She Said, He Said: 2011 Kia Optima

Barbara ? By looks alone, the new Kia Optima is a winner. ?Sure, I could go into all the specs about how it?s longer, wider and lower than the previous version, etcetera, etcetera, ?but that doesn?t give you the visual impact that seeing it person does; and photos just don?t do it justice.

Styled in Kia?s Frankfurt, Germany and Irvine, Calif. design studios, the Optima is not the product of cookie cutter design, it is fresh and sleek with a well-toned muscular silhouette.? The grille is unmistakable Kia with the bold tabbed family grille book-ended by projector headlights.? And on top of it all, it has one of those swooping four-door coupe rooflines that are such a rage.

Bill ? My driving partner and I were taking photos of the Optima in front of a winery in the San Pasqual Valley wine region north of San Diego, when we saw a guy carrying a case of wine out of the tasting room.? He put the wine in the back of his car, then walked over to us and said, ?That?s a Kia?? WOW! I would have never guessed.?? I couldn?t agree more, it is a head-turner.
After a spirited drive through the Southern California foothills, my ?seat of the pants? impression told me the beauty was more than skin deep.

Barbara ? The interior isn?t as pretty as the exterior, but I give it top marks for function and organization.

As a charter member of Over Organizers Anonymous, I was impressed by how well the Optima cockpit is arranged with banks of associated controls gathered and well marked in a logical arrangement on the center stack, the door panels and on the steering wheel.? It?s one of the more intuitive organizations of car control systems I?ve seen.? It may even rival my kitchen, which my friends tell me is a work of art, but most of my friends are crazy.

For communications and entertainment, the Optima includes a standard panel on the lower center stack with two 12-volt charge outlets, a USB port and a plug for MP3 players ? this appears to be something all the Kias are getting now.? A Bluetooth? wireless link is also standard on all models and includes steering wheel-mounted voice activation controls to easily access cell phones.

Bill ? Built on an all new unibody platform with front-wheel drive and four-wheel independent suspension, the Optima shares mechanicals with its popular cousin the Hyundai Sonata.

Kia is phasing in three distinctive propulsion systems for the Optima.? The standard engine, which most people will buy, is a 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter gas direct injection (GDI) four-cylinder.? Rated at a class leading 200-hp, the Optima is a little quicker (0 to 60 mph in 7.9 seconds) than other four-cylinder mid-level competitors like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.? Fuel economy is an impressive 24 mpg city and 35 mpg on the highway.

In a surprising move, Kia decided not to outfit the upper level Optimas with a V-6 engine, rather they are offering a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbocharged power plant, that will be available early in 2011.? The turbo bumps the horsepower by 74 and torque by 83-lb.ft. and it cuts the 0 to 60 mph time to an estimated 6.9 seconds with only a slight dip in fuel economy to 22/34 mpg.

The third propulsion option set to be available early in 2011 is Kia?s first hybrid. Capable of an estimated 40 mpg, the Kia Hybrid takes a different approach than competitors.? It is a full parallel hybrid system that can be driven up to 62 mph in the electric mode, briefly.? It uses a new lightweight lithium polymer battery and a unique Transmission-Mounted-Electric-Drive (TMED) layout.

The base model with the GDI engine is available with a smooth shifting six-speed manual transmission, however all other models, including the Hybrid, will have a smooth six-speed automatic with a manual shift mode.? The turbo versions will also get wheel-mounted shift paddles.

Barbara ? All three Optima trim levels, LX, EX and SX, have abundance of standard features including air conditioning, power windows, keyless entry, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a cooling glove box.? All models also include AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sat audio system with SIRIUS??Satellite Radio and a long list of safety features including stability control and hill start assist.

The Optima pricing starts at $18,995 for the LX with manual transmission; that is just $305 more than the previous generation base model.? For lease customers, ALG (Automotive Lease Guide) has assigned a residual value of 53-percent of the 2011 original MSRP for 36 months of ownership.? That?s a 66 improvement over the previous generation and a strong indicator of how the car should hold its value.

The EX starts at $22,495 adding leather seating, 17-inch alloy wheels and several more convenience features.? The turbocharged engine adds $2,000 and several more performance and cosmetic upgrades.

The top-of-the-line SX starts at $25,995 adding an even higher feature level including 18-inch alloy wheels, sport-tuned suspension, unique lower body trim, HID head lights, LED tail lights, black leather and woven seat trim, Supervision? meter cluster, steering wheel paddle shifters, carbon fiber interior trim, metal pedals, and illuminated door scuff plates.? Wow!? That?s quite a package.

Bill ? A great deal of the impression a car gives comes from the way it feels and the sounds it makes.? The Kia Optima feels good with a firm solid ride, the steering is light and precise with a good road feel. There is a little under steer, but that?s typical of front wheel drive vehicles. ?Another added bonus for me is the solid ?thud? the doors make when closing.

The buttons, dials, stalks and other controls have a smooth, positive action with a quality feel ? in other words, they don?t feel cheap.

Barbara ? I have to give the Kia planners high marks for getting all my, mostly small, but important, features integrated into the new Optima. This includes an overhead passenger assist handle for me grab when Bill does something I think might be dumb. I also appreciate the extensions on the visors that help block the sun.? The drink holders are well positioned, and I especially like the ones in the doors.? And then there is my favor option, the heated front seats.? I am also a big fan of the optional navigation system which includes something I think every car should have ? a rear view camera.

On the down side, I?d like to see a blind spot warning system to give me that extra security when I plan to change lanes, and I?d also like an active cruise control system, but that?s probably too much to ask for on a vehicle with a sub $30,000 sticker.

Kia has done a great job of getting the Optima right.? The styling, performance, value and attention to detail make it one of my favorites.

Bill ? The Optima is a complete package of styling, comfort, quality and performance that moves it a step ahead of some very strong competitors.? I am anxious to spend more time in all the models, and especially the upcoming turbo and hybrid versions.? I will report back when we?ve had more time behind the wheel of this exciting new Kia.

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