Review: 2006 Kia Optima

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

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 l

eftover 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.
Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • FrankyJ FrankyJ on Mar 29, 2010

    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.

  • Analyzerlx Analyzerlx on Aug 02, 2010

    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!!!

  • Dave M. The Outback alternates between decent design and goofy design every generation. 2005 was attractive, 2010 goofy. 2015 decent. 2020 good, but the ‘23 refresh hideous.Looking forward to the Outback hybrid in ‘26…..
  • Lorenzo Subaru had the ideal wagon - in 1995. The Legacy Outback was a straight two-box design with rear quarter and back windows you could see out of, and was available in brown with a 5-speed manual, as God and TTAC commenters intended. It's nice they're not raising prices, but when you've lost the plot, does it matter?
  • Bkojote Remember a month a go when Cleveland wanted to create a more walkable Cleveland and TTAC's 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM' dumbest and dullest all collectively crapped their diapers? Here's the thing- look on any American highway and it's littered with people who don't /want/ to be driving or shouldn't be. Look at every Becky on her phone during the morning commute in her Tucson, look at every Brad aggro driving his 84 month loan GMC. Hell look how many drivers nowadays can't even operate a headlight switch. You expect these people to understand a stoplight? In my neighborhood alone 4 people have been rear ended at lights from someone on their phone. Distracted driving over the past 10 years has spiked, and it's only going to get worse unless Becky has an alternative, because no judge is going to pull her license when 'she needs it to get to work!' but heaven forbid she not check fb/tiktok for 40 minutes a day.
  • Scott Shouldn't the The Italian Minister for Business be criticizing The Milano for being too ugly to be Italian?Better use of resources doing that....
  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.