YOUNTVILLE, California - Ever since Kia entered the U.S. market back in 1994, with the Sephia subcompact sedan and Sportage compact SUV, it's had a reputation for strictly value-priced automobiles. All through those early years, as its vehicle lineup began to expand, the South Korean automaker promoted value. Kias, we were told, offered virtually all the features and driving performance of more costly Japanese models, but at a considerable savings.
As the 21st century got rolling, though, Kia began to move past that strictly-moneysaving proposition. Acknowledging that earlier models had quality issues, the company took tangible steps to improve the manufacturing processes, and to introduce an appealing warranty to back up those quality gains.
With the latest Optima, which was introduced in redesigned form as a mid-2006 model, Kia appears to have reached a new plateau. This sedan can compete effectively with the entire roster of Japanese and American-made models. Even without consideration of price, in nearly every category of performance and comfort it scores at least as well as - if not better than - most current rivals.
Unveiled at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January 2006, the "all-new" Optima is built on a longer wheelbase (now 107.1 inches) with a wider track (now 71.1 inches) and short overhangs. Both engines have gained horsepower and promise greater fuel economy.
Kia claims more interior volume (104.2 cubic feet) than most midsize sedans, including the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima. Trunk space has grown by nearly 10 percent, to 14.8 cubic feet.
Circular design elements may be noted within the headlights and taillamps. A newly available Appearance Package includes Michelin tires on 17-inch wheels, a blacked-out grille and headlights, aluminum interior trim, and a Supervision meter cluster on the dashboard. For EX models, the Appearance Package adds black interior trim accents and black leather seats.
Six standard airbags include side curtains. Active front headrests move up and forward in a rear-impact collision, to help mitigate neck injuries to front occupants. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard. Antilock brakes, Electronic Stability Control, traction control and Brake Assist are included in an option package.
Kia's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine now produces 161 horsepower (up 15 percent), while the 2.7-liter V-6 gains almost 10 percent (now rated 185 hp). Dual exhaust outlets are installed on V-6 models. A new five-speed automatic transmission, with gated shift lever, incorporates Sportmatic. On LX four-cylinder models, a five-speed manual gearbox is standard, with automatic optional.
According to EPA estimates, the four-cylinder engine is rated at 24 mpg in city driving and a frugal 34 mpg on the highway, with either transmission. With the V-6, gas mileage dips a bit, to 22/30 mpg.
Steering with a particularly light touch, the Optima behaves more like a compact than a midsize on the highways - and also around town, cornering with ease and grace. Performance is surprisingly spirited with the four-cylinder engine, once you get rolling, which should satisfy most drivers who might otherwise be tempted by the V-6 alternative. Momentary delay can occur when calling for a downshift to pass, however.
Ride comfort is where the 2006.5 Optima shines brightest, at least on smooth surfaces. Even when the pavement turns somewhat rough, the fully independent suspenion eases its way past most obstacles and harsh spots, transmitting only a little commotion to occupants.
Only in one area does lack of refinement seep through. Though smooth enough at speed, the four-cylinder engine emits pulsation that can be felt in the steering wheel. It's not really annoying, but other manufacturers' four-cylinders manage to idle without drawing attention to themselves. Apart from that bit of engine sound, the Optima runs with impressive quietness, emitting only a trace of buzziness.
Visibility is good, except for over-the-shoulder blockage by the B-pillar on either side. Seats are satisfactory, though the driver's seatback feels just a bit harder than some, and entry/exit presents no problems. Ample interior space appears to bear out Kia's claims.
In short, Kia's Optima is now a true contender in the midsize sales price - not quite perfect, but ready to give Honda and Toyota some serious competition.
Two trim levels are offered: LX and step-up EX, each available with either a four-cylinder or V-6 engine. Prices start at $16,955 (including destination charge) for a four-cylinder LX with manual shift. An EX with the V-6 and automatic runs $21,000.
Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows and locks, heated mirrors, a six-way adjustable driver's seat, six-speaker CD audio, 60/40 split-folding rear seat, and a tire-pressure monitor. With the automatic transmission, an LX four-cylinder sedan includes cruise control, keyless entry (with alarm), manual tilt/telescopic steering column, steering-wheel audio controls, and floor mats.
EX models add alloy whees, fog lamps, solar glass, an eight-way power driver's seat, automatic temperature control, auto-dimming inside mirror with Homelink, leather-wrapped steering wheel, trip computer, and an Infinity cassette/CD changer with MP3 capability.
Urban Update: Tested later on midwestern city streets, a four-cylinder Optima LX wasn't quite as easygoing in terms of ride quality. Urban potholes mean greater body motion, but the Optima seldom crosses the line into discomfort.