Look out, Honda Accord; the 2011 Kia Optima is on its way, and after being among the first to drive it we can attest, it means business. As Kia Motors America executives will admit, the first two generations of the Kia Optima that came to the United States were just a blip in a market segment that is among the biggest in the country. But they fully expect the soon-to-be-introduced 2011 Kia Optima to change all that, and now, after spending some time behind the wheel, we believe they are onto something. Against formidable competition -- and the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion are certainly formidable competition -- the Optima shines. It offers elegantly restrained but emotional styling and a feature list that zooms past the competition, stealing the thunder from luxury sedans. We're talking about niceties like heated steering wheel, heated-and-ventilated front seats, heated rear outboard seats (the center of the bench isn't heated), panoramic sunroof and a glovebox that offers a cooling function. Stuff you can brag to your neighbors about.
A great value
Okay, vehicles from Kia have always been more heavily equipped than their Japanese competitors, largely because that was a way for the Korean company to offer better "value" in light of poorer quality, reliability and dependability and bland styling. But these days Kia Motors has pulled up its product quality and has wrapped the 2011 Optima in a skin that engenders adoration. This is one good-looking sedan, and it is matched by an equally good-looking and easy-to-use interior. In all, Kia product planners seem to have hit all the right notes in moving their mid-size sedan from the also-ran category into the middle of the pack.
All the right moves
Hitting the right notes with the mid-sized-sedan buyer is also evident in the way the Optima rides and handles. Contrary to what the auto enthusiast press would have you believe, the mid-size sedan driver is more concerned about quiet and a comfortable ride than about crisp handling, and we discovered that Kia engineers tuned the Optima's suspension with that bias in mind. The Optima's suspension is reasonably sophisticated with Macpherson struts in the front and a multi-link rear, but as a drive on the course at Road Atlanta proved, it is not a setup designed for ultimate cornering at the expense of ride, and that's as it should be. The only thing that intrudes upon your quiet time behind the wheel is if a quick uphill portion of roadway requires a full-throttle response from the 2.4-liter Theta II that is the 2011 Optima's base engine. The 200-horsepower 2.4-liter will be supplemented later in the model year by a 2.0-liter turbocharged version of the engine that delivers 274-horsepower. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder offers EPA fuel economy ratings of 24/35 mpg (city/highway) whether you choose the six-speed manual transmission or the available six-speed automatic. The turbo, which can be had only with the six-speed automatic, offers 22/34 mpg. A hybrid powerplant will become available next year in limited numbers, and details of that system were not forthcoming.
An inviting interior
From behind the wheel, the Optima's cockpit is forthcoming...and inviting. We appreciated the fact that the center-mounted instruments are canted at a 10-degree angle to favor the driver's vision, and we liked the fact that while the Optima is filled with features, using those features doesn't become a chore. Instead, all the controls are intelligently and simply laid out, so operating the navigation, audio system and the dual-zone climate control don't tax your intellectual capacities. You don't have to tax your intellectual capacities to arrive at the conclusion that the Kia Optima has, in this generational change, transformed itself from a fall-back option to a potential major player in the hotly contested segment that is right in the sweetspot of the American market.