From being a virtual unknown in America within most people's memories, Kia has become the eighth largest auto brand in the United States. More than 360,000 Kias were sold last year, some to fleets but most to individuals who, presumably, found Kia's prices and vehicles impossible to resist.
The new Optima, it would seem, can only help. Redesigned for 2011, it is one of the best-performing midsize family sedans on the U.S. market, with styling that's not as potentially polarizing as that of its corporate sister, the Hyundai Sonata, but not so bland as to fade into the scenery.
I enjoyed my time behind the wheel of my $27,000 sample and have only two reservations about recommending it: an unpleasant amount of road noise on the highway and Kia's improving but still inconsistent performance in publicly available quality surveys.
Founded in Korea in 1944, Kia built its first four-wheeled vehicle, a truck, in 1962, according to a company history, and built cars for decades before it started selling them in this country under its own brand name, in 1993. It went bankrupt in 1997 and was taken over by Hyundai.
Like the Sonata, the Optima comes standard with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine, rated at 200 hp. Their optional engine is a turbocharged four-cylinder that Hyundai/Kia says delivers 274 hp. You don't need it; the standard engine delivers pep that's more than sufficient.
The Environmental Protection Agency says the base engine delivers 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 on the highway. I averaged no better than 26 mpg on most trips of mostly highway miles.
Optima prices begin at $19,690 with freight and stick shift.
The Optima handles adroitly but rides comfortably. The suspension begins to lose its composure only at highway speeds on undulating pavement. The tester's interior was gorgeous and ergonomically seamless, except that the steering wheel controls are unlit.
The Optima comes with the same extraordinary five-year, 60,000-mile warranty as does the Sonata. Consumer Reports has no reliability rating yet for the new Optima but has mixed ratings for other Kias. J.D. Power and Associates' most recent surveys of customer satisfaction with their vehicles after three months and three years on the road deem the brand below-average.
Back on the upside, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety deems the Optima a "top safety pick."