Offering everything from the Accent subcompact to the Equus large luxury sedan, Hyundai covers a lot of territory. With gas, turbo, and hybrid engines, and basic, sporty, and luxury trims, the Sonata stakes out much of the midrange sedan segment. Which leaves Kia and its new Optima midsize sedan…where? Mercury to Hyundai’s Ford? Not if Kia and chief design officer Peter Schreyer (of Audi TT fame) can help it.
For better or worse, the new 2011 Kia Optima looks nothing like the Hyundai Sonata, or anything else in the segment. While the Sonata is hardly vanilla, the Optima’s design is bolder. As with the Sonata, chrome is employed in a new way. In the Sonata, a chrome strip extends forward from the base of the side windows to the headlight. In the Optima, one starts at the base of the A-pillar, runs along the top of the side windows, continues across a dramatically kinked C-pillar (itself unusually split between the rear door and the body), then runs down the side of the rear window, terminating at its base. The way this strip visually splits the C-pillar is unique. (For a more conventional alternative, see the 2004-2008 Nissan Maxima, where a strip that runs along the ditch molding then down the side of the rear window isn’t visible from the side of the car.) Sometimes I really like Schreyer’s innovation, sometimes it seems contrived, busy, and even jarring. Paint color plays a role: the strip stands out much more on deep colors like the dark cherry of the tested car. On a white car, like first Optima I saw in the metal, it looks more elegant.
Less open to debate: the new Optima’s monstrous front overhang. The headlights that extend a full foot-and-a-half into the fender can’t conceal it; the eye can only be fooled so much. This monstrosity is puzzling. Without the need to fit a V6—only fours are offered—the nose could have been and should have been much more compact. Perhaps to mirror the headlights, the tail lights extend deeply into the rear fender. Even with this odd touch the visual mass of the rear fender makes the 17-inch alloys appear undersized. The 16s on the base trim must look puny.
With so many unusual details successfully vying for attention, the longer you look at the Optima the harder it becomes to perceive a cohesive whole. The primary goal was likely to make the Optima stand out, and this has been accomplished. It won’t be mistaken for a Sonata, or anything else. It’s just not beautiful. Schreyer clearly had to work with the proportions Hyundai gave him, not the ones he wanted. If only the front axle could be shifted forward four inches…
My impressions of the Optima’s dramatically different, nicely finished interior similarly started high, then declined with familiarity. Driver-centered instrument panels are so rare these days, especially in sedans. Even BMW watered down its iconic IP design years ago. So it was refreshing to encounter inside the Optima an instrument panel that emphatically angles everything towards the driver. On top of this, many details, such as the air vents, faux-stitched trim ringing the IP, and the upholstery pattern of the seats, lend the interior a sporty, upscale, vaguely European ambiance. A prevalence of soft-touch surfaces backs up the visual impression.
After a week, though, there’s simply too much going on, with many details poorly designed or unresolved. For example: why is the area around the start button black while the corresponding area to the left of the steering wheel is tan? And why are the switches to the seat heaters vertically arranged to the right of the shifter, where the driver can’t see them? The ergonomic issues don’t end with these switches. Though the buttons on the center stack initially appear thoughtfully arranged, even after a week I had to spend far too much time with my eyes off the road hunting for the one I wanted. One unwelcome departure from the norm: a two-button operation to tune the audio system. After using a rocker switch to go from station to station, you must hit a separate “enter” button to actually select one. Station surfing isn’t practical. For that, you’ll want to use the audio display on the touchscreen—except that the touchscreen is a little too far away. Finally, my middle-aged eyes had trouble reading the red graphics at night.
The front seats initially appear those of a sport sedan, but they’re firm without a purpose as the side bolsters are too far apart to provide lateral support. Rear seat legroom is plentiful, but the cushion is a little too low to the floor—a common shortcoming among sedans with stylishly arched rooflines. The trunk is large, and can be further expanded by folding the rear seat, but cannot be unlocked without either first hitting the keyless entry button on a front door handle or hitting a button on the fob. Why doesn’t the keyless access work with the trunk?
This being a Kia, you do get a lot of features for the $27,440 MSRP (EX with Technology and Premium Packages; for the turbo and its larger, 18-inch alloy wheels add another $2,000). The related Hyundai Sonata is aggressively priced. But load up both sibs, and the Optima lists for $775 less—and according to TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool includes $800 in additional features. Items on the loaded Optima that you can’t even get on the Hyundai include the panoramic sunroof (regular sunroof on the Sonata), cooled front seats, driver seat memory, power front passenger seat, and a heated steering wheel.
As in the Sonata, a 200-horsepower direct-injected 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine pairs with a manually-shiftable six-speed automatic to provide brisk acceleration. A 274-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter is also available, but few drivers in this segment will have any need for its additional thrust. A manual transmission is only available with the non-turbo engine in the base trim. In “Eco” mode the automatic transmission sometimes lugs the engine, but in general it selects the appropriate gear and reacts quickly to driver inputs. Shifts aren’t the smoothest—the best these days are imperceptible—but they’re far from harsh. One unexpected lapse in refinement: the powertrain has a rough spot around 800 rpm that is very perceptible through the steering wheel every time when braking to a stop. Once at a stop with a foot firmly on the brake the bad vibes disappear. But let the car roll even the slightest bit, or have accessories on that effect a bump in idle speed, and they’re back.
Fuel economy in suburban driving varies widely based on the heaviness of one’s right foot. With a very heavy foot I observed 20 on a trip to the mall. With a very little foot I observed 33 on the return trip. Driving the car like my mother I observed mid-twenties. And on my test loop of curvy road in full hoon mode…9.6. But the last doesn’t really count, as hardly anyone will drive the Optima so aggressively in real life. In straight highway driving at a steady speed mid- and even high-thirties are possible. Hyundai is serious about boosting fuel efficiency, and Kia shares the benefits.
The Optima’s steering is heavier than the segment average, with an especially firm feel on center. This plus decidedly firm suspension tuning lend the Optima a surprisingly sporty feel in casual driving. It’s not as sporty as the most aggressively tuned front drivers—the Acura TL and Nissan Maxima—but the difference compared to the Sonata is significant. The Optima also feels lighter and smaller than the typical midsize sedan. Partly because, at just over 3,200 pounds, it is lighter. But, by the same measure, it feels less substantial. The Optima might look European, but it doesn’t feel European.
Actually push the car through a challenging set of curves, and the sporty tuning suddenly seems superficial. The steering might have less assist, but there’s still little in the way of actual feedback. The steering isn’t intuitive, necessitating overly frequent corrections. Understeer is minimal, but the car leans enough that the inside front wheel fairly easily loses traction. The firm suspension tuning doesn’t translate into exemplary composure. Though firmly sprung, it’s underdamped, and over uneven pavement the car pitches, bounds about, and sometimes even floats a bit. The best cars feel better the harder you push them. The Optima suffers from the opposite tendency. Up to 6/10s or so it feels good. Beyond that point the harder you push the Optima the less precise it feels. Back on the boulevard, the firm suspension tuning makes for a lumpy ride, though not a harsh one.
Then there’s the stability control. A few weeks ago Ronnie criticized the system in the Kia Sportage for over-reacting on snow-covered roads. The system in the Optima does the same. On ice it’s okay, but on snow it tends to drastically cut engine power and obtrusively work the brakes mid-turn. I ended up turning it off much of the time, a step I avoid taking in an unfamiliar car. The Optima’s handling is very safe and predictable, so driving on snow and ice remained easy.
Ultimately, too much of the new Kia Optima—from the styling, to the ergonomics, to the steering and suspension tuning—seems to have been rushed. In a laudable bid to distance itself from Hyundai, Kia ambitiously turned the knob up to 11 (on the tame family sedan scale), but neglected the details. The result is certainly intriguing, and to be fair it’s a good, attractively priced car that deserves a look from any enthusiast shopping for a midsize sedan. But with more time spent finessing this and that it could have been a great one. Maybe with the next refresh?
Kia provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh owns TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data.