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It’s hard to garner enthusiasm for a midsize car. I’m not saying that a buyer shouldn’t consider one; it’s just that most midsize sedans quicken my pulse as much as using my Oster toaster oven. Actually, my trusty Oster might just be more exciting because it always crisps my taquitos to perfection. Midsize sedans are great for efficient family transport, and if that’s what you’re after, you’re in luck with the myriad of options from every manufacturer selling cars. Recently though, I drove a midsize sedan on which an Oster badge would look out of place. In fact, I’d rather be behind the helm of it than eagerly awaiting my dinner. A strong statement because I’m almost always hungry.
2011 Kia Optima Rear" vspace="4" width="293" align="right" height="220" hspace="4"> The 2011 Kia Optima is a big deal for Kia and midsize sedans in general. Better than the outgoing model in every way, the 2011 is proof of what Kia can do when it sets its mind to something. Following a car that could be described as a generic brand midsize sedan at best, the new Optima is out to change minds. You don’t even need to get behind the wheel to notice it…just look at it. No way would this toast my taquitos (safely).
It’s based on the new Hyundai Sonata, but it has a character all its own. Longer, wider, and lower than its predecessor, the Optima gives a sporty vibe without being overly aggressive. Slung over standard 17” wheels, my high level EX tester was quite a striking vehicle. From the jack-o-lantern grille to the swooping roofline to the dual exhaust tips, it’s not quite like anything else in the segment, but it feels strangely familiar at the same time.
Photos courtesy of Kia
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I open the driver’s door, sit in the seat, and marvel at its vault-like closing. We’re talking bank vault here. It was so impressive, I did it a few more times. The car must have looked like a flightless bird attempting to fly by flapping one wing. After a strange look from an innocent bystander, I stopped trying to fly the car and focused on the rest of the interior environment. Equally impressive.
Fit and finish is no less than superb, and the quality of materials is top-notch. Everything I touched was soft. Door panels, arm rests, upper dashboard, all soft. I felt nostalgic for chintzy Kia interiors of yore, and was delighted to find the lower portion of the door panel, the part you never touch, is hard plastic. I was let down when even that hard plastic felt high quality. Take all negative preconceived notions of Kia and burn them in a toaster oven now.
The dash is laid out in a very logical manner, with all buttons intuitive and simple to find and manipulate. It’s refreshing because I can’t count the number of times I blasted AC/DC with the intention of turning up the A/C. The steering wheel is satisfyingly meaty, and it’s not plagued with the sea of generic lego-brick buttons like in the competition. The center stack is canted toward the 10 degrees, giving you the feeling of being in a car built for the driver.
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Adjusting the driver seat, I found just enough headroom to not feel cramped; however at 6’4”, I would have appreciated an inch more sky above my head. The expansive panoramic sunroof did wonders for an airy feeling inside, but a solid shade could be automatically deployed when the sun shining its hardest. There is a separate fixed glass roof in the rear, and when combined with the front, it helped make the interior feel less like sitting in a hole than most 4-door coupe styled sedans with short greenhouses. The rear provided ample head and leg room and the seats were exceptionally comfortable.
The brightest shining light inside is the absolutely brilliant optional Infinity 8-speaker surround system. The simulated surround sound mode takes regular stereo music and turns the Optima into a concert hall, dive bar, or whatever the original recording’s intended venue. I closed my eyes and found a perfect frontal soundstage with light echoing behind. If music is at all important to you, check this option box.
I fumbled for a key for a few moments before I realized that the new Optima has keyless start. With a fob in my pocket and a tap of the ignition button the dashboard, I was off. Under the hood is a power plant that I assume must have been developed by magic wizards in the forest of awesome. A 2.4-liter 4-cylinder that puts out 200 horsepower and 35mpg on the highway is impressive, the fact it achieves it on regular unleaded gasoline is magic. Paired to a 6-speed automatic transmission, cruising was is a breeze. The package did seem to lack low to mid-range passing power, however it’s a minor quibble compared to the high end oomph and miserly fuel economy.
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It’s a remarkably quiet car, the Optima. I had to roll the window down and open the sunroof to prove to myself it did in fact make road noise. It does, but leave the windows up and you’d never know. The MacPherson strut and multilink rear suspension with high performance dampers does a miraculous job at absorbing bumps without being floaty or wallowy yet firm at the same time. Cars with this type of comfortable sporty ride quality usually live in much higher income brackets.
The suspension really shines when the road bends. Planted and composed, the Optima instills confidence no matter what the maneuver. Great for cruising and spirited drives, I was amazed at how well it drove. The steering was just tight enough to be sporty, but not so heavy it felt like steering the U.S.S. Gigantor. After hours of driving, I had nary a complaint. The Optima is a great all-arounder.
Kia calls the 2011 Optima a game changer that’s the “antidote to sedandom”, and I don’t think it’s that far off. “Game changer” might be a stretch, but “segment leader” isn’t. With cars like the 2011 Optima coming to market, I’m really looking forward to the future of the midsize sedan segment. Go test drive one and you’ll agree, I’ll have to find another method of toasting taqitos.
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