutter when shifting down. The SX model's sport-tuned MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension is much firmer than that of its Hyundai cousin, but only gets harsh over broken pavement. Handling is crisp for a 3,490 pound 4-door, with the expected front push when you push it hard in tight corners.
Overall, it's a sportier, more Euro feel than the Sonata. One that we rather like. The same can be said for the Optima's clean, well-organized, and well-equipped interior. The handsome, driver-oriented dash features high-quality soft-touch trim. It would easily look at home in a BMW or Audi. The minimalist gauges, Audio, and climate controls are all easy on the eyes and user friendly.
The optional navigation system is also easy to use and accurate. It features Sirius Traffic and a handy back-up camera. The SX trim's two-tone leather-and-fabric upholstery is sporty, if a tad overdone for some, and the cushions firm and supportive. Eight-way power for the driver is standard, with heating and cooling available.
The rear seat, which will comfortably fit tall adults, is also available with heat for your posterior. The 60/40 split folding seat backs expand the already sizable 15.4 cubic-foot trunk; bigger, incidentally, than that of a Toyota Camry.
Government fuel economy ratings are also better than Toyota, at 22 city/34 highway on regular. We managed 27.6 in mixed driving. The Optima is as clean as a Camry, registering an identical Energy Impact Score of 13.2 barrels of oil per year and a Carbon Footprint of only 7.2.
On price, the Optima continues to compare favorably to its more established opposition. Base price for the normally-aspirated LX manual is $19,690. Our top line turbocharged SX starts at $26,690. All with a 100,000 mile limited power train warranty. The 2011 Kia Optima is a far cry from a generation of cars that both American drivers, and their Korean builders, would probably just as soon forget.
It's not just a higher quality car, but one that can stand against Asia and America's best in the areas of styling, performance, and features. It's certainly the best Kia sedan so far. And if this is Kia's optimum effort today, we're already looking forward to tomorrow.
Engine: 2.0-liter dual-cam turbo
Torque: 269 lb feet
0-60 mph: 6.5 seconds
EPA: 22 mpg city/ 34 mpg highway
Mixed Loop: 27.6 mpg
Energy Impact: 13.2 barrels oil/yr
CO2 Emissions: 7.2 tons/yr