Kia continues its product renaissance with a family sedan for drivers
By John LeBlanc
Key West, Fla. - On average, Canadian new car buyers return to purchase new again about every seven or eight years. If you happen to be one of those buyers today, you may feel like Rumpelstiltskin if you haven't dropped into a Kia showroom lately.
The sharing of resources with partner brand Hyundai, combined with the clever decision to import former Volkswagen and Audi designer Peter Schreyer to lead its styling department, enabled the Kia brand to mature in record time from a quirky backwater maker of bottom-feeder cars with lowball sticker prices and an extra-long warranty, into a maker of some of the most reliable, safe, smartly-styled, technically advanced cars and value priced cars on the market. The new 2011 Optima midsize sedan is the next step in the automaker's swift shift upmarket. And that's just not my opinion. For the first three months of 2011, Kia Canada had its best first quarter in terms of sales, continuing with an industry-best 27 months of continued growth. And while the new car market in Canada is down 1.5 per cent compared to this time last year, Kia's sales are up 25 per cent compared to last year. That makes it the fastest growing automaker in the country.
"Canadians are using their feet, and they're choosing the Kia brand," said Jack Sulymka, Kia Canada national marketing manager at the 2011 Optima's media drive in muggy southern Florida.
The 2011 Optima effectively replaces the Magentis as Kia's midsize family sedan offering. The Optima shares its platform and drivetrain with the critically acclaimed and hot-selling Hyundai Sonata. And just as the Hyundai sedan was a quantum leap over its predecessors, the Optima is an even bigger leap over the Magentis.
Just like its U.S-built Sonata platform mate, the Korean-made Optima comes strictly with four-cylinder engines - a unique proposition in a segment where six cylinders are the usual upgrade. The base Optima LX, the only model available with a manual gearbox, starts at $21,995. Of the non-turbocharged models, you can spend as much as $32,095 for the Optima EX Luxury. It comes standard with features that are not only class exclusives, but are normally available only on cars costing two-fold. Such options include a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats and heated rear seats. But even the "stripper" Optima LX comes standard with a full complement of airbags, electronic stability, traction and brake assist systems, heated front seats, and a decent audio system with Bluetooth hands free connectivity. I suspect, however, the big seller will be the midrange $26,695 Optima EX. It adds an in-house designed six-speed automatic transmission as standard, leather throughout, and such niceties as automatic climate control, rear-view camera for about the price of a loaded compact sedan.
With one of the roomiest cabins in the midsize class, the Optima is a lot bigger than any compact sedan. But unlike the Lexus-fighting Sonata, which offers more glitz and glam, the Kia's interior looks to mimic sports sedans from Germany. The Kia's centre stack is angled towards the driver like a BMW. Most of the surfaces are a matte black. Controls are logical and straightforward. While the quality isn't quite on par with luxury brands such as Audi and Infiniti, the Optima fights back with a price tag that can be tens of thousands less.
As per the Sonata, there will be an Optima Hybrid coming later on this year. But the base 200 hp and 186 lb.-ft. of torque naturally-aspirated 2.4-litre four offers excellent fuel economy, rated at 8.7 L/100 km city, and 5.7 on the highway when equipped with the autobox. Promising more power than many of its V6 family sedan rivals, the turbocharged Optima SX blows away its mainstream competition with power (274 hp) and torque (269 lb.-ft.), yet delvers an outstanding 9.2 L/100 km city and 5.8 L highway.
While the non-turbo Optima competes against fun-to-drive family sedans, the $33,695 Optima SX is tuned more like a European sports sedan. In the SX, the engine is physically smaller (2.0 litres instead of 2.4), but there's more urge (an additional 74 horsepower and 83 lb.-ft. of torque), plus the requisite sports sedan accoutrements like exclusive sports bumpers and a black grille, 18-inch alloy wheels, and a rear lip spoiler. And while you can't get a stick-shift on this model, Kia has tried to make up by adding wheel-mounted shift paddles. Compared to other Optimas, the SX's interior receives two-tone black leather with grey mesh cloth sports seats and alloy sport pedals.
As a family sedan, the new Optima SX ticks off all the right boxes. But after two days of driving between Miami and Key West, Florida, including some track time hot lapping at Homestead Raceway, it's the way the new Kia "family sedan" goes, handles and rides that should get buyers thinking twice about entry-level sports sedans like the Buick Regal Turbo, Nissan Maxima, and (yes, believe it or not) base model versions of the Audi A4, BMW 3 Series, Infiniti G and Lexus IS.
Whether it was on the infield course at Homestead, or slogging through two-lane traffic along the various causeways that link continental Florida with the islands of the Keys, the Optima always felt composed, confident and taut. The ride is definitely on the firm side compared to the family sedan norm, so BMW or Audi drivers should feel right at home. Same with the Kia's electric power steering - there's plenty of off-centre feel and weight when you start twirling the Optima's helm. On some of Homestead's shaper hairpins, understeer occurred. But on public roads at semi-legal speeds, the Optima is nicely balanced with little roll in the corners.
As a powerful, front-wheel-drive car, you would expect some form of torque steer (the pulling of the front wheels when excess power is applied), but Kia has designed the Optima's electronic nannies to dutifully control torque. As a result, the Optima SX is able to launch off the line without the usual tugging at the helm, or a drop in forward thrust. You can turn the system off, as I did lapping Homestead, but the car's linear torque delivery (available from a low 1,750 rpm to 4,000 rpm) makes the Optima SX an easy car to modulate at its handling and traction limits.
For all you Rumpelstiltskins out there, the 2011 Optima is a wakeup call as to how far Kia has come as an automaker. If you're the type of family sedan buyer that bases your purchase on the "car" and not the "badge," it's hard not to take a long look at the new Optima.
Yes, enthusiasts may still want to see a manual gearbox. The Optima's six-speed autobox is smooth, but could be quicker in its shifts. And if Kia really wanted to attract import sports sedan buyers, offering an all-wheel-drive option, a turbodiesel and perhaps a wagon version like the camouflaged Optima wagon I saw roaming around the Hyundai-Kia Motors R&D facility near Seoul, Korea last year, would steal some sales from the vaunted German brands.
But for now, Kia has created a distinctly different driving vehicle than the car it shares its oily bits with. It's a sports sedan for drivers who are on a family-sedan budget. The non-turbocharged Optima's combination of performance, fuel economy, and features put it at the top of the mainstream family sedan class if you like to drive. The turbocharged SX model nips at the heels of entry-level Germans sports sedans. Yes, the new 2011 Optima is that good.
2011 Kia Optima/SX
WHAT I LIKED:
Class-leading features; looks like a sports sedan, drives like one too; performance and fuel economy
WHAT I DIDN'T:
No manual transmission on sporty SX model; family sedan buyers may not like firm ride; a wagon and diesel model would be welcome
Base prices: $21,995/$33,695
Type of vehicle: FWD midsize sedan
Engines: 2.4L, 16-valve, DOHC I-4/2.0L, 16-valve, DOHC, I-4 turbo
Power: 200/274 hp
Torque: 186/269 lb.-ft.
Transmissions: Six-speed manual, optional six-speed automatic
Fuel consumption (city/hwy, est.): 8.7 / 5.7 L/100 km
Competition: Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy 2.5i, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Passat/Audi A4, Acura TSX, BMW 323i, Buick Regal Turbo, Infiniti G25, Nissan Maxima, Subaru Legacy 2.5GT