Despite a thorough redesign just two years ago the 2009 Kia Optima receives significant updates: updated styling, new features and packaging, more powerful and more economical powertrains, and a new SX version.
The 2009 Optima is three inches longer than its predecessor and, with restyling front and rear, comes across as much sleeker. The new SX model features 17-inch wheels, a recalibrated suspension, blacked-out front trim, aluminum interior trim and leather/cloth upholstery.
Other notable news includes a standard audio system with MP3 capability, iPod and USB inputs and Sirius satellite radio with three-month subscription. Voice-recognition navigation is available.
The front-wheel-drive Optima offers a choice of four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine, each of which ranks near top of its class for fuel efficiency. We like the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder; rated at 175 horsepower, it's among the strongest in the class with and gets an EPA-rated 22/32 City/Highway miles per gallon. The 2.7-liter V6 is smoother and slightly more powerful with 194 hp and earns an EPA-estimated 20/28 mpg.
Optima is less rounded than the average sedan so it has plenty of headroom and a light and airy cabin. The high-volume EX model won't leave you wanting for more features, and every Optima includes six airbags and stability control.
The Optima plays in a contested market that includes the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Mitsubishi Galant, Chevy Malibu, Dodge Avenger, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy, and sister-car Hyundai Sonata. The Subaru has all-wheel drive standard and it's optional on the Fusion and Avenger, while the Camry, Fusion, Altima and Malibu offer hybrid versions.
All the competition offer more powerful V6 engines. However, only the heavier Altima and Accord have a more powerful four-cylinder engine, only the Sonata can match Kia's long standard warranty, only the Altima can match Optima's EPA ratings, and the Optima is the least expensive.
By nature mid-size family sedans have conservative styling and in this respect the Kia Optima fits right in. It won't attract undue attention from law enforcement or thieves, nor will it attract any criticism regarding appearance or finish.
Optima's styling leans more to convention than cutting edge, with a near-level shoulder character line from front lights to rear and none of the elliptical window and roof lines becoming ever more popular. A rib section below the doors to add style and deflect debris is cleanly integrated. The roof is relatively flat, yielding a decent-size sunroof, headroom all around, and rear side door openings you don't have to duck under to get in. Broad expanses of glass front and rear add spaciousness and improve outward visibility. And the flat trunk lid means an opening large enough to avoid contortions loading large suitcases or awkward cargo.
In keeping with that the tail is clean and uncluttered. Tail lights do what they should without looking to jet into the 22nd century; signals are red and to avoid confusion by following drivers they don't share a bulb with the brake lights. The tailpipes on V6 models exit straight rearward in bumper cutouts.
A continuous curve marking the front bumper comes across as a smile and mimics the aerial-view curve of the leading edges of the hood and fenders. The smooth wraparound lamp housings with projector low-beams remind us of earlier Acura TSX and TL models and Kia's newest design language seen on the Forte. The black sections above the fog lamps in the lower outboard grilles don't look like bumpers but they do protrude very slightly and will take the brunt of any close-quarter scrapes and save some paint bills.
Side mirrors are rectangular, the same general shape as most of the vehicles you will see in them. They fold narrower than the car and have signal repeaters on the outer edges; misjudge a garage or toll booth opening and that will be the most vulnerable point. Large door handles are easy to grab for anyone and chrome (EX) doesn't suffer ring and fingernail scratches quite like paint. Simple six-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels on our example match the mission ideally, easy to clean (no sand, salt, or snow buildup pockets) and don't stick out beyond the tire sidewall where they're prone to scuffing.
SX models get the usual visual upgrades for sporty models with a black mesh grille and blacked-out headlight housings, and painted alloy wheels.
Compared to the sedans in this segment the Optima has the shortest wheelbase and the shortest overall length, typically by just an inch or two, but has among the widest tracks (distance between left and right side wheels) in its class. Optima is also the lightest car in its class; less weight translates to better acceleration and fuel economy, all other factors being equal.
Kia Optima is compact on the outside but large on the inside, suggesting an space-efficient design. Despite its relatively small outside dimensions, the Kia Optima trails only the Nissan Altima in front legroom among eight popular sedans and is mid-pack or better for other measurements, the delta usually a fraction of an inch. When comparing Kia Optima vs. Honda Accord (classified a Large Car by the EPA), the big Accord clearly leads the pack in front headroom and rear shoulder room, but the Optima measures more legroom front and rear.
Optima LX comes with cloth upholstery, Optima EX with perforated leather. Optima SX features woven inserts on black leather and aluminum trim around the shifter and center switch panel, metal pedals, and a revised instrument display (same data) called Supervision. The leather appears rugged and long wearing rather than supple and baby soft, and a similar material covers upper door panels and armrests. Upper interior panels are black to minimize reflections. EX trim such as door handles is a titanium color. Lower doors and trim pieces are hard plastic, easy to clean, not the nicest to touch, and wholly appropriate for the market and price.
The front seats are thick and supportive, a few might say aggressive on lumbar support and offer a relatively high seating position even with the cushion as low as it goes. The driver's seat on the EX is eight-way power adjustable. Power-adjustable pedals and four-way power for the passenger seat are optional. There's plenty of headroom for this arrangement, even with a moonroof, and an excellent view in all directions; those who like the armored-car cocoon sensation of a Chrysler 300 or Hummer will not feel quite so comfortable.
The rear seat is nicely contoured in the outer positions. Foot room under the front seats allows the Optima to accommodate four six-foot passengers with ease; the rear center seat position has sufficient padding but the raised profile makes it best for kids. The substantial rear center armrest has cupholders and storage, with small bins in the doors for MP3 players or phones. There are assist handles and seatback pockets on both sides, a coat hook on the driver side, optional rear sunshade, and the rear side windows roll all the way down. Seatbelt buckles are mounted to short belts (rather than rigidly anchored) so they move aside and allow those with a waist larger than 28 inches to avoid sitting with the buckle wedged in their backside. The rear doors open with sufficient space to put a size 13 boot between seat and door post, so most will enter and exit the back seats easily.
The tilt and telescoping steering wheel on all Optima automatics has audio controls on the left and cruise on the right; on most it is covered in leather like the shift handle which makes the plastic handbrake stand out. The console houses a bin under the armrest, cupholders, gated shift lever, and a well ahead with aux/iPod/USB inputs. More stowage is found in the glovebox, door pockets, a CD wallet-size covered space below the climate controls, and a hook for a purse or grocery bag on the right side of the center console.
Inset shaded luminescent gauges with white numerals and red needles are easily read and give speed, engine rpm and temperature, and fuel level. The central display, handles odometer, gear, and trip computer data that includes outside temperature. Instrument lighting is not adjustable without lights on, and all switchgear, including those on the steering wheel and audio inputs but not the mirror and power lock switch, are illuminated.
Two large vents frame the stereo controls; cars with navigation use this space and integrate the audio. Operation of the audio, navigation and automatic climate control is simple. We found the air conditioning system dealt with triple digit heat quickly and without excessive fan speeds and noise. As with many cars, if you wear polarized sunglasses wear them on a test drive to ensure they work with the various digital and map displays.
Oft-used controls are on steering-column stalks, lights on the left and wash/wipe on the right. The switch panel on the left dash has stability control, dash lights and the power adjustable pedals.
Overhead are lit visor vanity mirrors, map lights, sunglasses holder and sunroof controls with separate buttons for tilt and slide functions. The moonroof shade stayed in position even during hard acceleration and braking which can't be said for many more expensive cars.
Trunk space and access are typical for the class. The split rear seat folds narrow-side behind the driver but does not make a full-length flat load floor. The only thing a load might get caught on are the seatback releases at the top corners. A temporary spare tire is under the floor. Cargo nets and organizers are available. The trunk can be opened by a key in case your remote battery dies and you don't want to open the door first. Optima's 15-cubic-foot trunk betters that of the big Accord and the Galant, virtually matches the Camry and Malibu, and trails the Fusion by 0.8 cubic feet and the Mazda6 by twice that.
The Kia Optima comes with a choice engines, a four-cylinder or a V6.
The four-cylinder Optima has more than enough power for virtually any occasion and is quicker than most in its class. Kia Optima's four-cylinder engine has essentially the same power vs. the Honda Accord and nearly the same vs. the Nissan Altima, both larger, heavier cars. Optima posts better EPA ratings than anything else in class, the Altima one better in the city and one behind on the highway. Our mileage averaged 26-28 mpg.
The least expensive Optima comes with a five-speed manual gearbox that's easy to use and gets the best out of the four-cylinder engine. The five-speed automatic does that too, though it is programmed like everything else to upshift as soon as possible to save fuel. Driving habits will vary fuel economy far more than the choice of transmission.
An aggressive throttle tip-in is the only negative in the drive. We found the accelerator very sensitive. It applies significant power with just a light touch of the pedal, producing three characteristics: first, smooth takeoffs require some concentration that will become second nature over time; second, it is harder to modulate steady cruising speed and we used cruise control more than usual; and third, the sensitivity makes it downshift and upshift frequently on mild grades, where it is best to downshift one gear manually for the best smoothness. This is a complaint we have with a fair number of cars and reduces their attractiveness for grueling commutes in stop-and-go traffic.
Optima's V6 is just 0.3 liters larger than the four-cylinder engine. As a result it adds 19 horsepower for a total of 194 horsepower. Its competitors range from 221 hp to 271 hp.
However, the Optima's V6 fuel mileage ranks above the others. Although the extra power may be useful the bigger advantage is in smoothness and refinement; if you drive hard or frequent mountain roads fully loaded, or the V6 adds notably to resale value we'd consider it, otherwise the standard four-cylinder engine is more than satisfactory.
The four-wheel disc brakes work well, with excellent pedal feel to creep smoothly in gridlock or stop quickly from speed without tossing heads about. Antilock and electronic stability control are both standard to give better control when you should have slowed down.
The suspension is independent all around and accommodates interstate expansion joints and speed humps with equal ease. Handling is predictable, the car generally going where you point it in a stable, controlled manner. Like most sedans, it understeers at the limit: If you hit a corner too fast the car would tend to go straight. If this happens, however, the electronic stability control steps in to mitigate. The 17-inch wheel-and-tire package takes away little in ride quality, though the SX's sportier suspension setup likely feels firmer on marginal roads.
For 2009, the steering has been tightened to remove any feeling of top-heaviness, an improvement over pre-2009 models. Steering is heavy at slow speeds and lightens comfortably at speed without becoming vague. Body roll is well controlled. After some winding roads, transition ramps and tire squealing we can tell you the Optima behaves as a family sedan should.
Outward visibility is excellent all around, thanks to the high seating position, low window line, and flat trunk lid. Wind noise will start to creep in as you reach southwest speed limits (75-80 mph) but not enough to raise your voice in conversation.
Direct comparisons between the Optima vs. comparably priced and equipped competition are difficult because the Optima is typically less expensive or better equipped. An Altima may be more sporting, an up-level Camry or Accord more refined, an all-wheel-drive Fusion, Avenger or Legacy better in the snow. But they're all more expensive, more so than a set of winter tires.
The Kia Optima is solid family sedan transport with comfortable space for four. Its available four-cylinder engine is among the class leaders in output and efficiency, the ride and handling more than capable, and the packaging shows smaller outside doesn't mean smaller inside. It has the best warranty in the segment and, feature for feature it costs significantly less than all of them.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent drove the Optima in Los Angeles; Tom Lankard contributed to this report.