By on March 26, 2010

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.
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29 Comments on “Review: 2006 Kia Optima...”

  • avatar

    To add to this, I tried stocking 30,000 mile plus Optimas as used inventory, and had nothing but constant nightmares with these, and the entire Kia line. From mechanical to electrical, these cars were coming back almost weekly and to add to the grief, the Kia dealers were not much help. Under staffed, and bulging at the seams from customer complaints, meant leaving the car much longer than reasonable,and additional time due to back ordered parts issues. I stopped buying any used Kias entirely.

  • avatar

    Look, I’m as cheap as anyone. But driving a noisy, cheap car when you have to get to work and be ready to make decisions the minute you walk into the door is false economy. Spending your drive time in a quiet environment to dream up innovative ideas is a priceless luxury.

    Cheap to me is a 3 year old Mark VIII for $12,000 that I drove for 8 years. Or a Caprice that I drove until it had 450,000 miles.

    Whenever I hear a car descibed with a loud engine, or road noise, I run the other way.


    • 0 avatar

      AMEN, I have recently seen the light on the points you are making. I’m currently trying to make a decision for commuting to what will be a high stress job. Isolation tank or sporty car? I’ve crossed cheap a$$ commuter off the list. (Even though the cheap commuter is the only thing I could afford new. There’s something to be said for a nice used car.)

    • 0 avatar

      The former, not the latter. Nothing beats sitting in your living room while driving to and from work.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually if I pick up a used Town Car, it will be nicer than my living room. :)

    • 0 avatar

      “Whenever I hear a car descibed with a loud engine, or road noise, I run the other way.”

      I don’t run — usually I hesitate, then calmly walk away. Even though an economy car would be ideal for most of my tasks (to/from work), I probably wouldn’t be able to stand it for too long. Plus I also love venturing out on the highway (usually for trips that are less than 500 miles — after that, it’s rental car time).

      So I spent an afternoon sifting through the Friday Night Crapfest at a local public auction and ended up finding a diamond in the rough for the grand sum of $1200 — a GM H-body in the form of a 94 Olds 88, with 115k on the clock and surprisingly, only a couple of bugs that are being straightened out. Comfortable enough to drive on the highway and quiet enough to hear your own thoughts. The 3800 V6 is also pretty reliable and gives decent gas mileage to boot. My only regret is that if it was a 95, it would have had the Series II motor with 35 extra horses.

    • 0 avatar

      That wouldn’t work for me. If I bought a used large car or luxo barge it would be broken constantly. Give me an inline4 equipped econobox with an MT every time. Even better if it has crank windows

  • avatar

    The car that replaced it was was far superior than this hodgepodge of styling cues and mediocrity. The interior alone was a huge improvement.

    • 0 avatar

      The subsequent Optima is actually a really good car: based on the it’s contemporary Sonata, just without as much power and a little smaller in dimensions. It’s certainly much better than this vehicle, which, like the Sonata it’s shared with, is just not very good.

      And the penultimate Magentis (sorry, Optima) is almost as cheap as this car, to boot while reviewing much better across the board. I’d agree that this is worth skipping.

  • avatar

    I have Vietnamese neighbors who has one of these, and it seems like an OK car for them. I really don’t know for sure, as I don’t speak any Vietnamese, and their English is pretty poor.

    I’ve forgotten how bright the sun is in Georgia this time of year. Or is it your camera? By the way, which auctions do you attend? Is the one near Lakewood in city still going? It seems to me that it was owned or run by two brothers and was open to the public during the week. I went to that one with the in-laws a few times.

    I think there used to be one near Newnan, too, or somewhere between Fayette and Coweta counties. It’s been a while since I lived there, I’m starting to forget where things are. I liked that auction better, but it was for dealers only. Less crap going through the block.

  • avatar

    Suzukis (Not the rebadged Daewoos, mind you) are actually pretty good cars, albeit cheap ones.

    The new SX4 is bucking that trend, though, and if I wasn’t an insane gasoline blooded gearhead, I’d probably buy one. It’s pretty much everything I’ve ever wanted in a commuter car.

  • avatar

    My buddy owned one of these, a bought new 2004 dark blue automatic 2.4 base blue light special model for a mere $12995. It wasn’t a bad car until you drove a V6 Malibu, a 2006 1/2 new style Optima, an Accord or Altima or just about any other mid size choice. Then it’s crudeness showed in the form of more wind noise than normal, a noisier engine that wasn’t any more frugal than a 217 HP 3500 V6 Malibu which would wax it in a race, cheap mouse fur gone riot in the interior that was already starting to come apart in places, no ABS or stability control to be found and a rear seat that could only deal with two smaller sized adults due to a terribly countered back seat cushion. Surprisingly he only had to take it in twice to the dealer for a noisy wheel cover which they replaced and a squealing serpentine belt. Other than that it was as reliable as the sun.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    This was one of, if not the first, Kias derived from a Hyundai. The basic design and engineering comes directly from the generation-before-last Sonata, but these were built in Kia factories with Kia suppliers and didn’t yet benefit from the implementation of Hyundai’s QC processes. Unless you literally can’t scrape together the few extra bucks, you’re better off with the equivalent Sonata.

  • avatar

    I can’t get past the hideous Amanti-like styling of this car.

    It might be OK if you could get one really cheap, which might justify the subsequent repairs.

  • avatar

    This is completely unscientific but Kias seem to rust more than other late model cars, and I don’t see that with Hyundais.

    Also, the home office in Korea has unrealistic expectations of what they can sell. That’s the opinion of a US based product planner for Kia that I spoke with.

    Now that Hyundai and Kia are sharing platforms, the only way that Kia can distinguish itself is as “the cheap Korean car” vs Hyundai’s “well equipped Korean car”, so the price differential should be obvious in terms of content and trim.

    Also, sooner or later the Chinese and Indians will start selling cars in North America. Hyundai’s meteoric rise (or should I say recovery from their early shitbox days) has been in no small measure attributable to them being bottom feeders, selling cars priced cheaper than everyone else. As the lower cost producers in China and India and Eastern Europe start building cars good enough for the US market, Hyundai will probably move up market in terms of price, and use Kia as a price bulwark against the Chinese and Indians.

  • avatar

    I still say Chryslers are worse!!

    • 0 avatar
      Facebook User

      I know the evidence is only anecdotal, but I have owned only one Kia (a 2003 Sedona) and about a 1/2 dozen Chrysler products over the years. In the one yer I had the Sedona I spent more in repairs than on any 3 Chryslers combined.

  • avatar

    I’ve never understood the draw of buying a cheap stripper model new car. If you want to go cheap, buy one or two years off used and get more car for the same money with only a few miles on the odo.

    A buddy of mine who worked on a Kia lot back in the early 2000s had a Kia Optima as a demo for a bit (I think it was a 2002 or 2003 model). His was of the V6, leather, loaded to the gills variety, and I remember being very impressed by it, especially in comparison to his Honda Civic coupe daily driver.

  • avatar

    NulloModo: I don’t know, maybe something about having 100% of the warranty, 100% of the useful life, the satisfaction of knowing how the car is going to be maintained, not having to worry about getting stuck with some beat up ex rental.

    All of those reasons seem pretty sound to me, especially when all the supposedly “nicer” features start crapping out and the customer has to pay for all the repairs as a result of chasing the ‘more car’ equation. Sometimes the cheap becomes expensive.

    I see your point, but there are arguments to be made for buying stripped new over loaded used. My own objective is to keep the purchase long term, so simplicity is more important to me than gadgets.

    Parts availability, ease and cost of repairs,mechanical longevity, all hit my tightwad g-spot far more than does the getting the most [and by more car I am taking it to mean one with more goodies on it or an allegedly more “upscale” brand ?] stuff on it for the lowest price. That’s legitimate.

    Since you said you never understood why people chose stripped new over 2-3 year old used and getting what I think is only marginally “more car”, the only think I am trying to explain here is the why. Not trying to be a contrarian or argumentative, just ‘splainin another way to look at it.

    • 0 avatar

      Not all used cars are unreliable “beat-up ex rental cars”, and not all new cars are actually reliable. For instance, I could care less if a new Kia has a great warranty because it will still likely spend more time in the shop than a used Honda or Toyota. I could also care less about “gadgets”; I’m primarily interested in value and reliability, and many new “stripper” cars do not usually shine in either of these departments.

      A used car made by a manufacturer with a good reputation is a far better value than a “stripper” new car made by a manufacturer with questionable long-term reliability. As Steven Lang said, too many of these types of cars are bought by fools who “need the latest model years” at any cost.

  • avatar

    I drove one of these as a rental for a few days and had no major complaints. It was far, far better than the Dodge Caliber I’d rented on my previous trip.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    March 27th, 2010 at 7:47 am
    I’ve never understood the draw of buying a cheap stripper model new car. If you want to go cheap, buy one or two years off used and get more car for the same money with only a few miles on the odo.”

    As Dwezzil says, having 100% of the warranty and vehicle life is part of it. The other is financing. Most people in this part of the car market MUST finance their vehicles. The higher interest rates on loans for used cars, combined with the often-subsidized interest rates offered by many automakers, often wipes out the financial advantage of buying used. Remember: For many of these customers, monthly payment amounts are everything.

    • 0 avatar

      While the warranty claim may have some merit (I’ve seen plenty of people trade in their vehicle just because the warranty ran out, even though there was nothing wrong with it) the economics of the situation theory doesn’t hold any water.

      Yes, interest rates are generally a bit higher on used cars, and you don’t see things like 0% financing on a used vehicle, but overall the initial depreciation hit that a used car takes makes it cheaper in both payments and dollar amounts vs. a new car.

      There are some exceptions to the rule, cars that hold their value exceptionally well might actually be cheaper to buy new if you can catch a freak promotion like Toyota’s 0%x60 on Camrys or Ford’s 0%x60 for Fusions, but for the most part, taking a slightly higher interest rate on a lower amount financed works out to the buyers advantage.

      A brand new Town Car has a MSRP of about $48,000. The vehicles actually sell for a price of around $43,000, or, you could buy a certified pre-owned ’09 Town Car with only around 15,000 miles, and a longer warranty than the brand new one, for $29,000.

      The other big issue is getting back out of the car after you buy it. If you buy a new Kia, you might get a great price, but you are going to take the initial depreciation hit and unless you put some money down, be underwater for the first three years of the loan, minimum. If you buy a used Ford, Toyota, Honda, etc, instead for the same money, someone else has already taken the depreciation hit and you can get back out of the car much earlier if your needs change.

    • 0 avatar

      That didn’t negate any of the reasons I stated, Nullo Modo.100% of the warranty, 100% of the useful life, full knowledge of the car’s maintenance history.

      I am not buying the “get more car” concept. That is a car salesman’s construct used to upsell the gullible.
      If you’re meaning more car = more gadgets and electronic junk, you can keep it.

      It also doesn’t change what I mentioned about the cost to repair it when it goes haywire.

      If one is a “tightwad”, the amount of depreciation is immaterial as the intention is to buy the car and keep it,not keep trading every few years.A true tightwad, even buying used, isn’t swapping cars every few years.

      And they’re certainly not looking at pre-owned Lincolns.Mr Lang’s article is about being in a tightwad dilemma as regards to a Kia Optima.

      Stripped models are purchased for the long term, the idea being that fewer things will go wrong with them along the way.Less = More.

      It is a philosophical difference in purchasing an automobile, and granted, probably only applicable to a certain small percentage of automobile buyers out there. But it is still valid.

      Chasing the depreciation dragon is sort of like banking your “home equity”: phantom money “saved”.

  • avatar

    I have to say that I’m somewhat surprised by the review. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with the author. It’s that my 2007 Kia Optima doesn’t really fit the description at all! If the owner had replaced the car’s name/make with some other car, the only area where I would’ve found much in common with the 07 Optima is the cheaped interior and the low pricing.

    Looking at this picture now, it seems as though exterior body for the 2007 model was completely redesigned from 2006. The interior for the 07 model is still admittedly cheap, but then again, what how many automotive companies aren’t cheaping out on interiors when it comes to the midsize $20,000 and below segment? My friend’s Accord admittedly has a nicer looking interior but it still goes through the same plastic creaks and vibrating that many sadly cars seem to have today.

    But beyond that, my Optima is actually a joy for me to ride. Sure, the 0-60 time isn’t anything to jump up and down about. But the suspension’s responsiveness and the smooth, easy handling constitute a stark contrast to the current generation Camry’s handling which I describe as cumbersome, heavy, and clumsy. Absolutely no refinement at all. The best way to compare my first experience behind an 09 Camry would be to ask a Macbook fanboy how he describes his 20 minutes of user experience with the HP Envy 15. He would tell you the design aesthetics are there, but all the good stuff he talks about like “hardware/software integration” and “user friendly interface” are missing from the experience! In the Camry’s case, nothing about a casual 15 minute local drive would paint it to be “fun and enjoyable to drive.” After driving the Camry on numerous occasions, the only area where I felt it beat my 07 Optima was ride comfort. The Camry handles bumps and dents in the road somewhat better. But in all other respects, it falls short. The engine noise insulation is terrible. Thus I found justification in telling the dealer sorry, I couldn’t justify the premium.

    But still…I have to say that the 06 model is DEFINITELY something that I would’ve had plenty of second thoughts about buying! The exterior design looks questionably half-baked! It’s also nice knowing my model got the ABS upgrade!

    • 0 avatar

      The 2006 Optima pictured above was only sold for half of the model year. The much-improved, redesigned version was introduced as a 2006.5 (mid-year) model.

      The 2006.5 redesign actually made the Optima into a very tasteful and attractive mid-size sedan. It also was assembled tightly (to near Honda-levels) and used quality materials, even if the overall interior appearance was a bit plain looking. The standard 2.4L I4 (161hp 4-cylinder was class competitive and worked well with the 5-speed automatic used in most of the cars. The 2.7L V6 was carried over from the previous model and only made an additional 24hp. The V6 used 4mpg more fuel than the 2.4L, but acceleration times were almost identical…making the V6 pointless.

      The Optima continued thru the 2007 and 2008 model years without any changes. The 2009 Optima featured new front and rear-end styling along with some interior styling updates. A ‘sporty’ SX trim level was added in addition to the entry LX and mid-level EX models. All EX and SX models have standard leather seats. The 2.4L engine now makes 175hp and the V6 is only at 190hp- a paltry 15hp difference.

      The 2009/2010 Optima is probably the best car that almost no one knows exists. Dealers still have a lot of 2009 models sitting unsold, even with $3500 in rebates…

      The 2011 is a totally new design intended to move the car upscale a bit. If the 2010 Kia Forte and 2011 Hyundai Sonata are any clue, the 2011 Optima should be impressive, to say the least!

    • 0 avatar

      Strange. I was well aware of the 2006.5 vs 2007 naming scheme dilemma Kia had with US regulators. No surprise at all those differences. Even though I’m well aware of Hyundai’s and Kia’s decently high quality levels, I wouldn’t touch that 2006 Kia with a ten foot pole. Just that picture alone gives me bad vibes about being out of touch with consumer tastes.

      Few things I’d like to see Kia improve but aren’t necessary.

      1. Styling that’s less derivative (being done, see 2011 version!)

      2. Better acceleration. Once again, not necessary, but just nice to have.

      3. Improved interior? As soon as I graduate in 3-4 years with a job, I will gladly pay a few clams more for a car that has one. The leather seats are a nice touch but an improved dashboard layout with better materials and fewer creaks? Throw that together and you have a customer in me!

      4. Mp3 player/iPod Dock – I’ll pay for it.

      5. Better SE power/suspension for the extra money. For the 2007 version, the amount of improvement offered for more clams was rather disappointing. Once again, if they offer more improvements for the equal number of clams, I can and WILL pay for it!!

  • avatar

    I think that about starting with the 2007 Models Kia has really stepped up its game. It is obviously in Kia’s best interest to put the most reliable car they can out there, because of the massive warranty they stick on all of their cars. In order to penetrate the market Kia had to sell cheap cars, with huge warrantees. Now that they have successfully penetrated the market, they can start putting out a superior product. Consumer perception is often about 4 years behind the level of the product. I think the 2011 Optima will be top of its class. I just hope is around for that to happen.

  • avatar

    I own a 2004 Kia Optima EX V6, Imperial Blue. It is by far a much better car than you describe the 2006 model year to be. I have driven many cars and the latest rental I had was a new model Malibu. I can say the Malibu is better than previous years. I still love my car, more forgiving than the Malibu was and it had a lot more glass, so the car didn’t seem like a cocoon, like a lot of new cars- thank you Chrysler 300! The only issue I have with the car is that it is on the slow side, but when I do gun it, it isn’t as coarse as I assume the 4 cylinder model, and it isn’t as slow as some cars. The car is faster than my Mazda MPV, but I don’t think the MPV is made for speed. The fit and finish on the the Kia is excellent and would put it on par with the Japanese crowd and above the domestics! Look in the Optima and the carpet is put all the way up pretty high, which I know for a fact the 2006 Sienna I used to own only went up a few inches and if you stuck your head low enough you can see the carpet stop and the frame underneath! To me this attention to detail solidified my belief that Kia is not as crappy a brand as some lead you to believe. I still own my Kia and it has over 146,000 miles and the only issue I have with it is the driver side window and door lock, which is minor compared to the major issues I have had with the Ford and Chevrolet vehicles I’ve owned in the past. Resale value is fairly low, but I plan on driving my car into the ground! I’ve knocked a hole in the lower oil pan and drove it to my wife’s cousin and he soldered the whole and haven’t had any issues with it. My wife also ran over a cow carcass and that didn’t break the car, it just made the driver side bounce up! Had a fender bender when I backed up into a back hoe and then my brother scraped the passenger side on a tree because of snow! Even after all that craziness, the car still runs and is a good driver! Go Kia GO!!!

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