A bigger Kia.
by John Matras
Base Price (MSRP) $15,299
As Tested (MSRP) $22,269
Kia, which not long ago sold only the subcompact Sephia sedan and the small but sturdy Sportage SUV, is expanding. Kia added the Spectra sports sedan and the Rio mini four-door sedan during calendar year 2000. Planned for mid-calendar year 2000 are the Sedona minivan and a wagon version of the Rio. Kia's sales growth in the U.S. directly reflects the addition of models, so flying into the breech once more, Kia fires a broadside at the Camry/Accord class with the Optima. Toyota and Honda sales won't notice, but Kia's incremental sales gains will continue.
More important to us is that the Kia Optima is a remarkably good car, especially for the price. Kia would like customers to think "value" rather than "cheap," and we'd be inclined to concur. You do get a lot for your money, and unlike early Korean attempts at the midsize sedan class, the Optima displays sophistication in engine and chassis that is fully competitive in its size (and not just price) class.
Kia Optima is based on the platform of the current Hyundai Sonata and shares its engine and suspension layout, and no doubt if you like one, you'll like the other. But the Optima shares no body panels with the Sonata and is distinctive in design and features as well. A rebadged Sonata it isn't.
Kia Optima comes in two trim levels, the LX and SE. With the option of a V6 in either, that figures out to four Optima models.
Optima LX with a 2.4-liter 149-horsepower four-cylinder engine lists for a remarkable $15,299, complete with air conditioning, AM/FM stereo cassette, power windows, mirrors and locks and front-seat side airbags, among other features.
Specifying the 2.5-liter V6 adds 21 horsepower and a refined four-speed automatic transmission along with 15-inch alloy wheels with P205/60HR15 Michelin tires, four-wheel disc brakes, and cruise control. However the price for the Optima LX V6 goes to $18,499.
That's more than the Optima SE with the 4-cylinder, listing for $17,599 and coming complete with the larger alloy wheels and tires, heated mirrors, premium 120-watt audio system with cassette, CD and a power antenna, an upgraded center console, real wood trim accents, interior and exterior chrome door handles and chrome insert bodyside molding, and a moonroof.
Going whole hog with the SE V6 sets the buyer back $19,494 and includes everything in the SE and V6 packages. Adding antilock brakes, offered only with the V6 costs $795, and the leather package, an SE-only option, is $995. Floor mats, for any models, cost an extra $80, and the destination charge is $450. The 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and 5-year/60,000 mile basic warranty are included, as is a 5-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan.
The Kia Optima breaks no new styling ground. It's a basic three-box four-door sedan with conventional proportions. Not a headturner by any means, it is handsomely done and presents itself well, with distinctively sculpted panels and balanced forms.
The chrome eggcrate grille is reminiscent of a Cadillac theme-not a bad bit of borrowing-and the composite headlamps lend a bit of high-tech to the Optima's appearance. The alloy wheels and chrome bodyside inserts on the SE V6 we drove are well done and made the car look richer as well. It's a car that looks better the longer you look at it, with both an overall shape and details that will appeal to the midsize sedan buyer.
The Optima's interior is as conventional as its exterior, and there's little here that will either surprise or confound the new driver. The overall quality of materials seems up to snuff, the color matches are good and the layout appropriate. The front bucket seats are comfortable and well suited for the kind of driving expected for the Optima, with enough fore-and-aft travel to accommodate the longest of legs.
The back seat is a little more snug, and putting three adults in back is requesting a bit more intimacy than most are accustomed to. A useful feature, however, is the 60/40 folding rear seatback (not available on the Sonata, by the way), which increases the versatility of the Optima. Trunk size is adequate, with 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space compared with the Honda Accord's 14.1 cubic feet. Optima's trunk lid has articulated hinges that don't impinge on luggage space or crush that bag of groceries, a nice feature.
Our test Optima had the leather interior treatment, nicely finished to complement the rest of the interior and more durable than the standard cloth upholstery, which we have not seen. The interior also had genuine wood trim, though it was so overfinished that it and the imitation wood trim also used were difficult to differentiate, which one could suppose is a point in favor of the artificial stuff.
One surprise is the double-path console-mounted shifter: Alongside the standard quadrant's Drive, or "D," position is a lateral slot to a position marked with a "+" and a "-" sign. Porsche drivers will recognize this as the layout of a Tiptronic, the manual shifting automatic transmission. One can either leave the transmission in "D" and drive normally, or move the lever to the "+" and "-" slot and control the shifting manually. This particular system is built by Kia, but was designed by Porsche. It's available in the Optima now; the Sonata will get it later.
How smooth and quiet is the Optima's V6 engine? One of our colleagues got into an idling Optima and promptly tried to start it. It's really that polished, and the impression doesn't fade with the Optima underway. The engine quietly goes about its business, at least until it's given full throttle. Then it's still smooth but it can be heard sonorously churning out power.
With only a score more ponies than the four-cylinder engine, we'd still recommend the V6 to all but the most penurious. In comparison, the V6 suffers about 1 mile per gallon in both city and highway driving and develops only 10 pounds-feet more maximum torque, but, and we're saying this without having driven the four-cylinder, it's worth it in smoothness alone. The rather large four-cylinder engine almost certainly will not be as smooth as this smooth V6.
The automatic transmission is a good match for the engine, shifting imperceptibly in normal driving or at full throttle, when left to its own devices or shifted Tiptronically. Tiptronic technology seems superfluous on this car, however. While the added control is appreciated, it will rarely be used by the typical owner of this car, which doesn't lend itself to the sporty pretensions that Tiptronic encourages. Still, it's useful and entertaining on winding roads and in heavy traffic.
Kia tuned the suspension for comfort, not handling. That doesn't mean a floaty, imprecise ride. Indeed, hustling down some California backroads between Sonoma and Bodega Bay, the Optima displayed remarkable poise over bumps and lumps in mid-corner, its track not diverted by bump steer. There's considerable understeer, however, which should keep the expected driver of the Optima safe and secure. Pushing the Optima, however, is a lot of work and although the Michelins never complain, even sports-minded drivers will dial back a notch to let the Optima operate in its comfort zone, which is what the Optima does best.
Kia engineers have managed to filter out most road and tire noise, but there's a ruffle of wind noise from the top of the windshield. It's not particularly loud, so our hearing it may be more a result of everything else being so quiet. At highway speeds, conversations between front and back seat were easy at normal speaking volume.
Kia Optima began trickling into dealer showrooms in early December 2000, with limited availability through March 2001; after that they should be readily available.
Kia Optima excels at providing transportation at a reasonable cost. Don't expect the name Kia to be the talk around the water cooler, but your monthly payment will be something to talk about, especially in conversations that include the warranty, the roadside assistance plan, and all the standard features. Even more worth talking about is the smooth, quiet ride.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.