The 2007 Kia Optima is for all intents and purposes an all-new car, thoroughly revised from the tires up (though an arcane federal regulation required that a handful were sold as 2006.5 models). It's one of the best Korean-designed automobiles yet. Like most cars in the ultra-competitive field of mid-size sedans, the Optima offers a choice of four-cylinder or V6 power in a front-wheel drive chassis.
The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder is strong, particularly with the manual transmission. Both the four-cylinder and upgrade 2.7-liter V6 are more efficient than the engines in pre-2007 models, and a new five-speed automatic improves fuel economy, acceleration and overall smoothness. EPA mileage ratings have improved roughly 10 percent compared to the 2006 Optima.
Inside, solid design, more attractive materials and improved fit and finish make the Optima a pleasant place to spend time. The standard six-speaker audio system is not bad at all; the upgrade in the Optima EX is tuned by Infinity, with a standard six-CD changer. A longer body and taller roof create more room inside. As importantly, a new, more rigid chassis delivers an overall tightness and smoothness Korean brands lacked just a few years ago.
Add a slightly longer wheelbase, improved suspension and larger standard wheels and tires, and the 2007 Optima is also quite pleasant to drive in nearly all circumstances.
Optima is priced aggressively, beating just about everything in the class without stripping conveniences. Standard passive safety features, including curtain-style head protection airbags for all outboard seats, match the class benchmark.
Kia's quality has steadily and significantly improved, according to customer satisfaction surveys, and the Optima's warranty is one of the best available.
All things considered, the Optima still falls short of the best-selling mid-sized sedans in certain, mostly subtle ways. But those shortcomings are fewer than ever before, and many are so subtle that budget-minded buyers may not notice or care. Bottom line, the Optima is a good car at a compelling price.
Kia Optima LX 5M ($16,355); LX 5A ($17,650); LX V6 ($19,345); EX ($19,395); EX V6 ($20,400)
The Optima's face to the world 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, which is smoothly molded into a one-piece fascia. Creases defining a gentle hood bulge draw the eye from the grille to the pillars at the sides of the windshield. The Optima's stance looks solid, with tires pushed to the corners to yield a track (distance between the tires side to side) 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 Optima could pass for, well, pick a middle-of-the-road, midsize car. A tape measure produces the same conclusion. Optima's wheelbase essentially splits the differences between the Chevrolet Malibu, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion, although it's shorter by more than two inches compared to the 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. 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 end strongly reminds us of a larger iteration of a Toyota Corolla built a decade or so ago. It's a balanced look, with clean and reasonably tight gaps and a fully integrated, molded-in bumper. Dual exhaust tips give of touch of visual pizzazz to the V6 Optimas.
If price were not the paramount consideration, we'd choose the optional 17-inch wheels. They fill the wheel wells more tightly and enhance the Optima's aggressively wide stance.
Instruments are basic but well presented, mixing a large, round speedometer and matching tachometer with bar-graph LED fuel and coolant temperature monitors. The Appearance Package adds 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 vents at each end of the dash and bracketing the center control panel. The climate controls are a paragon of finger- and glove-friendly knobs and buttons and an 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 climate panel below. Station presets, for example, are ganged, two to a rocker, requiring extra care to press the proper half for the desired station. An almost retro but welcome feature on the EX audio system is a cassette tape player, popular for books on tape. The uplevel aluminum trim should prove better at resisting the scratches common on coated plastic panels. There aren't a lot of pieces to the dash, either, and the seams 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 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. The 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.
Space? Rear seat legroom is up by fully an inch and a half over the 2006 Optima. It's better by an inch or so than the Accord and Fusion, but shy of the Malibu and Camry by a half-inch or more. In headroom, front and rear, the Optima tops all but the Accord, and loses here by only half an inch. In rear seat hiproom, the Optima reigns supreme, by at least an inch. Finally, while the 2007 Optima offers 1.2 cubic feet more trunk space than its predecessor, total volume of 14.8 cubic feet ranks near the bottom of the class. 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. On the positive side, articulated, gas-strut hinges leave the trunk opening clear and free of package-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; two cupholders 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 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 levels for power cords. One feature that looks promising but falls short is the little fold-out clip on the front passenger's
The LX with the 161-horsepower, 2.4-liter, 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-class 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 in our view more pleasant, than we're used to from four-cylinder powerplants in mid-size sedans.
The EX with the 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter V6 and automatic is the cruiser of the Optima line. Although its power trails other V6s in the segment (as does its size, so no real surprise here), it does a decent job of getting the car started and keeping it moving. The Optima's modest curb weight, a hundred pounds or so below the segment average, helps somewhat, but we still wouldn't race for pinks with any comparably equipped competitor. Only against 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 sell most is the EX with four cylinder and automatic, so this is the model in which we spent the most time and on which we racked up several hundred miles of typical, everyday driving. It doesn't seem as quick in terms of acceleration as 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.
Ride quality varied between the cars we drove. The LX, wearing Kumho tires on 16-inch wheels, was 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. On the Optima, the optional 17-inch wheels wear 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, 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.
The original Optima made a statement: Kia wants to be a contender. The second-generation 2007 Optima delivers. Its engines are not the most powerful in the competitive mid-size class, but in other important ways, the Optima is every bit as good as any equally equipped, direct competitor. It's as solid, comfortable, quiet, as well built, and as economical. And feature for feature, it costs substantially less than all of them. It's a deal.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Yountville, California.