Design quality and fine furnishings are all well and good, but a family sedan's highest priority is its over-the-road driving behavior and safety. In these areas, the 2011 Optima is no gift horse, its performance, stability and agility are, like its furnishings, first rate.
In our initial test, the Optima was available only with a 200-hp four-cylinder. A 274-hp turbo-four with more vigorous performance was released subsequently, but this model will account for a small percentage of Optima sales. An Optima hybrid will debut in 2011.
The standard 200-hp 2.4-liter four cylinder was flexible and reasonably powerful at all engine speeds. As the engine most Optima buyers will choose, it is well suited to family duties both in daily traffic and at highway and commute speeds. For starters, it's quiet.
We found the 2.4-liter engine performs almost silently when cruising at high speed, a welcome result for a smallish inline-4. Even at middle throttle, accelerating from a stop, the engine is only distantly audible. Only under full acceleration does this engine remind you that it's a small four-cylinder with an agonized yowl. It's a minor complaint, but a complaint nonetheless. Resolutely on the plus side, the engine exhibits none of the phony sudden throttle response designed into many cars to give a false impression of performance. Throttle tip-in on the Optima is linear and without tricks, just as it ought to be. No more snapping the heads of your passengers rearward when the light turns green.
Our test car had a noticeable amount of brake-pedal travel before engagement, but we were assured that because we were driving pre-production cars, it was likely that not all of the cars were dialed-in to final production specification. We found the brakes to be powerful and perfectly adequate in use; as a matter of personal preference, we would have preferred a firmer pedal feel.
Chassis dynamics were excellent for a family mid-size cruiser like this. Steering was accurate, firm and provided very good feedback over twisting terrain. When we pushed harder, necessary to determine just how good a car is in emergency maneuvers, the front-wheel-drive chassis delivered good front-end adhesion, and when rounding a longer curve at high speed, the multi-link rear end hooked up nicely and held the car's rotation in check. The usual ride responses experienced in vigorous driving, body roll, dive and squat, are well controlled, thanks to the car's all-new, structurally rigid chassis.
This crisp-handling Kia is well equipped to protect the safety of those you love. Beyond good handling, it delivers a full inventory of passive-safety provisions, including four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS), six airbags, front active headrests, electronic stability control, traction control, brake assist, hill assist and tire-pressure monitoring.
But not all driving is high-speed cornering and dire injury prevention; in normal operation, the Optima passes over rough surfaces effortlessly, soaking up the roughness while delivering all necessary road information to the driver. There was a time when only the best European designers could capture this balance. Kia is now a member of the club.
Fuel economy for the Optima with the 2.4-liter engine is an EPA-rated 24/34 mpg City/Highway with the 6-speed automatic. The 2.0-liter turbo engine is estimated at 22/34 mpg City/Highway, according to the federal government. The 2.4-liter HEV hybrid electric vehicle is expected to get 36/40 mpg.