Some vehicles hit my tightwad tendencies like a nickel split into two quarters. Take this one for example. A base, five-speed unpopular car in an attractive color going through it’s very last year of production. The last of these Optimas went for less money out the door than a mid-level Corolla or Civic thanks to a mid-year model change. A few of the leftover demos with a few thousand miles even went in the $12k to $13k range. That’s a Two Buck Chuck-level deal for a nearly new midsized car. However…
I have to give Kia some surprising kudos here. This particular one highlights the beginning of the end of the ‘stripper’ style for car companies. Cheap non-painted door handles? They’re not here. The gold paint is seamlessly splotched into multiple layers from stem to stern. Cheap interior? Yes, but completely similar to mid-trim Optimas. A lot of companies have since realized that cheaping out the base models puts a world of hurt on a car’s resale value. Kia was likely the first to avoid this penny wise, pound foolish practice, and I think you’ll likely see a surprising number of today’s Kia owners stay on the bandwagon because of it.
In person, the exterior of these Last Of The Mohican Optimas is really nice and non-offensive, though little changed from it’s 1990′s roots. Take a Jaguar-esque design, throw in door handles from a Diamante, keep the rear from being bangle butted, and what you end up with is a style that may truly hold up. Some might even be led to believe the Optima is more upscale than it is…. at least until they open the doors.
The Optima marks the point in Kia’s history where interior feel had evolved from Tonka to Tupperware. Everything looks and feels rubbery. But it works… in a purely Walmart goes to China sense. I can easily imagine a Turkish bazaar atmosphere within Hyundai’s headquarters as they tried to drive down cost with Kia’s suppliers while increasing the quality of this Optima to a Chrysler like level. Did I say Chrysler? Yep. Kia had more or less become the Korean Chrysler at this point with owner reviews that were far worse than anything short of a Dodge Intrepid with a 2.7L engine. But then again there was some non-linearity with that.
The last year has some surprisingly strong reviews. I really don’t know if this phenomena will hold up in time. Maybe the low production numbers helped this year. Maybe new lean production and six sigma measures were yielding great results. I don’t know. But for right now I do have to hand it to Kia/Hyundai (Kyundai?) for starting to get their act together on the Kia side of the ledger. The gaps on this Optima were worthy of… well… something. I didn’t have any leaks in the cabin, or Dixie whislting on the A-Pillar. The engine may be as coarse as sandpaper but the non-enthusiast will care about that as much as he does about Ferraris. This Optima was simply designed as a cheap-ass commuter scooter and absolutely nothing more.
The feature side looks wonderful until you start to dig deep. Side airbags…. Great! But no ABS at all? In 2006? The power windows and locks are there but I’ve never found an Optima of this vintage with four intact wheel covers. They all get detached in a way similar to a VW Jetta appendage. Part falls off, gets reattached, scuffed one time, breaks, gets thrown in the trunk.
All this talk about the Optima’s quality, but what about the drive? It’s 80% of a Camry. No other way to put it. The revs are about 15% higher. Fuel economy is about 10% worse. Seats are not nearly as comfortable on long-trips. When you’re driving about 2/10′s to 3/10′s like most Optima owners the interior is surprisingly quiet. But I would rate it’s experience as akin to a Cobalt that’s been stretched to midsized toffee. It doesn’t have the feel, quiet, and driving pleasure of anything remotely near it’s midsized competition. But as I drove it I began to think, “What is this Optima’s competition?”
I don’t think it’s the Camcord folks. Definitely not the Nissan Altima or VW Passat. I would even put the Impalas, Fusions, and Grand Prixs of this vintage on a far higher plain. To me the competition was essentially any midsized vehicle that was still stuck in a time warp. The last of the rental-car Tauruses and Malibu Classics. Perhaps a Regal or Century thrown into good measure. The competition wasn’t really that much more than a vestige of leftover parts and bloated union contracts. You can also say that the groundbreaking 1992 Toyota Camry with it’s own-row-to-hoe notchy stickshift would compete well with all these models. So what?
So I still wouldn’t buy one. Even for the cheapskate, the Optima just doesn’t have ‘it’. I can’t see an owner slavishly trying to keep a car like this alive which is what automotive frugality is all about. As soon as the car gets out of warranty and something breaks, the cost is going to scare the crap out of the owner and it will be traded-in. After that the Optimas will be used by the buy-here pay-here dealerships in a similar way as the Mitsubishis, Suzukis, and all the leftover rental fodder is currently being reused and recycled today. Most of these folks buying these cars can’t tell the difference between quality and a kumquat. But they have to have the latest model year cars even if it’s at $350+ a month for near infinite months. The irony is that those cheap cars will likely generate more cash than any new car out there. Unfortunately it will be the drivers who will pay for it all.