2011 Kia Optima

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Back in the ’70s and ’80s, car journalists got sore arms throwing rhetorical cabbages at American car companies over the practice known as “bad engineering” – reselling the same car twice (the second time at a higher price) under a different label. It was cheesier than Mike Brady’s bell bottoms to learn that your “Cadillac” was really a Chevy – right down to its bowtie drivetrain – but it cost you twice as much.

Hyundai’s doing some badge-engineering these days through its Kia subsidiary – but it’s neither cheesy nor cabbage-worthy.

The new Optima sedan may have some things in common with its Hyundai cousin, the Sonata – but it’s far from being the same car sold twice at a higher price.

WHAT IT IS

The Optima is Kia’s mid-sized front-wheel-drive sedan. It shares a basic underlying platform and engines with the Hyundai Sonata – but it has a completely different exterior and interior, a more Euro-sporty personality – and a lower base price than its Hyundai sibling.

Prices start at $18,995 for an LX with 2.4 liter and six-peed manual transmission and top out at $25,995 for a luxury-sport SX with 2.0 liter turbocharged engine and six-speed automatic.

Compare the Optima with its cousin, the Hyundai Sonata and outside competitors like the Ford Fusion and Honda Accord.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Optima name isn’t new but the rest of the car is; the 2011 is a clean break from the previous car named Optima.

WHAT’S GOOD

Sleek and slick. The F-16 of mid-sized sedans in the $19-$25k price range.

Base engine is already at 200 hp; optional engine makes 274.

And both engines are four-cylinders that also deliver outstanding gas mileage.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Backseat legroom is a tighter than in some competitors. 

Kia’s still working on its rep; though the cars are outstanding many people still reflexively think “Honda” or “Toyota” (or Ford) first.

UNDER THE HOOD

Like the Sonata, the Optima comes with either a non-turbo 2.4 liter four or (optionally) a turbocharged 2.0 liter four.

The standard 2.4 liter engine is one of the strongest non-turbocharged four-cylinder engines on the market, producing a very impressive 200 hp (192 in California) while also delivering an even more impressive 35 MPGs on the highway, 24 in city driving – mileage that’s as good or even better than many economy cars with 50-75 less hp. (For example, a 2011 Honda Civic sedan with a smaller 1.8 liter engine that produces a puny 140 hp still only gets 34 MPGs on the highway –  26 in city driving.)

The 2.4 liter engine is available with either a six-speed manual or (in higher trim versions) a six-speed automatic.

The optional 2.0 liter turbo engine produces 274 hp – which is more hp than most current V-6s with nearly twice the displacement . (For example, Toyota’s 3.5 liter V-6 is rated at 268 hp). But gas mileage with the 2.0 liter engine is still an incredible 34 highway (22 highway) which – again –  is better than most comparably powerful – and much larger – V-6s. (The Camry V-6 is a pig in comparison: 28 highway and 19 city.)

Equipped with this engine, an Optima can shoot to 60 in 6.5 seconds.

All Optimas are front wheel drive.

ON THE ROAD

Maybe KIA is short for kicked its ass – because that’s what the Optima will do to many cars that try to mess with it.

The turbo’d version especially. It has a noticeable turbo kick – something that other automakers have been trying (for reasons I can’t appreciate) to dial out of their turbocharged engines. It’s not a furious, tire-skittering rush like in a Mitsubishi EVO or MazdaSpeed3, but it is there. A slight whistle, too. The boost comes on strong just above 3,000 RPM – and there’s definitely enough on tap to scalp the pavement a little, if you like that. But no torque steer issues, which is amazing given the tremendous output pouring off the crankshaft and going to the front wheels all by themselves. Other high-powered turbo four cars like the EVO and the Soobie WRX modulate the output through AWD. The MazdaSpeed 3 is the only car on the market with similar power on tap that’s also FWD – and it has torque steer issues, fun as it is to drive.

The experience is civilized violence. The Optima will go when you punch it – but it’s not necessary to keep both hands tightly clenched on the wheel, ready to countersteer. This is in keeping with its more adult demeanor. The Optima is more Audi-like than rowdy frat-boy hot rods like the EVO, WRX or MazdaSpeed3.

But just because it graduated, don’t think it can’t still party.

Don’t forget the standard Optima, either. 200 hp (and a six-speed stick) is solid – especially for under $19k.

Just for some perspective, an Audi A4 (and yes, the comparison is fair) has a turbo’d 2.0 liter engine but its output is only 211 hp – while its MSRP is $32,300.

AT THE CURB

The Optima looks sleek – and low to the ground.

And it is.

At 57.3 inches, the Optima sits about half an inch closer to the pavement than its Hyundai Sonata cousin. It’s also slightly longer, nose to tail (190.7 inches vs. 189.8). Longer and lower – plus some very crisply pleated sheetmetal (with BMW M-like fender vents), rakish front, rear and side glass plus an available oversized smoked black glass panorama sunroof – put distance, style-wise, between the Optima and its more formal-looking Hyundai relation.

Even though these two cars share the same basic platform and chassis, they are very different looking cars.

It’s like back in the 1970s when GM sold the Chevy Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird. Both cars shared the same platform, but their sheetmetal was unique to each car, with the ‘Bird being slinkier looking than its Chevy stablemate.

It’s a similar deal inside; you’d never know these cars – Optima and Sonata – sprang from the same source. The dash layout, the shape of the console, the controls – unique to each model.

The Optima has a more Euro-look. It reminded me a lot of current Audis – especially the spread of the dash, with individually stitched sections and the center stack with its very Audi-ish buttons – while the Sonata’s cabin/dash layout is closer in theme to current Lexus and Infiniti designs.

Among the high-end (and Audi-like) equipment you can get in the Optima: Multi-stage seat heaters and coolers, with large, ergonomically designed buttons for these on the center console – and an available Technology Package that adds a high-fiedelity eight speaker Infinity sound system bundled with GPS and LCD display and driver information system. Order the Premium package and you’ll get a heated steering wheel, too.

And you’ll still be under $30k. Lexus, eat your heart out – and watch out! The Koreans are about to do to you what you did to Benz back in the ’90s… . 

There are some downsides, though.

The Optima’s got a smaller trunk (15.4 cubic feet) than the Sonata (16.4 cubic feet) and there’s a bit less hip room (54.6 inches vs. 55.2 inches), though front and rear seat legroom is virtually identical in both cars. More important, both the Kia and its Hyundai cousin have a lot more front seat legroom – 45.5 inches – than competitors like the Ford Fusion (42.3 inches) and Honda Accord 42.5 inches) though backseat riders will pay the price for this.

There’s only 34.6 inches of rear seat legroom in the Optima vs. 37.1 in the Fusion and 37.2 in the Accord.

THE REST

Though the Optima’s a looker, what’s most impressive about it is the car’s brilliant power-to-gas-mileage ratio. Both engines, but especially the optional turbocharged 2.0 liter engine. Mid-30s on the highway from an engine that produces 274 hp is an achievement that deserves effusive hand clapping. 

For a bit more perspective on this, consider the Ford Fusion – overall a very nice car and a potential Optima competitor. The base engine in the 2011 Fusion is a 2.5 liter four that makes 175 hp – about 100 hp less than the Optima’s smaller 2.0 liter engine – yet the Ford’s 2.4 liter engine is less fuel efficient than the Kia’s 2.0 liter engine, rating a so-so (in comparison) 32 highway.

The Fusion’s top-of-the-line engine (for which you’ll pay the big bucks) is a 3.5 liter V-6 that’s almost twice the size of the Kia’s 2.0 liter engine but it still doesn’t make more power (263 hp) and it gets noticeably worse gas mileage (27 highway, 18 city).

Granted, you can get all-wheel-drive in the Fusion – a feature that’s not available in the Optima. But if you want very high power without very large gas bills, the Kia is hard to top.

Also hard to top – impossible to top – is the Optima’s confidence inspiring warranty package. The whole car is covered for five years/60,000 miles and the engine/transmission for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Ford is still peddling a shaky three year/36,000 mile basic warranty and is only willing to extend its coverage on the engine/transmission to five-years or  60,000 miles.

Same with the Japanese Big Names (Honda and Toyota).

Five  years after you’d be 100 percent on your own with those cars, Kia’s still got you covered on the biggies for another five years – twice as long. 

Keep in mind that car companies don’t pull their warranty numbers out their asses. They’re based on very careful internal research as to what is likely to fail – and when it is likely to fail. If it’s covered, it’s a good bet the part is probably not going to crap out on you during the warranty period.

And if it’s no longer covered… well, that’s what they call in law enforcement circles a “clue.”

Caveat emptor.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It’s not easy writing 1,500 words about a car that has almost no flaws without sounding like you work for the company that built it. But I swear no one from Kia sent me a check to write this 1,500 word pat on the back for the Optima.

This car speaks for itself.

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