Review: 2011 Kia Optima EX

By Chris Haak

The midsize sedan segment is the true heart of the US market.  Aside from full-size pickups, no segment in the US sells more vehicles than does the one that features such heavy hitters as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, and…Kia Optima.

Wait.  Kia Optima?  You mean the one that looks like a 2001 Honda Accord?

Actually, the Kia Optima is all-new for 2011, sharing its platform and powertrains with its cousin, the Hyundai Sonata.  While the Hyundai version embraces organic shapes and the four-door coupe look, the Optima adopts a sophisticated European-looking take on the traditional three-box midsize sedan.  The result is a car that impresses on a number of levels.

I’d love to see what Kia design chief Peter Schreyer could do, given a completely blank canvas and told to design whatever kind of car he wanted to.  Seeing him do a rear wheel drive car, with their better proportions, would be interesting, at least.  Perhaps he’ll get that opportunity with the forthcoming Genesis-based K9 concept set to make its auto show debut soon. Unlike more established brands that have a heritage to draw from – which can be both a blessing and a curse – those who have designed the current Kia lineup under Schreyer’s leadership have had the benefit of throwing away Kia’s forgettable, copycat past and forging their new path.

My first impression of the 2011 Optima, when I saw it at an auto show, was that it had a European style, possibly cribbing a few design cues from the likes of Audi (where Schreyer cut his teeth) and Saab. I noticed details such as the aggressively-tapering roofline and that portions of the dash were wrapped in leather.

The resulting automobile looks like really nothing else on the road.  That’s not to say it’s perfect; though not a fault of the car’s designers, the front overhang is immense in both the Optima and in the Sonata.  Blame safety features and crumple zones if you will, but just looking under the hood, nearly the entire powertrain is in front of the wheels, and though the Optima’s designers tried a few tricks to hide that fact (like sweeping back the headlamps and cutting away the front corners), you can’t hide the fact that there’s a lot of Optima past the front wheels.

Now that I’ve had the benefit of spending over 500 miles in the Optima, I walked away from the car impressed, wishing I had the Optima Turbo to review, and scratching my head to figure out just how Kia can sell this car for what it does.

The interior is a curious, yet mostly pleasing mix of shapes and materials.  All controls and instruments are driver-centric, with the radio, HVAC, and navigation controls all canted toward the driver.  My Ebony Black test car had an interior that was trimmed in light gray leather with a dark gray upper dash and center stack.  The interior makes a great first impression with upscale stitching on the seats, and soft-touch material on the upper dashboard.  In addition, there is roughly a two inch border finished in faux stitched leather surrounding the instrument panel and center stack that lends an upscale feel to the interior.  Tasteful dark-finished wood trim on the door panels and next to the gearshift, plus sparingly-applied chrome accents around various knobs and controls.

There are, however, a few things to gripe about inside.  The front seats could be called “hard” rather than “firm,” and their bottoms are somewhat flat.  The rear seat is spacious, and has decent headroom despite the car’s “coupe-like” roofline, but some of that headroom comes at the price of a low bottom cushion.

Though the Optima’s center stack is not as button-heavy as Hondas are, there doesn’t appear to have been much thought given to the layout of the buttons.  In particular, the buttons below the navigation screen control audio and navigation functions, but not all of the like-functions are grouped together.  There are navigation buttons fraternizing with audio buttons, and that requires a longer-than-expected glance at their labels, even after having a week and over 500 miles to orient myself to the car’s controls.

So, there are a lot of buttons, but on the bright side, they all have a nicely-damped action and feel like they’re made of better-quality plastic.  Even the turn signal and wiper stalks have a consistent, high-quality feel about them.  In EX trim, the Optima has a comprehensive set of features. My Premium Package ($2,250)-equipped tester had a panoramic sunroof, memory driver’s seat, heated and cooled front seats, and a heated steering wheel.  A heated steering wheel in a $27,000 car is somewhat remarkable; the last car I drove that had one was the $76,714 Lexus LS 460 Sport.  I loved the feature in the Lexus, but I drove the Lexus in the winter.  In the Optima, it’s great to have, but the location of the switch took me days to find (and yes, I looked in the manual).  It’s hidden on the left side of the steering column, and I only noticed it when I was taking photos of the car.  A final ergonomic foible that I noticed was that the heat/ventilation controls for the front seats were oddly placed front-and-back of one another.  The forward switch operated the driver seat’s temperature, and the rearward switch operated the passenger seat’s.  Since the seats are side-by-side, why not install the controls with the same orientation?

Overhead, the Premium Package gives a gorgeous panoramic glass roof, which is nearly invisible from the outside on black cars like my test vehicle.  The panoramic roof also isn’t available on the Sonata.  The glass is split just over the front headrests, and the front portion can motor up and over the rear section for a taste of open-air motoring.  There’s a fabric sunshade that opens and closes with the same switch that opens the glass.  In theory, the sunshade and glass each have separate detents so that the shade can be opened and closed without opening the roof, but in practice, most times I ended up opening the glass when I didn’t intend to.  Tapping the switch again in the same direction stops the movement, but the roof and shade frustrated me several times.

Available for $2,000, the Technology Package provides a navigation system, backup camera, and eight Infinity speakers.  Aside from the haphazard button placement, the nav system was easy to use and had a fairly sharp screen resolution.  It’s annoying to have to agree to the legalese every time you start the car, though – nearly every OEM shows the message, but many also automatically cancel it after a period of time has passed.  But if you don’t turn on the map for the first half hour of your drive, then go to it at that point in the Optima, you have to press Agree (to what I’m agreeing, I have no idea) before you get the map.

The stereo sounds good, and the fact that you can listen to satellite, iPod, iPhone, streaming Pandora from an iPhone over Bluetooth, plus CD/AM/FM means that the Optima brings great flexibility as far as in-car entertainment.  There are two large 12-volt (cigarette lighter-style) jacks at the base of the center console for a radar detector or portable DVD player; the latter could be placed on the center console lid, wedged between the front seatbacks, and the preschoolers behind us were eerily quiet.

We’ve beaten the car’s design and interior to death, so let’s talk about the experience behind the wheel.  After all, cars are made for driving.

Despite sharing a platform and major mechanical components (platform, engine, transmission, wheelbase, and width–though the Optima is 0.1 inches wider) and most interior dimensions are within a fraction of an inch, the Optima has firmer suspension tuning than its crooked-H cousin.  While the Hyundai leans more toward the comfort side of the spectrum, the Kia definitely transmits more of the road’s textures to occupants’ rear ends.  In most cases, I prefer a car with firmer suspension, but I found the Optima to be almost firm-for-the-sake-of-being-firm, as opposed to firm-for-the-sake-of-superior-handling.  I’m not well-versed on the high points and low points of Nexen tires (which the Optima EX I reviewed was equipped with, in the 17 inch size), but methinks that “off brand” all-season tires may not exactly be helping bolster the Optima EX’s handling chops.  The suspension’s firm tuning means that over smaller road imperfections, “clomping” sounds sometimes make their way into the cabin.

The steering in the Optima EX has some nice heft to it.  With the front Nexen tires being asked to steer, brake, and accelerate, it’s not reasonable to expect superior handling.  There’s more body roll than you might expect given the firm springs.  Kia has made big strides in most areas of its products over the past few years, but perhaps they need a bit more work in the suspension tuning lab.  Not a deal-breaker, to be sure, but something that could be probably easily addressed with the right focus.  The Optima EX’s brake pedal is reasonably firm and, despite me probably never taking the car beyond 6/10ths, held up their end of the deal.

Historically, Kia has offered a single selling point: value for the dollar.  Though the Optima is closer to the price of other better-selling entrants in this competitive segment today, it’s also probably a superior offering, now adding excellent fuel efficiency (the EPA says 24 city/34 highway; I say that low-30s are possible on the Interstate, and mid-twenties are a likely outcome in mixed driving), and arguably the best-looking car with the best-looking interior in its segment.  That the car also throws down more standard horsepower than any other car in its class will make this car even more attractive to potential buyers.

But regarding value:  the mid-level Optima EX starts at $22,495, and for that price (which does not include the $695 destination charge), you get leather, 17 inch alloy wheels, six-speaker stereo with Sirius, Bluetooth, six airbags, a power driver’s seat, pushbutton start, and more.  As mentioned earlier, my tester had the EX Premium Package ($2,250) and also had the Technology Package ($2,000), which includes navigation system with backup camera and an eight-speaker Infinity audio system.  The final tally was $27,440.  According to TrueDelta.com, that undercuts the Sonata SE by nearly $2,000 when accounting for equipment differences.  It also is a staggering $3,641 less expensive than an Accord EX-L 2.4 liter when normalizing equipment differences.  Given that it’s a fresher, more modern design and has a much nicer interior than the Accord does, the Optima makes a compelling argument for buyers to give it serious consideration.

The Optima does nearly everything well:  it’s spacious, reasonably comfortable, packed with the latest infotainment technology that buyers today are demanding, and gets very good fuel economy.  With a little work on a few details, and some adjustment to the handling and refinement, Kia may be just a few tweaks away from setting the standard in the high-volume midsize sedan segment.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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2 Comments

  1. You know, I’ve often wondered the same thing about the South Korean’s pricing … Is there something going on regarding the value of the won?

  2. @Charles Krome:

    Hyundai/Kia dealers average less on each sale. MSRP and Invoice pricing are also much closer than some of the other manufacturers.

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