The Free Press, Mankato, MN

May 17, 2013

Kia Optima is a hit with the buying public

By Len Ingrassia
CNHI News Service

— Car reviewers get a chance to drive a lot of new wheels throughout the year. While some cars offer basic transportation with fuel economy high on the list, others opt for pure adrenaline-rushing performance at any cost.

When it comes to midsized family sedans, the Kia Optima ranks high on my list for its good looks, economy and value. The little known car from Korea has a European flair with a German-like feel behind the wheel.

Since being redesigned in 2011, the Optima doubled its sales volume last year to lead the brand out of obscurity. All this while few people on the road recognize the car as a Kia.

Without its exterior badging, the Optima could be mistaken for a VW Passat, corporate sibling Hyundai Sonata, Lexus ES 350 or side view BMW 5-Series. Its sleek styling and aggressive stance have created a family sedan that, well, defies the traditional family sedan.

All this fame brings up the company's biggest challenge with their Optima, that of overcoming Kia's early years of producing unexciting cars.

The Optima is built in the U.S. and this year offers consumers three model choices, LX, EX and SX as well as a gas-electric hybrid. Pricing starts at $21,350.

The SX press fleet car I tested for a week was equipped with nearly every option, tilting the scales in the mid $30s, high for its class. Most buyers would not order all three option packages, Premium Touring, Technology and Limited especially when the base car includes plenty of standard equipment.

Powering the tester was a spirited four cylinder, turbocharged and tuned for up to 34 highway miles per gallon of regular. My driving experience netted lower numbers than EPA test results.

The sprint from 0-60 miles per hour is achieved in a brisk 6.4 seconds, a little quicker than its class. The engine delivers 274 horsepower to its front wheels through a six-speed sportmatic transmission with paddle shifters mounted to the steering wheel.

Parked at the curb, the Optima takes on an aggressive look with the addition of large red brake calipers on each of its 18-inch chrome wheels, a Limited package option.

Stitched material gives the steering wheel and seats a distinguished look and feel with Nappa leather used throughout. While the console and door trim displayed some soft materials here and there, hard plastics seemed to be overused in an otherwise elegant interior.

Kia engineers put some careful thought into the layout of its gauge cluster, recessing the panel a full three inches to shade the readouts from sunlight. The mix of high tech touch controls with knobs and buttons strikes a healthy mix with dual climate control knobs easily accessible at center console.

A graphic display above climate controls shows current settings of air directional flow throughout the cabin on a seven-inch screen. The same screen illuminates radio settings, navigation maps, phone, backup camera and auxiliary audio from your favorite device.    

While not perfect, the Optima has enough refinement to satisfy the checklist of many families' needs. If you happen to add the heated and cooled ventilated seat option, however, the controls are blind from the driver's position while in gear.

Overall, the Optima is a must drive if you are in the family sedan market. It is sure to impress.

Len Ingrassia is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at editor@ptd.net.