Arise out of Asia. That is the meaning of the word Kia and has its origins in the Chinese language. The first syllable ‘ki’ is ‘to arise or come up out of’ and the second syllable ‘a’ refers to Asia. Kia is a relative newcomer in the western automotive world and their cars have improved significantly in the last decade. Kia Motors Corporation is based in Seoul, Korea and started in 1944 so they have been around for a while.
Many of their earlier cars were not very interesting or exciting. The Kia Amanti was a sad design attempt and it looks like they were going after the Mercedes E-class at the time. The previous Kia Optima was a nice looking sedan but still a bit bland and it never really stood out from all the other offerings in this segment. It all changed when the current generation Optima was introduced for the 2011 model year.
The Optima in this review was rented from Avis at the San Francisco airport, had 13,000 miles / 21.000 kilometers on the odometer and was 8 months young. In rental car years and miles, multiply this number by 2 or 3 as we all know many people can be hard on rental cars. Ten days were spent driving north along the coast on highway 1 from northern California into Oregon.
After a few days in Portland, the trip continued south again through the city of Bend, the Cascades Highway and a stop at Crater Lake National Park. Driving through Napa Valley completed this trip before returning the car at the San Francisco airport. A good combination of very twisty mountain roads, stop-and-go-traffic in the cities and some highway driving. Excellent conditions to really put the Optima through its paces and get a good feel of this remarkable car during this road trip of 1,872 miles.
This Optima is the ‘base’ LX model but is very nicely equipped with all the conveniences we expect in cars these days. Interior materials were very nice and it never felt like like the cheapest trim in the line-up. Alloy wheels, fog lights, projection headlights and dual exhausts are items you don’t find in the lowest trim. Base price is $21,350 and includes the standard 2,4L 4-cylinder engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
The luxury-oriented EX will give you leather seats, push button start, automatic temperature control, power adjustable seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel among other items. The SX is the sporty version of the Optima and the SXL is the flagship in the line-up. All trims except for the SXL have several different option packages and additional equipment that can be added.
While Kia cars from the past were bland and uninspiring, the latest generation Optima has a striking and very recognizable exterior design. The “Tiger” nose is three-dimensional and has a friendly yet powerful face. I am not a huge fun of the dog-bone grille design but it is not too pronounced on the Optima. It actually looks rather nice and fits in with the rest of the design.
The tail lights are very uniquely shaped and make it immediately recognizable. The Optima looks more European than Asian. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the chief designer is Peter Schreyer, a German designer who used to work for Audi. He has been Chief Design Officer at Kia since 2006 and is currently President of Kia Motors.
The standard 16″ alloy wheels are a very nice design and a nice upgrade for steel wheels that are the norm on base models. Tires were made by Nexen and no complaints there. The halogen projector head lights are standard and a nice design upgrade over regular head lights.
The interior has an European feel like the exterior and there is definitely an Audi influence as well. The dash is driver-oriented and a nice change from interiors with a symmetrical design for driver and passenger. Seats were very comfortable for a full day of driving. Not too hard and not too soft. Just right. Seat bottoms were good for taller drivers, unusual compared with other Asian competitors.
The 6-way adjustable seat with power-lumbar adjustment allowed for finding a perfect driving position. I am 6’2″ and I often have a difficult time getting comfortable behind the wheel of many cars. The steering wheel can be adjusted for height and reach and I was surprised by the comfortable and perfect driving position. Seat cloth material was nice but the light grey color may stain easily. Black and beige are other interior color choices, depending on the exterior color.
Instrument lights are white and red. I would prefer green instead of red but it was easy to get used to. Gauges were easy to read, even though they looked a bit busy. The radio with CD player has an aux-in and USB input for connecting an iPod. Kia recommends you buy their iPod cable because it may not work with the regular Apple cables. I couldn’t get my trusty 5-year old iPod to work with the head unit but I have been having issues connecting it to my Mac as well. I imagine it wasn’t a problem with the Kia audio system. The aux-in still worked fine though.
Sound quality is quite nice for the base audio with decent bass and good audio controls. But if you like good quality sound, I imagine the optional Infinity system will be a much better choice.
Rear seat comfort is good and there is a lot of room for your legs. With the driver’s seat in a comfortable position for me, there was still plenty of legroom in the backseat. Headroom for anyone taller than 6 feet is lacking because the sloping roof line makes your head touch the roof. If you plan to often have taller passengers in the backseat, this is probably not the car for you.
Performance and fuel economy
The base engine is 2.359 cc and provides 200 hp with 192 lb-ft of torque and is the only choice for LX and EX trim. Except for California where the low-emission requirements neuter the engine to 192 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque. Power was adequate but don’t expect to do any burn-outs or quick passing on country roads. It is a very smooth engine though and the 6-speed automatic transmission was a nice match.
The biggest surprise was the very good fuel economy. Kia specifications show an estimated 24/35 MPG (city/highway). The Optima consumed 62.84 gallons on this 1,872 mile journey. That is 30 miles for every gallon of gasoline which is very good for a large family sedan like this. There was spirited driving on twisty coastal and mountain roads, 55 to 65 mph cruising, together with some mixed driving in the large cities.
On the road
Numbers do not describe how a car behaves on the road. It often is not the best 0-60 times or top speed that are important but it is more about the sum of the parts. The Kia Optima has a very composed feel on the road and everything seems to work together very well. I thought I wasn’t going to like electric power steering but steering feel was very nice. It felt a bit heavier than I expected but it is a good feel.
On twisty mountain roads, turn in was sharp but not over the top. It was actually fun to drive, unlike the Toyota Camry I drove a few years ago. Suspension was on the firm side but never uncomfortable. Bumps and pot holes never upset the Optima and is a nice balance between road feel and comfort.
Highway cruising was effortless and pretty much what you expect from a family sedan. Just set the cruise control, point the car to the horizon and enjoy the comfort of the Optima
The Kia Optima was a pleasant surprise and a great car to drive for a week. The quality was good, it is fun to drive and the great styling is an added bonus in the often boring family sedan segment. A visit to the local Kia dealer would be the first on my list if I were shopping for a family hauler or a competent 4-door sedan.
Quality was surprisingly good and the car still felt solid after 13K miles. No creaks, squeaks or other interior noises so that was perfect. There are more likes than dislikes and none of the negatives are a deal breaker. Definitely go check it out when you’re looking for new or used midsize sedan.
- Exterior design
- Dashboard layout
- Seats and seating position
- Steering and handling feel
- Value for money
- Limited view to the rear
- Could use more engine power
- High belt line / small side windows
Do you own a Kia Optima or thinking of buying one? Any good or bad experiences with the Optima that you want to share with others? Please add your comments below to start or join the conversation.