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

Coupe de grace

Mercedes makes 2-doors way sexier than 4 with its E550

CASEY WILLIAMS  | Auto Reviewer crwauto@aol.com


’10 E550 COUPE

Mercedes-Benz. 381 hp,
5.5 liter V8. 15/23-MPG city/hwy. As-tested price: $61,475

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Since my grandmother bought her first one after my grandfather died 35 years ago, I have been a fan of Mercedes. Generation after generation, the cars are solidly-built, timelessly-styled and always at the top of their class. Grandma always purchased entry-level sedans: Two 280Es, a 190E and C220. She would drive them 170,000 miles and trade them off for the next generation — often without ever driving it. She just knew she would be pleased and was never disappointed.

Mercedes Benz E550
SPORTY COOL | The Mercedes Benz E550 offers the best of both worlds with nods to classic Mercedes builds and high tech interior features with a powerful engine that takes you from 0 to 60 in five seconds.

Mercedes coupes have always been more special than their sedans. I love the E Sedan as much as uninspiring professors probably liked the Ponton sedans in the ‘50s, but the more fabulous among us go for coupes: They’re sexy, but no less reliable, and will be the ones to covet decades from now. I still remember the new E-Coupe my doctor purchased in the late ‘80s. It looked great next to his red Mercedes 560SL!

Still sharing basic vehicle architecture with the C-Class, the latest E-Class Coupe takes a giant step upmarket in terms of styling and refinement. A more traditional Mercedes, the car feels as if a defiant Kim Jong Il couldn’t disturb it even if he went completely off the crazy train.

There are more traditional styling cues outside, but the design is wholly anchored in the next decade. A broad star-strewn grille shifts wind with twin lamellas running across, reaching to large headlamps with separate driving lamps between — a take from earlier Mercedes coupes with their large round headlamps and inset foglamps.

LED lamps in the lower facia step up to Audi’s challenge while AMG 18-in. alloy wheels could be on nothing other than a Mercedes. A tight arching roofline is ultra-sleek with the look of Mercedes’ CLS, but the accentuated rear fenders hearken back to the ‘50s. The E550 Coupe is a blend of Mercedes’ historic design cues, rendered in a new and fresh way.

If my doctor had to make a fast trip to the hospital (a continent away), the E550 would have been ready for the run. The car’s chiseled sloping hood shields a 5.5-liter 32-valve V8 engine that produces 382 horsepower and 391 lb.-ft. of torque. A standard 7-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel paddle shifters moves power to the rear wheels as smoothly as a tank trashing an ant. Step on the go pedal and the stout coupe scamps from 0–60 mph in about 5 seconds flat. Fuel economy is rated 15/23-MPG city/hwy.

INSIDE JOB | High tech options accent sleek lines.

Like the exterior, passenger space is a blend of tradition and contemporary elegance. You could step out of a 1975 Mercedes Coupe and be instantly familiar with the dash-mounted ignition switch, gated gear selector, left-dash light switch, and large center speedometer flanked by auxiliary gauges. Even the low turn stalk and upper left placement of the cruise control stick are exactly where your grandmother remembers them. Some may think these features are quaint and should be changed, but I have a healthy respect for tradition. So do Mercedes owners who really don’t care to have these things altered.

However, they are just fine with the onslaught of technology that invaded Mercedes cabins in recent years. Navigation, Bluetooth for phone connectivity, Sirius Satellite Radio, and heated/cooled leather seats keep owners art to the state. Radar cruise control maintains a set distance from vehicles in front on the highway. Technology or not, the brown dashtop is the perfect accent for hand-polished burl walnut on the dash, doors, and front and rear center consoles. What looks chrome, is. And, if it looks like timber, it could be ground to sawdust.

Mercedes’ renowned safety is accounted for in heaps. Of course, it has four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, brake force distribution, and cornering control. Dual front, side, and side curtain airbags are standard. Our test car came with PRE-SAFE, a system that uses a radar unit behind the grille emblem to detect an impending accident, alert the driver, and even apply brakes automatically if he does not react quickly enough. Attention Assist detects drowsiness in the driver’s behavior from sensors in the steering and brake systems, and then illuminates a little coffee cup in the instrument cluster to wake him up.

Driving the E550 Coupe is a delight. Nothing upsets the car’s continuously variable damping system suspension. A car that feels incredibly heavy and stable at high speed turns into a lithe sport coupe when tossed about. It can drive 1,000-mile days as happily as attacking two-lane mountain passes.

The E550 Coupe is a stunning automobile, sure to make a scene wherever it rolls. Stunningly modern, it would still be recognized as a Mercedes on any planet. My grandmother would like it, but my doctor would love it. Go for the equally-impressive cabriolet and he could kick both the E320 and SL560 to the Classic Center and not miss either one. Base prices start at $54,650, but our test car came to $61,475.

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BABY GOT BACK | The C30’s retro rear was a selling point for Cooper. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Drivers seat

Name: Jon Cooper.

Occupation: Store operations support for Zales and part-time historical studies major at UTD.

Car: Volvo C30 T5.

Isn’t that the Twilight movie car? Are you Team Edward or Team Jacob? If someone mentions that movie one more time, I’m gouging their eyes out. Unless he’s hot.

The official color of your car is: Titanium grey metallic.

How long have you owned this car? A year and a half.

What was your last car? Ford Explorer Sport.

So why this one? After years of settling I finally decided to hell with it, I’m getting something nice!

It’s sporty — does it get good gas mileage? Not bad, 28 mpg combined.

Are you a faster driver now? Some have accused me of driving like a grandma, but the turbo is definitely turning me into a lead foot.

Best car memory: The first “Oh crap!” during a rain storm when all the safety features kicked in.

What’s playing in your music player? My iPod shuffles a mix from Keith Urban to Franz Ferdinand to Colton Ford with the occasional show tune.

What kind of maintenance do you do on your own? On this car? I ain’t touching anything!

What are the rules of your car? Be gentle and don’t screw with my seat settings.

How do you rate this car to previous ones? Considering my first car was a 1976 AMC Pacer, it’s definitely a step up.

This is a higher class car for you. Are you a power gay now? Definitely not.  An easy gay?  Yes.

Funniest road trip story? I did take it on a camping trip last spring.  I got a few raised eyebrows and head shakes from the hardcore SUV crowd.

What makes it sexy? Leather, baby!  Leath-uh!

Do the seats recline all the way for those special dates? Special what?

Where is one place you’d like to really drive your car? To my graduation ceremony next spring.

Would you put a Pride sticker on it? The only intelligent quote from The Real Housewives of New Jersey: “Would you put a bumper sticker on a Bentley?”  Maybe a Texas-shaped rainbow sticker on the license plate.

Foreign v. domestic? What are we talking about — guys or cars?

— Rich Lopez

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 17, 2010.

—  Michael Stephens