EurAsian excellence

Korean-born but European-bred, Kia’s Optima EX has luxury and speed at a bargain price

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer
crwauto@aol.com

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’11 OPTIMA EX
Kia. 200 horsepower, 2.4 liter Inline-4 24/34-MPG city/hwy. As-tested price: $27,440

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The low point of Kia design was not the Sephia or Spectra — it was the Amati, which looked like some Saturday morning cartoon thought it would be cool to get a TownCar to cohabitate with an Accord and act out their affection upon America. It was a good car, but for prayer’s sake, somebody needed to get Kia’s design department drawing in the right direction.

That person turned out to be Peter Schreyer, who became chief design officer in 2006. Schreyer’s resume includes some stunners, including the 1996 Audi A3, the 1998 Audi TT, the 1998 Audi A6 and the 2006 VW Eos. That’s just what he gets credit for before landing at Kia. Since then, his team sculpted the beautiful 2010 Forte, 2010 Sportage, and this Optima. Who says good design has to be expensive? Like Michael Graves for Target, Schreyer graced masterful styling upon the masses while teaching Kia to speak with a European accent.

You can tell an expertly designed car by the attention to detail. The Optima’s design starts with a fairly conservative sedan with arched roofline, but designers spent considerable time sculpting the ridges on either side of the hood and fitting in a cool chrome band that runs from the base of the A-pillar, through the roof and into the top edge of the C-pillar.

INSIDE AND OUT | Kia’s signature pinched grille, top, remains intact, but the stylishly redesigned interior, above, harkens to the finest and most user-friendly of Euro roadsters, like the Saab.

Kia’s trademark pinched grille dominates the front, but makes friends with angled headlamps that give the car an aggressive face. A strong shoulderline anchors the bottom half of the car and helps break up the tall body. Tail lamps have dimension and resemble those on the new VW Passat.

I admire the exterior, but the inside is even better. A Saab-style wrap-around dashboard puts controls readily at hand and is enhanced with stitched sections on either side of the instrument cluster. No other mid-size sedan has a more perfectly-sized heated leather-wrapped steering wheel that also contains the Bluetooth phone controls. Heated and cooled leather front buckets are all-day comfortable; outboard rear passengers soak in the heat.

Nobody makes an easier-to-use touchscreen for the navigation, XM Satellite radio and USB-connected MP3 player. A panoramic sunroof only makes it easier to see the elegant bluish woodgrain on the doors and console. Schreyer apparently remembered the perfectly weighted gear selector from his Audi days, because the Optima gets its own.

So, what happens when an international designer meets world-class engineers? They create cars that not only look European, but drive that way, too. In fact, the front-drive Optima behaves like the last Saab 9-5, a personal favorite. Steering is nicely weighted and precise while the suspension is compliant, but firm. The chassis two-steps over rough pavement with nary a shudder, absorbing potholes without going weepy, while settling down for a long, quiet drive. You can feel the steering purring in your hands, telling you what the car’s thinking. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, and hill-start assist control aid the driver with his or her duties.

I thumped the Optima hard on a one-day road trip of more than 600 miles. Kia’s 200-HP 2.4-liter direct-injection four-cylinder engine, connected to a 6-speed Sportmatic transmission, is pretty sweet. The torquey little lump of motivation feels mightier than its sword suggests. Step on it at 80 mph, and the six-speed transmission clips down a couple of cogs, sending the car off to wherever you point it.

Running at least 10 mph over the legal limit most of the way, it returned nearly 33-MPG. (The EPA claims 24/34-MPG city/hwy.) There are some just re-designed competitors from big-name automakers that would die to have this powertrain. Kia owners will barely notice the fuel bill or any noise from under the hood.

It used to be that people bought Kias because they apparently liked being jokes of the neighborhood. Those days left to the heap of old school thinking like respect for Charlie Sheen. The Ashton Kutcher era brings us an entire line of Kias that you’ll choose because you fall in love with them, like Korean Volkswagens. This, come to think of it, might be exactly Schreyer’s point.

Not that the Optima needs it, but it comes standard with Kia’s 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. Sans NAV, panoramic roof, and all of the heating and cooling for seats and steering wheels, the Optima EX starts at just $22,495. As equipped as a Swedish treat, expect to pay $27,440 -— a freakin’ steal for this dreamy ride. You’ll just have to wrench the keys from my warm knurled fingers. Speaking European won’t help your cause.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens