Kia Optima Road Test Review
by Martha Hindes
Think of this summer's Olympic Games and you'll probably think of the athletes. Many are older pros, and many more are upcoming challengers who will be vying for the precious gold of a winner. We can equate that to Kia and its 2012 Optima midsize sedan. The Korean auto company is enjoying the fruits of a decade of building its way up to the winner's podium from a later arrival on the U.S. automotive scene. It now firmly claims its current position as a trend setter among many American car buyers -- a competitor to be dealt with by the more establishment foes.
What Kia offers for 2012 is no exception. For those who want a useful, middle-of-the-road sedan without being lost in the crowd, Optima is available as an alternate in a landscape laden with comparably-sized and sometimes costlier-priced variants. In typical Kia manner, it stands a bit edgier, a bit more adventurous in its appearance than many of the same ilk it competes with. Even though the midsize segment often has been called predictable and even more boring than other auto categories, Kia hasn't pulled back from making a little extra noise despite its intended use.
Our test drive in the Optima confirmed those perceptions. Take a peek at the Optima and you see a face and body with a somewhat irreverent demeanor, an almost “I dare you,” attitude etched into its broad. challenging face and svelte body lines that suggest its ability to put performance into its drives. It has the characteristic fun look of, say, a Mazda with its well-established “Zoom Zoom” philosophy. As progeny of a pair of Korean import companies (along with its corporate cousin, Hyundai) Kia in the U.S. has claimed an ability to dash off a look here, a design element there, that can seem unnervingly familiar, both inside and out. (But hey, isn't that what competition is all about?) And it always seems to manage that with flair.
Inside, the Optima is no slouch. Besides being roomier than expected, we kept finding little touches that made it seem much more special than one would expect in a mid-level, reasonably-priced sedan. On these late Spring days with mercury ascending to near record levels this year, what could be more tantalizing than a cooled glove box to keep that can of cola cold? And what about air cooled front seats that are just plain delicious. (We'll save judgment about heated front and rear seating and heated steering wheel for a cold winter's day.) We kept thinking “uplevel” during our days of test car driving, however.
Another plus for the Optima is its ability to surge without scarfing down as much fuel as some of its competitors. Good mileage is one of the strong points that Kia has managed to incorporate into this vehicle that was redesigned as a 2011. The biggest news of late is the addition of a hybrid model. But even without that technology under the hood, the Optima thrives on two energetic, but fuel stingy powerplants that Kia code-names “Theta II.” They are a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower four with a 24/35 mileage rating when coupled with a manual transmission, the only one available on the base LX model. The more performance-oriented 2.0-liter turbo-charged four generates 274-horsepower and pays for having fun with a shade less MPG: 22/34. Mid-level EX turbo and top level SX come with a six-speed automatic with manual mode.
For 2012, Optima gets a standard eight-speaker Infinity system among audio upgrades including voice activated infotainment. All trim levels have outside heated side mirrors, that also are power folding on upscale models. Brake assist and Hill Assist Control are among standard safety features normally found on more premium and costlier autos. Kia has managed to keep pricing at more budget levels, however, ranging from a base at $19,500 to $26,500 before options packages.
When Kia autos first arrived in the U.S., they were imports, but no more. For all the squawking over time about the cost of assembling autos in the United States, the company has chosen to do just that and now assembles the current generation Optima in America rather than offshore. Either that's a vote of confidence for American labor or a shrewd move that confirms Kia has learned to tap into American taste with a vengeance while keeping the price in tow. Considering the results, maybe it's a bit of both.
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