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2011 Kia Optima Expert Reviews

Expert Reviews

2011 Kia Optima

Ted West
© 2011

Somebody please tell the Koreans to slow down!

Not that it would help. As other world carmakers stroll along at their customary dignified pace, Kia and Hyundai continue to lunge forward by leaps and bounds. What takes the others six or seven years to accomplish, Korea does in half the time. The rate of improvement in Korean cars is almost alarming. The fine Hyundai Genesis luxury/performance vehicles are one instance. And now Kia joins in with its all-new 2011 Optima. Aimed at the fast-growing mid-size family sedan segment, this is a car of startling finesse, offered at a seductive Korean sticker price.

One look at the new, 2011 Kia Optima confirms its distinguished aesthetics. They are at the very forefront of contemporary design, sleek, muscular, with none of the odd feel that sometimes characterizes new Asian cars. This is a family sedan that will earn its place in the American driveway.

The Optima's interior appointments and materials are handsome, generous, first-quality in every respect. Beautiful leather adorns the dashboard and seating, promoting the impression that driver and passengers are traveling First Class. Seating is comfortable and delivers just the right degree of firm support, even in the rear seats, allowing the driver to make alert, confident driving decisions.

The design and layout of the Optima instrumentation reflect well-considered ergonomics and cutting-edge technology. Legible, pleasingly jewel-like instruments reconfirm that this is no mindless commuter module. The expected provisions are all present, plus one or two bonus conveniences. These include a cooled glove compartment for keeping sodas chilled and heated/cooled seating.

The Optima offers a full inventory of options, everything from a nav package to a back-up camera, paddle-shifter transmission shifters to an extra-large panoramic sunroof, and more. Connectivity conveniences include satellite radio, USB audio input jacks and Bluetooth wireless, with steering wheel voice activation controls that deliver hands-free phone operation.

The Optima's over-the-road characteristics are similarly enlightened. Its front-wheel drive system propels a four-wheel independent suspension that is athletic and responsive, vital in sudden emergency-avoidance maneuvers. The ride is nicely compliant over rougher pavement, yet the suspension accurately communicates all road-surface information, keeping the driver fully informed. The Optima chassis is so good that, while no raging performance sedan, its handling has a very sporty glimmer.

For our initial test, the Optima was only available with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder of 200 horsepower. This engine, while less than exciting, proved entirely satisfactory for normal driving. Quiet at highway cruising speeds, it delivered enough power to keep you competitive in the Interstate grand prix, while delivering an EPA-estimated 24/35 mpg City/Highway. Subsequently added is a somewhat more powerful 274-hp 2.0-liter turbo Optima. And in 2011 Kia will debut a 2.4-liter hybrid package.

Model Lineup

Kia Optima LX MT ($18,995), AT ($20,495); Optima EX 2.4 ($22,495); EX 2.0T ($24,495); SX 2.0T ($25,995)

Walk Around

Kia corporate officials refer to the 2011 Optima as a paradigm shift for the company, and truly it is. This is a bold, fresh prism through which to view the Kia image. As with the recently redesigned Kia Sorento and the quirky, good-natured Kia Soul, the new Optima's design focus is no longer Korean nor even Asian. It is a world car as surely as are the latest mid-sized sedans from Ford, Toyota or Honda. Sleek, aggressive and modern, the Optima requires no visual translation. It is immediately at ease.

In the longer/lower/wider department, the Optima is three inches longer, its length is two inches greater, and it is one inch lower and one inch wider than the previous model. Aimed directly at Generation X buyers between 35 and 49 years of age, it is a perfectly tailored fine Italian suit, from Korea.

The grille is elegantly simple, with a chrome bezel surrounding its black mesh screen. The mesh grille is a keynote taken directly from the more exotic models of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Bentley and others. A dramatic low front air dam gives the nose an aggressive look, while also contributing to better fuel mileage. The headlight complex is wraparound and racy, in contemporary practice, a major design element, and the broad wheelbase and low stance imply willing athleticism.

Big wheel flares give additional muscularity to the Optima's flanks, and its bright silver wheels, available in several patterns and sizes, are cutting edge. The sides of the car are exceptionally clean, with just three horizontal character lines giving them form and flow. At the rear, wraparound red taillights complete the dynamic, sporty look, with dual chrome exhausts, one at each side, fulfilling the sporty image. The latter duals, of course, are gilding the rose, dual exhausts on an inline four-cylinder are pure styling, snow shoes on a duck. Still, the imagery is enticing.


The interior of the new Optima has the look and feel of a finely appointed European sedan. The dashboard gleams with pebble-grain black leather, each element and contour handsomely stitched with French seams. The instruments are completely free of look-at-me gimmickry. They use a clean, crisp adults-only font. The controls on the center console are angled ten degrees towards the driver, facilitating operating them with a minimum of distraction. A digital dashboard computer delivers information like instant fuel mileage, fuel range and outside temperature.

The Optima steering wheel tilts and telescopes and is jam-packed with controls for audio, cruise control, phone and Eco setting. (The latter optimizes fuel mileage by adjusting the transmission's shift schedule.) The gearshift lever has black wood trim with silver flakes dusted into the surface, a luxury touch that we found only mildly winsome. The PRND gearshift positions are on the far side of the transmission tunnel, with the manual shifter located closest to the driver.

Five-passenger seating is excellent, with a full range of adjustability available in the driver's seat. However, the center-rear passenger must ride the camel's hump until reaching your destination. The seats are firm, well-bolstered, and deliver snug lateral support for more vigorous driving. Heated front and rear seating is available, as is front-seat cooling. A heated steering wheel warms your hands in winter, and a moderately successful cooled glovebox keeps your refreshments chilled year-round.

Pleasingly, both front windows feature fully automatic one-touch up/down operation, a provision found in pricier European sedans The panoramic sunroof is huge, airy and truly bright. When closing it, the sunscreen panel closes automatically as well, no more reaching up to manually shut the screen. A separate function opens only the screen and tilt roof. Nicely done.

The navigation system is straightforward and easily used, and the HVAC climate-control system left no room for complaint. Infinity's deluxe 12-speaker audio system was handsomely mounted around the doors and dash and delivered superb sound.

Perhaps the highest praise we can give the Kia interior is that nearly all the controls were self-explanatory and easy to use. Only the heated steering-wheel control, located low on the steering column, temporarily eluded us.

Cargo space is cavernous. The trunk lid is opened by a remote. Gaping into this voluminous trunk, it's clear that the family summer vacation will be a fully equipped event.

The 2011 Optima's interior appointments concede nothing to its European or American competitors. With cars like this, the time may have come to dream of driving a mid-size sedan.

Driving Impressions

Design quality and fine furnishings are all well and good, but a family sedan's highest priority is its over-the-road driving behavior and safety. In these areas, the 2011 Optima is no gift horse, its performance, stability and agility are, like its furnishings, first rate.

In our initial test, the Optima was available only with a 200-hp four-cylinder. A 274-hp turbo-four with more vigorous performance was released subsequently, but this model will account for a small percentage of Optima sales. An Optima hybrid will debut in 2011.

The standard 200-hp 2.4-liter four cylinder was flexible and reasonably powerful at all engine speeds. As the engine most Optima buyers will choose, it is well suited to family duties both in daily traffic and at highway and commute speeds. For starters, it's quiet.

We found the 2.4-liter engine performs almost silently when cruising at high speed, a welcome result for a smallish inline-4. Even at middle throttle, accelerating from a stop, the engine is only distantly audible. Only under full acceleration does this engine remind you that it's a small four-cylinder with an agonized yowl. It's a minor complaint, but a complaint nonetheless. Resolutely on the plus side, the engine exhibits none of the phony sudden throttle response designed into many cars to give a false impression of performance. Throttle tip-in on the Optima is linear and without tricks, just as it ought to be. No more snapping the heads of your passengers rearward when the light turns green.

Our test car had a noticeable amount of brake-pedal travel before engagement, but we were assured that because we were driving pre-production cars, it was likely that not all of the cars were dialed-in to final production specification. We found the brakes to be powerful and perfectly adequate in use; as a matter of personal preference, we would have preferred a firmer pedal feel.

Chassis dynamics were excellent for a family mid-size cruiser like this. Steering was accurate, firm and provided very good feedback over twisting terrain. When we pushed harder, necessary to determine just how good a car is in emergency maneuvers, the front-wheel-drive chassis delivered good front-end adhesion, and when rounding a longer curve at high speed, the multi-link rear end hooked up nicely and held the car's rotation in check. The usual ride responses experienced in vigorous driving, body roll, dive and squat, are well controlled, thanks to the car's all-new, structurally rigid chassis.

This crisp-handling Kia is well equipped to protect the safety of those you love. Beyond good handling, it delivers a full inventory of passive-safety provisions, including four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS), six airbags, front active headrests, electronic stability control, traction control, brake assist, hill assist and tire-pressure monitoring.

But not all driving is high-speed cornering and dire injury prevention; in normal operation, the Optima passes over rough surfaces effortlessly, soaking up the roughness while delivering all necessary road information to the driver. There was a time when only the best European designers could capture this balance. Kia is now a member of the club.

Fuel economy for the Optima with the 2.4-liter engine is an EPA-rated 24/34 mpg City/Highway with the 6-speed automatic. The 2.0-liter turbo engine is estimated at 22/34 mpg City/Highway, according to the federal government. The 2.4-liter HEV hybrid electric vehicle is expected to get 36/40 mpg.

The all-new 2011 Kia Optima is a fully equipped world car. It provides good performance, high efficiency and generous creature comforts. In value, comfort and quality, it is at least the equal of the Japanese competition, available at a slightly better price.

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