• Sep 2nd 2010 at 11:58AM
  • 106
You've Come a Long Way, Baby

2011 Kia Optima – Click above for high-res image gallery

We admit it – we're genetically preprogrammed to be shallow creatures. Despite our moms' best efforts, recognizing inner beauty is all well and good, but it's physical beauty that first puts both people and consumables on our radar.

Exhibit A? The 2011 Kia Optima. You see, while exactly nobody was paying attention, the outgoing Optima actually became a reasonably competitive mid-size sedan. But with the lackluster reputation of its predecessor compounded by styling so banal that it might as well have had "John Doe" as a model designation, the Optima was seemingly forgotten by everyone but fleet managers.

That's not going to be a problem any more.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

If someone had told us even five years ago that Kia would be brassy enough to provide any of its products to test at Road 'Hallowed-Be-Thy-Name' Atlanta, we'd have had a good laugh. If that same person told us we'd be looking at the segment's style leader and possibly the best model in the sector, we'd take their temperature before damning them to a year behind the wheel of a marshmallow white Amanti. And yet, after an all-too-brief first taste, there's good reason to believe the Optima may finally live up to its name.

To begin with, this is a seriously attractive automobile. Penned under the tutelage of lead designer Peter Schreyer, Kia has resisted the urge to apply the shopworn 'four-door coupe' descriptor to its latest creation, but it certainly fits. Compared to its starch-and-suspenders predecessor, the new model has leggier proportions – at 190.7 inches long, it shadows its predecessor by nearly two inches, and it's 72.1 inches wide, an increase of nearly two inches – yet it's also lower. Within its larger footprint, the hood is longer by 2.4 inches, yet the rear deck is shorter by 4.3 inches. Those changes in proportion are well-resolved by the aggressive angles used for the windshield and backlight, the latter of which gives one the false impression that rear seat room might be tight.

The Optima's face combines Kia's now-trademark 'tabbed' grille, bookended by a pair of angry-looking headlamps and aggressive lower fascia. One particularly nice detail that doesn't immediate present itself is the subtle indentation at the top of the windshield glass that echoes the grille's form. The rear is almost Jaguar XF-esque in execution, with narrow taillamps and dual exhausts for all models.

Predictably, the overall aesthetic is somewhat less assertive on LX and EX models than it is on the big daddy SX (we particularly wish that the latter's LED taillamps were standard across the range), but this is still a hard-hitting, handsome bit of design that's likely to draw fewer sideways glances than its slick but more controversially styled Hyundai Sonata counterpart.

Inside, the Optima makes no less of a leap forward. The center stack is angled ten degrees towards the driver and the vents are nicely integrated around the gauge binnacle in a way that suggests you've stumbled into a Saab. You can play a game of 'Spot the Parts Sharing,' with the Sonata, but as the two have unique approaches to nearly everything from steering wheel design to HVAC and navigation controls, common bits aren't immediately obvious. Material choices are unlikely to have the Germans seeking therapy, but they're wholly class-appropriate. Observed ergonomics were first-rate, as was fit-and-finish (despite our car's prototype status).

Once again, the SX model drives home a sporting message in a way that our EX tester's cabin couldn't quite manage, with a unique gauge package, sportier seat patterns, carbon fiber trim and premium-look French-stitched leatherette on the dashboard. A six-speed manual will be available on low-end models, though it's likely to be a rarity, as most Optimas will be outfitted with a six-speed automatic. On SX models, the two-pedal setup includes a sport mode as well as wheel-mounted paddles and a manual gate for the squeeze-doll shaped gearshift. We wish the SX (and the forthcoming turbo model) were fitted with more aggressive seat bolsters, but this is still a family sedan at the end of the day.

A family sedan with gobs of kit, we might add. USB and Bluetooth connectivity are standard fit, along with satellite radio, cooled glovebox and one-touch triple-flash turn signals. Options like a panoramic roof, heated steering wheel and heated and cooled front seats (including rear bun warmers!) are unheard of in this segment, and sitting in a fully-loaded SX for a few minutes is enough to make one wonder if Kia won't lure more than a few premium-badge buyers for their troubles.

Our drive experience on Road Atlanta was too brief, limited to a series of lead-follow exercises at modest speeds on the formidable 12-turn, 2.54-mile road course, so we can't give you a full performance download, but we're optimistic after our first encounter. While our pace car leaders kept the pace below where we'd like, we did periodically lag back in order to put on some speed while charging back toward the front. The nice thing about Road Atlanta is that even under our chaperone's supervision, we were able to treat the course as we might a newly discovered winding country road thanks to its dramatic elevation changes and varying corner rates.

We found the steering accuracy from the electric power-assist system to be quite good, and although the rack-and-pinion setup didn't provide much road feel, the 17-inch Nexen tires on our EX provided appropriate warnings of their limits when approached. As with every other front-driver in this segment, understeer remains the Optima's marching orders, but if anything, handling feels a bit keener than the Sonata, which itself has heretofore had a claim on the best-handling car in its class.

As the Optima shares most of its dirty bits with the much-laurelled Sonata, including its chassis and suspension architecture, it should come as no surprise that the Optima will be available with either a 2.4-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder or a 2.0-liter turbocharged DI engine (a hybrid solution is also coming early next year). In the case of the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter models Kia had on-hand for us to drive, the powertrain works out to 200 horsepower (at 6,300 rpm) and 186 pound-feet of torque (at 4,250 rpm) – class-leading base engine figures that are two ponies and two torques ahead of the base Sonata and identical to that of the SE spec.

With a light-for-the-class weight of around 3,200 pounds, the 2.4 imbues the Optima with both reasonable scoot and refinement, though performance-minded drivers will doubtlessly want to hold out for the turbocharged engine. We're pleased to report that while the paddle shifters can be a bit slow on the uptake (or the downtake, as it were), they work even when the gearlever is left in 'D,' so they're available at a moment's notice. If you're keeping score, the Kia also bests its Hyundai kin in city mileage, achieving 24 miles per gallon (versus 22) while registering the same stellar 35-mpg rating on the EPA highway cycle.

Our stints on the circuit weren't long enough to really put the brakes to the test, but pedal feel from the four-wheel discs remained solid and we didn't find the stability control system to be hyperactive or overly intrusive during our drive. We did notice a bit more body roll than expected (especially considering how firmly sprung recent Kia models like the Sorento and Forte have been), but engineers tell us that the 2.0T may be stiffened up a bit.

A good amount of over-the-road time in the Optima is clearly in order, but at first blush, we're rather taken with this winsome Korean. Interestingly, Kia officials tell us that the Optima is already outselling its Hyundai counterpart back home. Apparently we're not the only ones who like to surround ourselves with beauty.

Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Paukert / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      KIA = Killer Appliance.
      No doubt it's a nice car but I want something with a Soul - ahh they make that too!
        • 5 Years Ago
        As i know, 'Kia' is Girl name.

        Kia Abdullah (born 1982), British-Asian author and journalist
        Kia Asamiya (born 1963), Japanese manga artist
        Kia Byers (born 1987), Canadian canoeist
        Kia Corthron (born 1961), American playwright, activist, and television writer
        Kia Drayton (born 1983), American model
        Kia Goodwin (born 1973), African-American actress
        Kia Jam (born 1970), producer at Capitol Films
        Kia Joorabchian (born 1971), Iranian businessman and football investor
        Kia Luby (born 1989), Australian actress and singer
        Kia McNeill (born 1986), American soccer defender
        Kia Shine (born 1980), American rapper and record producer
        Kia Stevens (born 1977), professional wrestler also known as Awesome Kong and Amazing Kong in TNA Wrestling
        Kia Vaughn (born 1987), professional women's basketball player
        Kia Zolgharnain (born 1965), soccer player for the Kansas City Comets
        • 5 Years Ago
        KIA = Killed In Action............LOL, just kidding................but I will still buy this car over Toyota or Honda at any time. Interior reminds me of Saab, but in a better way. Exterior is just gorgeous! I live between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. You don't see a lot of domestic cars, most of cars on my street are German or Japanese, but I just saw two new Sonatas! I can't believe it. It's a sign that KIA/Hyundai is on it's way to take down Toyota and Honda for sure.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I'm impressed. Not a big fan of huge moonroofs, though.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This car tries too hard to be what it's not. Like the 160MPH speedometer. Or the fake side vents (which look ready to fall out as soon as you turn your back). Then there's the more than expected body roll...
        • 5 Years Ago
        John, it is a preproduction midlevel model and not the sport oriented SX. The body roll could very well change.

        Also, might want to take a look at the spedometers in competing vehicles and tell me what they all read. $20 says every single one will read over 140-150MPH.

        Your comment is full pointless remarks.
      • 5 Years Ago
      KIA needs to dump the red turn signals.
      Make the SX rear lights standard.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Kia has trumped its parent company, Hyundai, with the Optima. IF IF IF reliability and dependability is there, I will buy one in dark gray with a turbo. I dont believe most of you realize just how significant this car and this monster company (Hyundai and Kia) is. Frighteningly good.
        Mrs. Minerva G. Morehead
        I agree with you completely, I'm with you on that comment. Best of luck for them and may we all someday forget their entry into US market back in the day when the first tin car mini sedan came out...sold like wildfire but they were $4,000....I forgot the name of that beast...no matter. Yay Optima and new shark like Sonata. Don't sell to many to rental cos. like the US companies constantly do ( poor new Mustang, all I ever see on the road of the new style is rental cars.....and more rental cars......sad) Don't do that, Kia...be like Honda and stay strong to Enterprise fleet sales of strippie silver cars with plastic wheel covers (so not impressive)
      • 5 Years Ago
      Color me impressed.

      Let's see how well it does witth the turbo!
      • 5 Years Ago
      Heated and ventilated seats?

      Might be my new DD
      • 5 Years Ago
      Kia has definitely designed some substance into this vehicle compared to the outgoing model. It now looks like it can command a higher price.

      I think the front looks great, the side profile still makes me think this is what the Saab 95 should have become..the rear is the only low point. That large empty space where the lic plate will go reminds me of the original Subaru B9 Tribeca and that acre of space it had in the rear. It doesn't quite flow with the rest of the vehicle.

      Overall it still rates an A
      • 5 Years Ago
      This is a seriously sharp looking car.
      I actually like it even better than the Sonata on the outside. On the inside, while I do like the Kia version, I think the Hyundai looks slightly better. I think the biggest key here is though that even though both cars are essentially the same, they look COMPLETELY different... GM and other car makers should be taking notes.

      After looking at both this Optima and other recent Kias, I am disappointed that they aren't getting a version of the Genesis Coupe.... I think it would be damn cool if you could get this Optima's styling on a sporty RWD coupe.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Looks nice, but more like a copy of a few different designs. Honda Accord Coupe/Toyota Camry nose, Ford Taurus side, Audi-ish butt.
        • 5 Years Ago
        OMG. Total ripoff of the model T. It's got a windscreen, 4 wheels, a radiator, and seats. Henry is rolling over in his grave.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Camry nose? Someone needs a new prescription.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Stolen design cues or not, the car looks good. I'd much rather have a good-looking derivative than an ugly original.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Camry nose? Someone needs a new prescription.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Yes... just like Mercedes E class is a copycat, as well as BMW 5, 7, 3... not to mention every single car on the road today is a copycat of some sort!
        • 5 Years Ago
        yea it definitely looks like its borrows some elements...but even if it is stolen, its stolen beautifully haha
      • 5 Years Ago
      Kia really needs to move the front badge to the middle of the grille. Too bad the original is recessed into the sheetmetal or that'd be my first 'mod' after buying one.
      • 5 Years Ago
      2:53PM (9/03/2010)
      Yeah, that Audi-eque dash and IP, along with the stitched leather on the surfaces looks like something straight out of a 90's GM vehicle.

      Please find me ONE GM vehicle that had a similar interior layout with a stitched leather dash.

      You are a fool.

      Oh yes, I am a fool. Yet you are the one who blocks from being replied back to. I leave mine open. And go google the Oldsmobile Aurora. Notice how the center stack is turned toward the driver? Yes, thanks. Exact copy? No, but it reminded me of 90's GM when I saw it. And the materials look cheap as well. Audi-esque? Sorry but that says nothing to me. I find most german interiors bland and cold, with little excitement.
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