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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