2011 Kia Optima Review

Front 3/4 view of silver 2011 Kia Optima
The 2011 Kia Optima. Yes, Kia Optima.

The progress made by Korean automakers Kia and Hyundai the past few years has been nothing less than remarkable. It's the same basic story as how Toyota, Nissan (then Datsun) and Honda went from footnotes to mainstream best-sellers, but with a much steeper curve, negotiated much more quickly.

But even the rapid rise to respectability couldn't prepare us for the giant leap that is the 2011 Kia Optima. Until now a generic-looking sedan that fit right in as a rental car, the Optima now is gorgeous (if not absolutely, then certainly by family sedan standards), stylish and has bypassed contemporary for futuristic.

Rear view of silver 2011 Kia Optima
Rear view of the 2011 Kia Optima.

That particular "F" word, "futuristic",  is fraught with peril for manufacturers on that side of the Pacific, who have produced some designs that look like mutant insects from a 1950s sci-fi flick. But not the new Optima. The future here is one that's within sight from the present...where other manufacturers have been heading, but won't arrive for another move or two, that's where the 2011 Kia Optima is now.

The Optima starts at a very reasonable $19,200 for the LX with a manual transmission. Our tester was the EX with an automatic...boosting the price of entry to $22,495. You keep the same 2.4 liter four cylinder engine (200 horsepower), but step up to 17" wheels from 16s, and you get chrome accent door handles, clear-lens projector headlights, front fog lights, dual body-color heated power mirrors, Smart Key & pushbutton start, dual zone automatic climate control, the passenger gets an auto-down feature for the power window, door mood lamps and rear reading lamps, auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink and compass, an 8-way power driver's seat, leather seat trim and aluminum interior trim. That's a lot of upgrades for $3,295.

Interior of 2011 Kia Optima
2011 Kia Optima Interior.

And then there's the interior. And I'll be honest. At first, I felt let down. The surfaces and materials felt cheap to me. I finally figured it out...they're exactly right and maybe a bit better than they need to be for this segment and this price point....but the car gives the impression of being a much more expensive piece...my brain was thinking $40,000 when I slid behind the wheel. Again, the reality is $22,495.

That, of course, is before options, and the Kia press fleet folks added two...the Technology Package (a navigation system with backup camera and Sirius Traffic plus an upgraded Infinity audio system with 8 speakers) for $2,000...and the EX Premium Package (Panoramic sunroof, power front passenger seat, driver seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated outboard rear seats and a heated steering wheel) for $2,250.

Regular TireKicker readers know our mantra when it comes to $2,000 factory nav systems ("Your phone does that"), but the Infinity audio system sounds mighty nice, so maybe that's only a grand worth of nav.

With those two options and a $695 freight and handling charge, the sticker price on the 2011 Kia Optima we drove was $27,440. Slick, smooth, clean, quiet...EPA estimates of 24 city/34 highway and Kia's 10 year/100,000 mile limited powertrain warranty, 5 year/60,000 mile limited basic warranty and 5 year/60,000 mile roadside assistance. Hard to go wrong.

And there's a hybrid version for 2012 that will be in our hands in early October.

Camry, Accord, Altima, Mazda 6, Sonata, Fusion and Malibu, move over. There's a new contender you have to share the stage with.