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2011 Kia Optima — Review

This 2011 review is representative of model years 2011 to 2015.
By Kirk Bell of MSN Autos
Rating: 9.0

Bottom Line:

It's time to consider the Kia Optima as a contender in the competitive midsize-sedan market. This year's additional interior space makes it more useful for families, and the new 4-cylinder engine combines fuel efficiency with usable power. The cool new look also makes it stand out from the crowd in the milquetoast midsize-sedan market.
Pros:
  • Attractive family design
  • Fuel efficient
  • Roomy and comfortable interior
Cons:
  • No V6 engine
  • Economy-car reputation
  • Nobody knows about it

The popularity of the Hyundai Sonata is undeniable. Hyundai had to move the production of its Santa Fe SUV, which was built alongside the Sonata in Alabama, to another plant so that enough Sonatas could be built to keep up with demand. Why is this midsize sedan so desirable? Basic economics: It offers buyers exceptional value for their dollar.

So why, then, hasn't the Optima, which is built by Hyundai's sister company Kia, enjoyed the same success? It's also a midsize sedan, and it too is designed to offer consumers the best bang for their buck. The Optima has had the same marketing support as the Sonata but has failed to distinguish itself in any appreciable way from the competition. That is, until now.

Redesigned for 2011, the all-new Optima now shares powertrains and architecture with the Sonata. And for the first time, it boasts an attractive, original design. So is the 2011 Optima about to give its sister sedan a run for its money? We think so.

Model Lineup
The 2011 Kia Optima is offered in four trims: LX, EX 2.4, EX 2.0T and the sporty SX. Standard features on the LX consist of cloth upholstery, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, Sirius satellite radio, auxiliary input jack, USB port, cooled glove box, trip computer, Bluetooth wireless cell phone link, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry and P205/65R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.

When ordered with the automatic transmission, the LX also gets cruise control and alloy wheels. The EX adds leather upholstery, Kia's UVO entertainment control interface, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated side mirrors, power driver's seat, keyless access and starting, auto-dimming rearview mirror, universal garage-door opener, fog lights and P215/55R17 tires. The EX 2.0T comes standard with P225/45R18 tires. The SX trim has several sporty features, including a sport-tuned suspension, a rear lip spoiler, lower aero panels, alloy pedals, stainless-steel scuff plates and steering-wheel paddle shifters. It also adds HID headlights, LED taillights and Supervision with trip computer.

Options above and beyond standard equipment include a navigation system with rear-backup camera, Infinity audio system, panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel.

Standard safety equipment includes dual front airbags, front side airbags, curtain side airbags, tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes with brake assist, hill start assist, traction control and electronic stability control.

Under the Hood
Like the Sonata, the 2011 Kia Optima is offered only with 4-cylinder power; no V6 is available. The base engine is a direct-injected 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque. Offered in the EX 2.0T and SX trims is a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder that makes 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque. The 2.4-liter engine comes with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission, the latter with manual shift capability. The 2.0T is offered only with the automatic. Fuel-economy ratings are 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway for the 2.4 and 22/34 mpg for the turbocharged 2.0-liter.

Inner Space
The Korean car companies are doing a good job of providing quality interiors these days, and the Optima is no exception. The interior has an impressive look and feel, with quality materials and soft-touch surfaces on the dash pad, door tops and center armrest. Though it doesn't quite achieve luxury-car levels of finish, we see no signs of cost-cutting. The design is thoughtful, too. The center stack is angled 10 degrees toward the driver, bringing all the controls that much closer. Those controls are also easy to spot and they move with precision.

Standard in EX and SX trims is Kia's new UVO system. It provides an interface for phone and entertainment functions using either dashboard controls or simple voice commands. There are 144 core commands, which will take some time to learn, but it works pretty well, providing a hands-free link to iPods and cell phones. It also comes with a standard Jukebox hard drive that can hold about 250 songs. That's a neat feature, but we wish it were bigger. We'd also like UVO to be hooked into the available navigation system, but that's not likely for a year or two.

Interior space is plentiful, as the new design adds 13 cubic feet to cabin volume. Small-items storage is handled by plenty of bins, cupholders and trays to hold life's minutiae. The driver's seat has lots of travel to provide excellent legroom. Headroom will be good for all but the tallest drivers, and a standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps tailor a natural driving position for just about anyone. Rear seat room is impressive, making the Optima useful for families of five or fewer.

The trunk has 15.4 cubic feet of cargo room. That's almost a full cubic foot less than the Sonata. The rear seats do fold, though, so longer items will slide in. However, the bulkhead between the cabin and trunk has a small opening, so bulky boxes might not fit. Folding those seats is also a pain. They must be released from the trunk, and then folded from the back row.

On the Road
Despite its looks, the Optima is not a sporty sedan. It's more of an "everyman" sedan such as the Toyota Camry or Hyundai Sonata, both of which put more emphasis on ride over handling. Like those cars, the Optima rides fairly smoothly, though some suspension settings border on stiff and can cause bumps to disrupt passenger comfort.

The new Optima shares the same platform as the Sonata. While that should translate to improved handling, we found the Optima's to be uninspired. In normal driving, the Optima feels stable and comfortable, but press it and there is more lean in turns and a greater willingness to push through turns -- instead of to rotate -- than we'd expected.

The Optima also feels a little stiffer over bumps than its sister car, but it doesn't feel as if it handles much better. To be fair, Kia made only EX trims available for testing. The SX, with its sport suspension and low-profile 18-inch tires, is probably better controlled, though it may be harsher over bumps.

The Optima's steering is light, but it firms up at highway speeds. It's fairly direct but not very quick, and we would like more road feel. Compared with the Sonata, it feels a little more responsive. Braking in our test run was stable and worry-free.

Thus far, Kia has made only the new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine available for testing. It's the same engine as in the Sonata, and it has good power for its size. The 2.4-liter is smooth for a 4-cylinder and has plenty of power for most everyday needs. It has enough torque down low to get the Optima moving briskly and enough in reserve to make passing relatively easy.

The base engine is also impressively fuel-efficient, delivering 35 mpg on the highway. That's better than all competitors in its class other than the Sonata. A hybrid version, due next year, should improve fuel economy 20 to 25 percent. Those who want to go the other way and opt for power won't give up too much fuel economy. The 2.0-liter turbocharged engine ratings are only 1 mpg lower on the highway and 2 mpg lower in the city. Not bad for an additional 74 horsepower and 81 lb-ft of torque. We are looking forward to driving it.

Right for You?
Kia has yet to announce pricing for the Optima, but it should run close to the Hyundai Sonata's approximately $20,000 price tag, which would put it roughly $2,000 below the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, depending on the trim. That would make the Optima a midsize bargain. Aside from price, the Optima has some strengths that will appeal to families, namely a roomy interior, class-leading fuel economy and a cool new look. It's not as sporty or as controlled as the Honda Accord or Mazda6, though, and the lack of V6 power will be a negative for some buyers.

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BB04 - 8/28/2014 6:20:36 PM