First Drive: 2011 Kia Optima
We’ll be the first to admit that a car’s badge means something to us. Take for instance, the Ferrari badge. There have been countless numbers of Ferrari products that have been less than stellar, but do we love them? Of course we do, simply because they wear the prancing horse on the hood.
The Kia Motor Company, on the other hand, has a badge that gets about as much street credibility as a science professor. The Korean automaker came to the United States offering cheap and not so cheerful vehicles that are still haunting them to this day.
Despite the badge and despite the misconceptions, Kia has come a long way. The mind numbingly boring Optima may have been in a line of cars that nobody paid any attention to, but the next-generation model may start to change all of that.
Hit the jump to read on.
Let’s be honest for a moment and say that older Kia models were rather ugly and couldn’t turn a head even if it were on fire and painted lime green with sparkles. The Optima was no different. It didn’t look that bad, but it never drew a crowd, or many buyers for that matter.
The 2011 version is a complete overhaul and to start with, it looks sensational. The Optima was designed by Peter Schreyer and, needless to say, he did a wonderful job. The new model has grown to 190.7 inches long and 72.1 inches wide, which are increases of around two inches from the previous model. The hood is 2.4 inches longer, but the rear deck is shorter by 4.3 inches. This has given the car a very stylistic look that’s aided by the aggressively designed windshield and backlight.
The front of the Optima uses Kia’s new tabbed grille, flanked on both sides by a pair of wraparound headlights and an aggressive lower fascia. The rear of the car has a little Jaguar in it, with narrow taillights and dual exhaust for all models.
If you opt for the SX model, those taillights are LED, giving the car a high-end look. Sadly, those unique lights are only for the top end SX and our test EX model had the normal array of red lighting at the rear. Overall, it might not turn as many heads as the Hyundai Sonata, but those who are turned off by the Hyundai’s curvaceous exterior should fall in love with the Optima.
The interior of the 2011 Kia Optima is another area of massive improvement that looks as if it came out of a Volvo. The center stack is angled towards the driver and the vents are positioned nicely around the gauges. Unlike American manufacturers, or even German ones, the Koreans have a different approach to everything. Although the Sonata is the Optima’s big brother, it would take a trained eye to spot any parts sharing. The navigation, steering wheel, controls, and so on are all unique to the Kia. Like the Sonata, the materials aren’t the greatest in the world, but they’ll do in a car of this price.
Buyers who opt for the SX model will get unique gauges, sportier seats, carbon fiber trim, and a premium French-stitched leatherette dashboard. The only thing we could have wished for was more bolstering on the front seats, but seeing as how this is a family sedan, our wish might go unheard.
If there is one thing Kia can do well it’s giving buyers tons of goodies for the price. The Optima comes standard with USB, satellite radio, a cooled glovebox, one-touch triple-flash turn signals, and Bluetooth. Buyers with a little more money to throw around can equip the Optima with a panoramic roof, a heated steering wheel, and heated and cooled front seats, something that most cars in this level couldn’t dream of having.
Even though it might be impossible to tell that the Optima and the Sonata are related on the inside, when it comes to technical stuff they are quite familiar. The Kia will use either a 2.4-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder or a 2.0-liter turbocharged, direct injected four-cylinder. We got to drive the 2.4-liter with 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. Those two numbers are class leading.
The 2011 Optima had accurate steering, although the rack-and-pinion setup didn’t provide a whole lot of feedback. It has to be said, the Optima did handle a bit better than the Sonata, but understeer was still the name of the game. There was a bit of body roll when pushed hard, but we expect the turbo model to be a bit stiffer. Still, for a family sedan, the Kia was brilliant.
With a total weight of around 3,200 pounds, the 2.4-liter motor was plenty to get the car around town. It was refined and quiet, but if you really want to have some fun, wait for the turbocharged model.
That motor was connected to a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters, although a manual is available but likely to be rare. The auto box worked well and you can operate the paddles while the car is in normal drive model, but they are a tad slow to react. The EPA ranks the 2011 Kia Optima at 24 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway, which is once again better than the Sonata.
Sadly, our drive was over before we knew it and our time with the 2011 Kia Optima was complete. It’s not hard for us to say that the new Optima is a huge improvement over the previous model and to some, it might be an upgrade over the Sonata. We’re not so sure at this point, but time will tell.
We hope to have a full report in January of 2011 when we can really take the Optima out and subject it to everyday life. Still, we are left feeling satisfied that Kia is headed for a massive sales success with their new sedan.
Why we like it: The 2011 Kia Optima is stunning to look out and even more outstanding once you sit down inside of it. The controls are easy to use and the mileage is sensational.
Why we don’t like it: The handling is a little numb and there are some issues with body roll.
Overall rank and grade: The 2011 Kia Optima is a massively large leap in the right direction for the Korean company.