By CHRISTOPHER JENSEN
INGRATITUDE and a grating impertinence are something many parents have come to expect from their high-maintenance subunits, but challenging one’s parent is less common in the automotive world.
One example of such churlish corporate behavior is the 2011 Kia Optima, which strongly challenges the Sonata made by Kia’s parent, Hyundai.
This is not simply an attempt to annoy an older relative, for the Optima is picking on the entire field of midsize sedans. Its targets include the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Chevrolet Malibu. What’s more, the Optima is likely to have some success if Kia continues to show improvement in its quality and reliability.
While the Sonata and the Optima are corporate cousins, the companies stress that they are hardly identical. Although the cars are built on the same basic architecture and use essentially the same major components, engineers for each company tweaked each car to their own performance targets.
The two are also assembled far apart, the Optima in South Korea and the Sonata in Montgomery, Ala.
The cars are also far apart on pricing. My Optima test car was an upscale EX with a 6-speed automatic transmission, a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine producing 200 horsepower and a long list of standard equipment including leather upholstery. The starting price was $23,190; the options were a $2,000 navigation package that required the addition of a $2,250 Premium Package.
The premium package offers not only heated front seats, but rear seat heaters as well. Further, the front seats can be cooled just like those in high-end luxury sedans. The package also includes a heated steering wheel and a two-section panoramic sunroof. With all that, the window sticker was $27,440.
None of the Optima’s competitors can match that level of self-indulgence, much less the price. The Sonata Limited comes closest by offering heated front and rear seats and a single sunroof; it costs about $900 more than the Optima EX. Hyundai intends to respond: on its 2012 Sonata, the panoramic sunroof will be standard on the Limited model, a spokesman said.
The price difference is even greater for the other competitors in the class.
There are two other versions of the Optima. One is a sporty model with a turbocharged 2-liter 4-cylinder rated at 274 horsepower. It starts at $26,690.
A hybrid is promised this summer. Kia hasn’t announced the hybrid’s pricing, but predicts the E.P.A. rating will be 35 m.p.g. in the city and 40 m.p.g. on the highway.
While the Optima has a smaller price tag than its rivals, its physical dimensions are similar and its interior room and cargo space are competitive.
Where the Optima stands out is visually. The interior and exterior have an upscale flair that is missing in a segment where the main mission is everyday practicality. The style of the appointments and the upscale features convey a sense of fiscal well-being far beyond what one would expect for the sticker price, providing succor in troubling economic times.
The controls are simple and intuitive, and storage space is adequate. The twin sunroofs are a perk de soleil, really brightening the interior.
The navigation system, while easy to use, showed it is subject either to fits of disorientation or a wicked sense of whimsy. In Vermont, I left the Interstate to get fuel. Rather than tell me to make a U-turn to get back on the highway, it sent me along three miles of tiny dirt roads that, I suspect, were last used by Roger’s Rangers. At last I passed the gas station where I had stopped and there rejoined the Interstate.
Like all the vehicles in this segment, the Optima comes with the expected safety features: side-impact air bags, active front head restraints, side air curtains, antilock brakes and electronic stability control. The Optima (as well as the Sonata, Fusion and Malibu) is rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety for its performance in crash tests and its electronic stability control.
The news from behind the wheel is just as positive. A drive on a rough road demonstrates two things. One is an extremely solid structure that refuses to concede weakness with even a small quiver. The other is the suspension’s ability to keep sharp impacts from jostling the occupants.
The handling is pretty much what you’d expect from a competent front-wheel-drive family sedan. Sweeping turns are a pleasure, but if you try to hustle through a tight corner you are quickly made aware of all the weight in the front; the Optima feels nose heavy. There is one way to make it change direction a little more quickly: Lift off the gas heading into the corner so that the nose edges a bit deeper into the turn.
One minor downside is a soft brake pedal. Also, the Optima is a little slow to settle down on an undulating surface, resulting in an extra bobble or two.
The steering has reasonable weight and is predictable, but it lacks feeling, that hard-to-define sense of a partnership with a vehicle. And there is a slight vagueness on center — when you point the Optima straight ahead. The Optima can’t match the steering of the Fusion, which may be the best in this class.
A 6-speed manual is available only on the entry-level LX version ($19,690). Everything else, including the sporty turbo version, gets a 6-speed automatic. All versions except the hybrid have direct gasoline injection, an increasingly popular technology intended to provide more power and better fuel economy.
Not only does the standard Optima have more horsepower than its main competitors, it also weighs less than all of them except the Altima.
The 6-speed automatic is impressive. It is quick to figure out when it needs to downshift and it does so with finesse. Upshifts are smoothly discreet and appropriately timed. The transmission can be shifted manually by those who want to be a little more involved or are dealing with mountain roads.
The Optima’s strong, flexible powertrain carries an Environmental Protection Agency rating of 24 m.p.g. city and 34 m.p.g. highway. Even with more power, the Optima manages to beat its main competitors by 1 m.p.g. either in the city or on the highway. That’s nice for bragging rights, but inconsequential in the real world.
One consideration for consumers is Kia’s reliability record, which trails its competitors. For years the company fought to stay out of the lowest ranks in the reliability and dependability surveys by J. D. Power & Associates. But there have been signs of significant improvement: in Power’s 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study — which looked at how 2008 models held up — Kia ranked only slightly below the industry average. But it was still well behind Toyota, Honda and Ford.
Another thing to consider is a Kia recall in March that raised questions about corporate judgment. In that action, Kia recalled about 70,000 Optimas from the 2006-8 model years because the shift cable could become detached, causing the driver to think the automatic was in Park when it was not.
The worrisome thing was Kia’s admission to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it had known about the defect for four years but decided a recall was unnecessary — because, it said, drivers would notice that the shift lever felt different and would therefore use the parking brake. Kia announced the recall only after the safety agency began an investigation.
That morality play aside, the Optima is a competent and extremely pleasant package, with style and price at the core of its allure.
For more details please visit Karp Kia (www.karpkia.com) in Rockville Centre, NY. Karp Kia is the newest division of the Karp Auto group, a family owned and operated dealership since 1957, handling all of your Volvo, Buick, Saab, Kia, and Pre-owned needs. Karp Auto is located on the South Shore of Long Island, NY with easy access to Manhatten, Queens, Massapequa, etc.