I still remember the unanimous media approval when Kia unveiled its new midsize sedan in early 2010 and as soon as the Optima arrived on the market about a year later, it made Kia sales surging.
The new Optimamade waves because of its stunning new design, that was honored with the Red Dot Product Design Award 2011. The credit goes to Kia’s design chief Peter Schreyer and his team. In 2006, Schreyer joined Kia as Chief Design Officer after two decades at Audi and Volkswagen and he has since coordinated design at Kia’s styling studios in Korea, Frankfurt, Los Angeles and Tokyo.
At his arrival at Kia, the Soul was almost production ready and Schreyer replaced the grille by one with the characteristic hexagonal shape, which later formed part of Kia’s new, recognizable ‘face’, known as ‘tiger nose’.
But it is not only about design, when we talk about the Optima. It is also about fit, finish and performance. Since its launch, the Optima has won other prestigious awards, such as ‘Best Family Car of 2012’ and the ‘Top Safety Pick’ of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), while ranking highest in a tie with the Volkswagen Passat in the midsize car category of J.D. Power & Association and the 2012 Automotive Performance Execution and Layout Study.
When picking up the white SX Limited, I thought how well white becomes cars in sunny California. Contrary to Europe, where white is pretty exceptional. In The Netherlands we even say: “Met een witte, blijf je zitten”,which translates into ‘with a white one, you’ll get stuck’ (hard to resell)...
Anyway, Snow White Pearl enhances the Optima’s styling, shows its lines and makes it look larger. The SXL is based on the turbocharged Optima SX and has LED daytime running lights, chrome accented rear spoiler and lower door sills, while red brake calipers are visible through the SXL’s unique 18-inch wheels.
In Europe, the Optima with its length of 191 inches, is considered as a large business sedan and to be honest, it does not look very ‘medium’ on American roads either.
The interior is well executed and offers a rich standard equipment, that is not common yet in many other models in its segment. To mention some: Nappa leather in white or black, wood interior trim, eight-way power driver seat with memory, dual zone air conditioning, full map navigation with integrated rear view camera,
Nappa leather interior, electronic parking brake, instrument panel with LCD display, steering wheel with paddle shifters, metal pedals panoramic sunroof, 4-way power front passenger seat, heated/cooled front seats, heated rear seats and Infinity audio system, and not to forget the first aid kit.
The cabin offers excellent space, the driver seat – eight-way power adjustable with memory - can be easily adjusted and offers enough comfort and support. Six-feet tall passengers in the rear have plenty of leg- and headroom, but the panoramic roof eats away a little bit of space.
Even with a full size spare wheel (YEA!!!!), luggage space is excellent, but when my suitcases were loaded, I noticed the old-fashioned hinges. Of course, they are sturdier and cheaper than hydraulic units, but they are unprotected, meaning they take space when you close the boot lid and then can easily crack your luggage.
Technically, the SXL is the same as the Optima SX and is equipped with the 2.0-liter turbo charged engine that produces 274 hp at 6,000 rpm and has 269 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The four-cylinder is a strong, but quiet performer and a fair alternative to a V-6 motor. Its response is quick and sophisticated and the six-speed automatic transmission is well tuned to work together with the engine and downshifts smoothly on the right moments to provide engine power, with fuel economy.
The SXL’s handling has a sporty touch and there is hardly any body roll. The sport suspension does not completely flatten out bumps, but the ride is not too harsh. A softer compound rubber around the 18-inch wheels will improve this somewhat.
The steering is quick and the Optima feels well-balanced. With its front wheel drive, the car is neutral when turning into corners, but to my taste, could be a bit crispier. The stability is good and the car feels stable in the straight line, also when you push the XSL to higher speeds. When pushing the brake pedal, the Optima comes to a standstill in a smooth and straight way.
I drove the Optimaon the freeways around Los Angeles and in the Beach Cities and found it such a nice ‘daily driver’, that I would not have mind to keep it somewhat longer than the assigned test time.
With an MSRP of $ 35,275 it is not the cheap car, but people who like the looks and the extensive equipment, will enjoy the South Korean car. They do not need to think about ‘buying American’, as the Optima is produced in Kia’s factory in West Point, Georgia. (See Also: Where All Cars Sold In North America Are Built.
-Good fuel economy of 24 mpg city, 35 mpg highway Refinement, performance, styling Fuel eco. (although SX models averaged 20.1-21.9 mpg in mostly city driving.)
-Backlit, inset gauges are easy to see in most any lighting condition. This is in direct contrast to the steering-wheel buttons, which are not well-lit at all. The available navigation system absorbs some audio functions, but the most basic settings are controlled with buttons on the steering wheel or center of the dashboard.
By Henny Hemmes
Senior European Editor
The Auto Channel