Weidel on Wheels: Optima rises up from the bargain basement

Redesigned for 2011, the Kia sedan has a new look and good performance
By: Jeffrey Weidel
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This used to be a vehicle that only the bargain shoppers would consider. The Kia Optima was indeed, a great bargain. However, it was far from being a great car. Fast-forward to 2011 and the Optima is no longer a great bargain, yet it remains a very affordable sedan. But thanks to a major redesign this year, it’s getting much closer to becoming a great car. Once a rather anonymous selection in the mid-size sedan class, the Optima can now hang among the hot shots in this category. Yes, the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Fusion and Mazda 6 are all still a step above, but it’s a very small step that separates these industry leaders from the new Optima. So what has made the Optima appealing so suddenly? For one thing, it now shares the same platform with the Hyundai Sonata, another mid-size that has improved dramatically in recent years. But many industry evaluators are saying the Optima is the better of the two vehicles. The 2011 Optima has a new exterior and interior design, features a fairly powerful engine, has a sporty feel to it and still comes at a good price — ranging from $18,995 to just over $25,000 — for the family sedan. And it still comes with Kia’s lengthy 10-year warranty that offers definite peace of mind should major breakdowns occur. Observers checked out the new exterior and remarked that the Optima has a somewhat European design. It has a low-slung shape that sets it apart, a black mesh grill, angular headlights and overall has a more rugged appeal. One more thing that car buyers will really like about the Optima is gas mileage. It can travel very far on a tank of gas, getting 24 to 34 miles per gallon. The Optima is offered in four trims — LX, EX, EX Turbo and SX. The upscale EX, which goes for $22,495, was test driven here. It has a ton of appealing standard equipment and a very peppy 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine that produces 200 horsepower. Both the LX and EX models share this engine, which is capable of going 0 to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds. If performance is a prime consideration, then go with the EX turbo, it features a 2.0-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder engine with 274 horsepower. Besides solid power, the Optima handles nicely as well. It has a firm grip on the road and is responsive in all the right situations. Good stopping power is another real plus. Another European-like quality with the Optima is the interior, which has some Audi characteristics. That shouldn’t be surprising, since a former Audi designer is responsible for the new-look Optima. Features worth mentioning are the center console, which is angled toward the driver, a good amount of soft-touch materials and a spacious cabin. __________ 2011 Kia Optima EX Price: $22,495 Power: 2.4-liter, 4-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower Mileage estimate: 24 mpg city; 34 mpg highway Standard features include: Eight-way power driver seat; AM/FM stereo with MP3/CD player, satellite radio, auxiliary audio jack and iPod/USB audio interface; center console; auto-dimming rearview mirror; heated mirrors; automatic headlights; fog lights; traction and stability control; keyless ignition/entry; dual-zone automatic climate control; leather upholstery