If I told you a car is stylish, fun to drive, fuel efficient, filled with upscale features and costs less than $30,000, you'd have a hard time believing me. If I told you -- sight unseen -- that the 2011 Kia Optima is such a car, you'd have a really hard time believing me until you saw this gorgeous midsize sedan. Of course, if I showed you the 2011 Optima's price tag, your disbelief would kick in again.
After years of lingering in forgettable territory, the redesigned 2011 Optima is now unforgettable and poised to conquer its competition.
I'm not the only one who thinks that. Cars.com named the 2011 Optima its Best of 2011. Major exterior and interior face-lifts as well as a powerful new engine combine to make it one of the most appealing choices in the midsize sedan market. The 200-horsepower engine helps make the driving experience more memorable. It has ample power and a smooth ride for day-to-day driving.
The Optima starts at $19,200, and my test car, the EX, had a starting MSRP of $22,700. It ultimately rang up at $27,440 with the inclusion of the $2,000 Technology Package and the $2,250 EX Premium Package.
When the Optima first appeared in my driveway, my husband kept referring to it as "the Lexus." He couldn't believe that it wasn't a luxury-brand vehicle. He especially couldn't believe it was a Kia. He had pigeonholed Kia to its 1990s' introductory vehicles, some of which looked like chubby Suzuki Samurais. Kia has come a long, long way, and the 2011 Optima is nothing short of lovely.
The all-new Optima has a lower roofline and a new face with angular headlights that bookend a black mesh grille. The Optima EX I drove comes standard with 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights and dual exhaust pipes with chrome tips. My test car also had the optional panoramic sunroof.
As you'd expect from a midsize sedan, the Optima is easy for everyone -- even a tiny 2-year-old -- to get in and out of. The doors are light enough that no one will suffer a concussion should they get hit by one (my little ones are at the optimal height for being hit by opening or closing car doors). The trunk is also easy to open and close, but it would be improved if it popped open and up once unlocked rather than simply popping open and sitting there. With three kids, I often don't have a free hand to lift up the trunk lid.
The trunk space is about average for this class at 15.4 cubic feet. There is nothing extraordinary about the trunk -- no pass-through and no hidden first-aid kits or flashlights -- but it serves its purpose and that's good enough for me, especially when the rest of the car is filled with so many great things.
My test car, the Optima EX, is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers a healthy 200 hp. It gets an EPA-estimated 24/34 mpg city/highway. I drove and drove and drove this car and still didn't have an empty tank at the end of my weeklong test drive. A sport-tuned SX trim and a turbocharged EX trim are also available and come with a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 274 hp.
Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great
Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Groove-On
The Optima's interior looks just as good as the outside does, and it feels good, too. The faux wood trim was tasteful enough that I'd have loved more of it around the cabin, but the more prominent black-colored plastic that covered everything looked and felt decent, too.
In addition to looking good, the Optima's cabin is filled with upscale features. Standard fare includes dual-zone automatic temperature control, USB and auxiliary inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink and compass, and a glove box with a cooling feature for icy beverages. It also has eight cupholders, and the center console is tiered and ample. The center stack's controls are easy to reach and manage. Comfortable leather-trimmed seats complete the appearance of more luxury than expected in a car this price.
This car offers many of the same options you'd find in a Lexus, Land Rover or Infiniti. A heated steering wheel, automatic panoramic sunroof and backup camera are available features and priced well within reach. There's also the option of heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats and driver's seat memory. When all is said and done, the Optima offers the opportunity to have a well-outfitted car that costs far less than a luxury brand.
Some car reviewers have complained about the Optima's tight headroom in the rear seats, but my 5-foot-8 frame fit quite comfortably, even with the panoramic sunroof that diminishes headroom. In fact, I found head-, leg- and shoulder room to be sufficient, even for the front passenger with a rear-facing infant-safety seat installed in the rear seat behind it.
IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT
Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Ample
The 2011 Kia Optima is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick. It earned the highest rating of Good in frontal-offset, side-impact, rear and roof-strength crash tests. It also has an electronic stability system, another must for IIHS' Top Safety Pick status. The Optima also earned an overall crash-test rating of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Optima has two sets of lower Latch anchors in the outboard rear seats. They're easy to get to and use. I could fit a backless booster seat, a convertible and a rear-facing infant seat across the backseat, but it was too tight for a child in the booster seat to buckle up. The Optima really fits two car seats.
The Optima safety features include front-wheel drive, traction control, active front head restraints in the front row and six airbags, including side curtains for both rows. My test car came equipped with the optional Technology Package that includes a backup camera.
© 2011, Cars.com