As I drove to my neighborhood Kia dealer, the window signage caught my eye. Actually, make that grabbed both eyeballs and ripped them out, Oedipus-style. DRIVE TODAY! NO CREDIT! BAD CREDIT! I wondered how long before the words “What price are you looking to pay?” would effect the same injury to my ears. While dealerships like this make Kia’s 100,000 mile warranty look like a mixed blessing, let’s face it: they know their market. As does the Kia Optima LX.
If you ever want to knock off a bank and leave witnesses unable to identify your getaway car, drive an Optima. Alternatively, you could say the sedan’s design is appealingly subtle. The front may have a touch too much Ford Taurus to it, but the Kia’s common sense proportions and unadorned sheetmetal evokes the style-less styling of 70’s-era Bimmers. From its sparing use of chrome to its plain Jane wheels, the Optima is deeply, wildly inoffensive.
A recent review made a big deal of the Optima’s interior “soft-touch home run.” You have to weigh that praise in the context of modern mass-market carmaking; the American public expects more horsepower, speakers and airbags which each successive iteration of an existing model– for the same price. Something has to give. Generally, that something is interior materials. Bottom line: the Optima has gradually improved while others (read: Camry) have cratered. So now there’s a smaller gap (pun intended).
That said, your eyes will have no problem telling the difference between the LX and higher-priced merchandise. Yes, the pieces are low-gloss and fit well, but there are so many bits and pigments you’ll think the designers were paid by the color. Score one for the leather-lined, neon-gauged Appearance Package, which comes in any color as long as it’s black. This cockpit not only looks swanky with its perforated leather and brushed accents, it conceals all that busyness.
To its credit, Kia has positioned the Optima’s soft-touch bits from your elbows up, where you confront them the most. Everything below is as hard and cheap as a forty-five- year-old sex industry worker. The Kia’s steering wheel tilts and telescopes, but the mechanism’s crudity will deter you from recreational telescoping. And while overall leg and headroom room is class-compliant and more than sufficient for the average human form, front-seat thigh support is, er, sub-optimal.
The Optima’s 2.4-liter four cylinder engine is the fruit of a joint venture between Mitsubishi, Chrysler and Hyundai. The quality of the weed involved couldn’t have been that high. Although the 162hp mill's fairly punchy off the line and tolerably responsive at highway speeds, it’s dog-dead in rolling acceleration around 40mph. The Optima ambles from rest to 60mph in around 10 seconds. I didn’t try the Sportmatic® slap-shifter, but I doubt it would help; the electronic five-speed lacked proper ratios.
The step-up to the 185hp 2.7-liter V6 is a questionable improvement on paper. A $2k premium buys you a one second improvement to 60 with a debilitating effect on gas mileage. But it’s a no-brainer for those who have more than the environment or their wallet in mind, offering superior midrange punch and much more refined noises. One word of warning, though: like all modern Hyundai/Kia V6’s, its solid lifters must be adjusted near the 90k mile mark. The work isn’t covered under that famous warranty and carries a four-figure sting.
Once underway, the Optima’s pillowy standard suspension is a weaker sedative than a fistful of barbiturates washed down with Southern Comfort, but stronger than two Ambien. If you don’t like to drive and you buy a four-pot Camry instead of an Optima, you either live near a Toyota dealer or you simply don’t care about money. The Kia’s ride quality is at least as good– or as bad– as the Toyota’s.
If you’re not insensitive to the joys of driving, the Optima’s Appearance Package (AP) is a must. While the spec sheet doesn’t say the AP’s suspension is firmer, the fatter Michelin shoes sure make it feel like it is. Perched high atop the Optima’s springs (the price of a civilized ride), you’re still subject to enough body movement to stay your right foot. But roll angles and cornering become perfectly respectable for a family sedan; something to be endured rather than avoided.
Add in stability control, leather, a killer stereo– the full zoot– and we’re talking around $20k. Measured against the ’07 Accord EX V6, the Optima LX comes up short in acceleration, mileage and toys. But measured against comparably priced family iron, it’s just as comfortable (unless you’re long-legged) and vastly more satisfying to look at and sit in. The top Optima will never win any (real) awards, but if there was a Subtly Nice Sedan For Not Much Money, Now or Down the Road trophy, the Optima would be a shoo-in.