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April 5, 2011 > Auto Review: Kia Optima, part of a great story

Auto Review: Kia Optima, part of a great story

By Steve Schaefer

Kia was founded in Seoul, Korea in 1944 as a manufacturer of steel tubing and bicycle parts. After introducing their own bicycle in 1951, they moved on to motor scooters in 1957, motorcycles in 1961 and built Korea's first truck, the K-360, in 1962. In 1974, they began manufacturing vehicles from Peugeot and Fiat.

Kia only began selling cars in the U.S. in 1994, but they've seen increases in market share every year since. Sephia, the first Kia sold here, accounted for 12,163 units in 1994. The Sportage compact SUV arrived in 1996, and in 1997, Kia sold 100,000 cars. In 1999 Hyundai, the other Korean automotive manufacturer, purchased Kia. Numerous awards and success stories have since added luster to the brand.

The first Optima sedan arrived in 2000. Kia went over the half-million total sales mark, too, with 160,606 vehicles moved that year.

The new Optima represents another step. This time, the company has built a car that looks and feels a lot like a Lexus. Kia sales in 2010 totaled 356,268.

How did they do it?

The original Sephia was nothing special-just inexpensive, at $8,495. But like the Japanese manufacturers before them, the Koreans carefully and systematically worked on improving everything about their cars. Every new model was better than the last. The Spectra was nicer than the Sephia. The Forte is much more stylish than the Spectra. And today's Optima is a world away from its competent but unremarkable predecessor.

The Optima gets a whole new look this year, with energetic, sweeping side sculpting and a new take on the Kia tabbed grille. Cut lines between body panels are unusual. The rear side windows reference Lexus IS but in details, the car goes its own way.

My Satin Metal test car had the optional panoramic sunroof, so a dark panel ran from front to back in an uninterrupted line-a dramatic "all glass" look.

Optima's interior offers beautifully proportioned dash and doors with the look and feel of premium Japanese vehicles. The center console has angled cupholders (the right one forward from the left), which places seat heating and cooling controls for both seats on the right side of the car. In the Japanese market, right-hand-drive model, that would probably make more sense.

Optimas come with one of three four-cylinder engines. The base engine is a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower mill. A more powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged engine offers 274 horsepower. This is Kia's first turbo model sold in the U.S. A Hybrid version of the Optima arrives soon, combining a 2.4-liter 166-horsepower gas engine with a 40.2-horsepower electric motor.

Three models fill out the non-Hybrid range, from the LX base car to the EX luxury model to the SX sporty car. My Satin Metal test car was an EX. The LX gets the 2.4-liter standard engine, but you can order the turbo in the EX Turbo and SX models. A six-speed manual transmission is available in the LX only; otherwise you get a six-speed automatic with Sportmatic clutchless gear selection.

Fuel economy is good for a 3,200 - 3,400 pound midsize sedan. EPA gives the 2.4-liter 24 City, 35 Highway; the 2.0-liter turbo is right behind, at 22/34. The Hybrid model is expected to get 40 mpg Highway. EPA's Green Vehicle Guide gives the automatic-equipped Optima green ratings of 6 for both Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution.

On the outside, Optima LX features dual chrome-tipped exhausts and 16-inch steel wheels and tires. EX adds fog lights, heated outside mirrors and 17-inch alloy wheels and tires; EX Turbo adds a unique grille. The sports-oriented SX brings auto-leveling HID headlights, LED rear combination lights, its own grille design, a rear lip spoiler, sculpted side sills, aero wiper blades, black front brake calipers and 18-inch black machined finish alloy wheels with P225/45R18 tires.

Inside, Optima LX with automatic transmission features cruise control and an active system for optimal fuel efficient driving. The EX adds more, including push button-start ignition with smart key, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and an eight-way power driver's seat. EX Turbo adds wood interior trim with metal accents. SX comes with black leather woven seat trim, black interior trim with carbon insert film, steering wheel paddle shifters, metal pedals and lighted metal door scuff plates.

Driving the Optima is more like luxury cruising than you might expect. It's smooth and silent, with firm German-style seats and very well positioned armrests for maximum comfort.

Prices range from $19,690 for the LX with manual transmission to $26,690 for the SX. Various options can push the prices up further. My EX tester would set you back a mere $23,190.

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