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2006 Kia Optima Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2006 Kia Optima

Tom Lankard
© 2006

Kia continues to climb upmarket, and the introduction of the new 2006.5 Kia Optima is a primary example.

This newest Optima features new engines that are more powerful and more efficient than before, and a new five-speed automatic transmission that offers improved smoothness, efficiency and acceleration performance. Highway fuel economy has been improved by as much as 10 percent over the previous-generation Optima.

Higher quality materials and improved fit and finish create a more comfortable interior. More powerful and fully featured audio selections entertain and soothe during trying drives. A lengthened body and higher roof add roominess. A new platform with a longer wheelbase and updated suspension combine with larger wheels and tires to deliver a smoother ride and more responsive handling.

It's priced aggressively, too, with the manufacturer's suggested retail price for the base LX model a mere $160 more than its predecessor, and that's with the addition of important safety features. The uplevel EX model's MSRP jumps $1500, but again, this is with the new safety features, added creature comforts and improved sound deadening.

Two important accident-avoidance features, antilock brakes and electronic stability control, are available only as options, but are remarkably affordable.

The competition hasn't stood still, of course. And at some levels, like on the top rungs of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry lines, even this newest Optima doesn't pretend to belong. But it's still a marked step up from its predecessor and as such, a very impressive package.

A cautionary note, however, regarding our repeated use of the word newest. For a while, there are likely to be two different Optimas in dealer showrooms labeled as 2006 models. One is the final iteration of the first-generation Optima. The other, and the one that's the subject of this review, is the first of the second-generation. Kia nominally calls this latter Optima a 2006.5 model, although it is, in fact if not officially, the 2007 Optima. This confusing overlap results from an arcane U.S. government regulation rooted in the yesteryear of automotive time when all new models appeared in showrooms in the fall of the preceding calendar year. Thus, if a U.S.-specification car today is first built in, say, the fall of 2005, as this Optima was in South Korea, it cannot legally be designated a 2007 model car. And for some silly reason, officials at the Korean companies actually think the year starts on January 1 and ends December 31.

Boiled down, the message here is, make sure you're looking at the new version as it's substantially improved over the outgoing version.

Model Lineup

Kia Optima LX 5M ($16,355); LX 5A ($17,650); LX 5A V6 ($19,345); EX ($19,395); EX V6 ($20,400)

Walk Around

The new Kia Optima doesn't stretch any styling envelope or add to automotive design vocabulary. It does, however, slip smoothly and unobtrusively into the mainstream of the mid-size, mid-price sedan segment.

What the design community would call the Optima's face could be that of any number of Asian-branded cars. A cleanly separated, geometrically proportioned grille fills the space between nicely sized headlights tucked into the upper corners of the fenders. A deeply shadowed air intake with space at each end for the optional fog lamps runs the width of the car beneath the bumper molded into the one-piece fascia. Creases defining a gentle hood bulge draw the eye from the grille to the A-pillars at the sides of the windshield. Stance is solid, with tires pushed to the corners to yield almost an inch wider track (distance between the tires side to side) than the previous Optima and equal to or better than the primary competitors, save the 2007 Camry, which it trails by a mere half-inch.

In side view, save for a hint of Audi in the hindmost quarter, the newest Optima could pass for, well, pick a middle-of-the-road, midsize car. And not only in looks, but by the tape measure, as well, with a wheelbase (the distance between the wheels front to rear) that essentially splits the differences between the 2006 Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion, although shorter by more than two inches than the '07 Camry. In overall length (bumper to bumper), however, the Optima leans toward the tauter end of the scale, giving up from three to five inches to the others, although a comparatively deep rear side door tends to mask this brevity.

Oddly enough, in terms of taillight shapes and overall perspective, the Optima's rear aspect strongly reminds us of a larger iteration of a Toyota Corolla of a decade or so ago. It's a balanced look, with clean and reasonably tight gaps and a fully integrated, molded-in bumper. Rear track is wider, too, more than an inch from the previous year and now within tenths of an inch of most of the competition, adding to the newest Optima's more planted look. Dual exhaust tips give of touch of visual pizzazz to the V6 Optimas.


While there's nothing especially striking about the new Kia Optima's exterior, the inside shows the occasional, if muted, spark.

Instruments are basic but well presented, mixing a large, round speedometer and matching tachometer with horizontal, bar graph-like, LED fuel and engine coolant monitors. The Appearance Package brings a blue-tinted, faux electroluminescent speedo and tach that, while not quite Lexus grade, are nevertheless eye-pleasing upgrades.

Hard plastic trim sweeps smoothly across from door handle to door handle, with good-sized vent registers at each end of the dash and bracketing the center control panel. The climate control panel is a paragon of finger- and glove-friendly knobs and buttons and easy-to-read digital display. The stereo head is up top, where it belongs, but other than the volume and tuning knobs, the buttons and rocker switches fall short of the ease-of-use standard set by the panel below; station presets, for example, are ganged, two to a rocker, requiring extra care to press the proper half for the desired station. A curious, almost retro, but somehow welcome feature on the EX's audio system is a cassette tape player, popular for books on tape. The uplevel aluminum trim should prove better at resisting the scratches so common on coated plastic panels. There aren't a lot of pieces to the dash, either, and what seams there are mostly run horizontally. This should suppress tendencies for the pieces to loosen over time, which bodes well for keeping buzzes, squeaks and rattles minimized.

The driver's seat is more supportive than the front passenger's seat, with a deeper seat bottom, although both are comfortable, with good upper side bolsters and modestly cupped bottom cushions. The rear seat is contoured more than many in the segment, which is fine for the two sitting closest to the doors, but not so fine for the occasional third person buckled into the center position. Cloth upholstery feels durable, the not-quite-glove-soft leather equally so. Lights for the vanity mirrors are recessed in the headliner, instead of looking you straight in the eye from the visor.

Rear seat legroom is up by fully an inch and a half over the previous Optima, and better by an inch or so than the Accord and Fusion but shy of the Malibu and 2007 Camry by a half-inch or more. In headroom, front and rear, the new Optima tops all but the Accord and loses to the Honda by only half an inch. In front seat hiproom, and despite losing almost half an inch in overall width, the new Optima still betters the Fusion and the Malibu, the latter by more than an inch and a half, but comes up a tenth of an inch short of the Accord and Camry. But in rear seat hiproom, the Optima reigns supreme, by at least an inch. Finally, while the new Optima offers 1.2 cubic feet more trunk space than its predecessor, it betters only the Accord's 14 cubic feet, giving up a fraction of a cubic foot to the Malibu and Camry and a full cubic foot to the Fusion. Articulated, gas-strut hinges leave the trunk opening clear and free of grocery bag-crushing goosenecks.

Other storage is respectable, with a glove box easily large enough to accommodate gloves plus the owner's manual, a cell phone and a radar detector; magazine pouches on the back sides of the front seatbacks; four cup holders, two in front and two in the fold-down rear center armrest, all with spring-loaded clips to brace a variety of sizes and shapes; a covered slot in the center stack good for garage door remotes and such; a smallish bin forward of the shift lever that'll likely collect as much dust and detritus as any truly necessary tidbits; fixed, hard-plastic map pockets in the front doors; and a deep center console with auxiliary power point and a groove to accommodate a cord with the top latched. On the EX, this console bin is capped with a bi-level lid, thoughtfully fitted with a pass-through between the levels for power cords. One featu

Driving Impressions

With a few reservations and qualifications, a day behind the wheel of the new Kia Optima is a pleasant way to cover some miles.

The LX with the four-cylinder engine and manual transmission can actually be fun to drive, if not necessarily exhilarating. The engine is surprisingly peppy, thanks to the best-in-segment torque. Brake pedal feel on the car we drove at the press introduction was solid and firm, with equally comforting response from the four-wheel discs. The clutch and gearbox were more family-sedan grade than sporty. The steering felt a little light, almost too responsive, which tended to give the car a top-heavy feel; once recognized, though, it was easily managed. Engine and exhaust sounds were throatier, more robust, and therefore more pleasant, than we're used to from four-cylinder powerplants.

The EX with V6 and automatic is the cruiser of the Optima line. Although its power trails other V6s in the segment (as does the size of the engine, so no real surprise here), it does a decent job of getting the car started and keeping it moving. The car's modest curb weight, a hundred pounds or so below the segment's average, helps somewhat, but we still wouldn't race for pinks with any comparably equipped competitor. And only against the Fusion and the Accord would we wager our gas bills. But for getting from here to there, be it to work or to the lake for the weekend, calmly and comfortably, this is the one.

The package Kia expects to be the best seller is the EX with four cylinder and automatic, and this is the model with which we spent the most time and on which we racked up several hundred miles of normal, everyday use. It doesn't seem as quick in terms of acceleration as with the manual, but gear ratios are matched to make the most of the engine's power. Left alone, the automatic's shifts are smooth, if not invisible, and while downshifts for quick passes could be more prompt, we never scared ourselves, or our passengers. The Sportmatic feature allowed more control over gear selection and timing of shifts, but with the dedicated, sequential slot on the passenger side of the shift gate, using it wasn't as intuitive as it should be. The shift pattern feels natural, however, with higher gears selected by pushing up, lower gears by pulling down.

Ride quality varied between the cars we drove, with the LX wearing the Kumho tires on 16-inch wheels the less compliant, although by no means rough or bumpy. This surprised us, as generally the taller a tire's sidewall, the more give and the better the ride, and on the Optima, the 17-inch wheels wear the lower-profile Michelin tires with shorter sidewalls. On the other hand, and probably because of the sidewall height, the EX delivered the crisper, more responsive handling. This isn't to imply the EX is a sports sedan, given its forward-weight bias and comfort-oriented suspension settings, but merely that it's the more enjoyable of the two models.

Overall, against a comparably outfitted and priced Malibu, Fusion, Accord or Camry, the newest Optima is competitive in terms of ride and handling and comfort. Accord and Camry models at the higher end of those lines surpass the Optima in suppressing and filtering wind and road noise, but only barely, and, for the most part, in ride and handling as well.

The first Optima made a statement: Kia wants to be a contender. The second-generation Optima, this one, delivers. Although its engines are not the most powerful in the segment, in other important ways, the Optima is every bit as good as any equally equipped, direct competitor. It's as solid, as comfortable, as quiet, as well built, and as economical. Especially that last one, the major measure: price. What a deal. correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Yountville, California.

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