- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

MODEL: Kia Optima SE V-6
VEHICLE TYPE: Four-door sedan
PRICE-AS-TESTED: $22,269
MILEAGE: 19 city, 25 highway

Looking for a well-equipped family sedan with luxury features and a smooth V-6 For less than $23,000?
Check out the latest model from Kia.
Yes, Kia.
The South Korean company known for low-priced cars and the Sportage small sport utility vehicle has added a new flagship, the 2001 Kia Optima.
"It is the most luxurious car that we've had in the United States," said Geno Effler, director of public relations at Kia Motors America Inc.
The Optima is also the first Kia with a V-6, the first with a Porsche-designed Tiptronic automatic transmission and the first with side air bags.
"This is a breakthrough vehicle for us," Mr. Effler said.
He predicts the Optima, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price plus destination charge of $18,949 for a V-6 model and $15,749 for a four-cylinder model, will become the "high-value, midsize alternative" to such well-known imported family sedans as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima and Honda Accord.
The Optima looks the part of a contender in the midsize sedan segment.
Loaded with optional leather seats and an anti-lock braking system as well as standard moon roof, air conditioning, power windows and doors, upgraded stereo, alarm, power driver's seat, automatic transmission and even heated outside mirrors, the top-of-the-line Optima SE V-6 test car topped out at just $22,269.
Compare this with $26,680 for a top model of Camry the V-6-powered XLE and you can begin to understand why Kia is so confident the Optima will do well.
In fact, 60 percent of Optimas sold are expected to have the new-to-Kia V-6, said Dick Macedo, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Kia Motors America.
Another reason for optimism: Kia already is on a roll, setting record U.S. sales last year after two other new-model introductions, the Rio sedan and the Spectra hatchback.
The Optima's clean, ungimmicky styling reminiscent of a Cadillac Catera up front and a Mitsubishi Galant at the rear is pleasing. Best of all, it doesn't date the car and comes as some competitors are starting to look old.
Inside, the optional-for-$995 leather seats are nicely done and look as good as any you'd find in a Japanese import. So do the gauges and controls on the dashboard. Too bad the blinkers clickity-click loudly and warning bells chime with an old-style harshness.
There's a lot of shiny wood-grain trim around the interior. It's not all real, but it does a nice job of conveying an upscale feel. The same can be said for the shiny silver-colored accents that even include door sills, an item you don't expect to find on a Kia.
The 2.5-liter, double-overhead cam V-6 which comes from Kia's parent company, Hyundai, and is used in the Sonata on which the Optima is based sounds confident and works well with the uplevel four-speed automatic transmission with Tiptronic.
In fact, there's a decidedly sporty feel when you really push the car and use the Tiptronic to manually shift from gear to gear without clutch pedal. I zipped around Highway 1 on California's coast with real vigor, keeping the revs high.
But I noticed some loss of sportiness when the electronically controlled transmission sometimes upshifted on its own, without waiting to get close to the red line.
The engine has a maximum 170 horsepower the same as the Sonata with V-6. Torque is 169 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm vs. 166 foot-pounds at 4,000 in the Sonata.
There was a surprising crispness to the handling of the front-wheel-drive Optima, but the ride doesn't punish passengers. I noticed some minor vibration over road bumps; still overall, it was a comfortable ride.
The front suspension is an independent double wishbone design. An independent multilink configuration works at the rear. There are stabilizer bars at both front and rear.
Road noises from the SE's 15-inch tires came through during the ride, and at highway speeds, there was a bit of wind noise, too.
If you get a V-6 Optima, rear brakes are discs rather than drums. But anti-lock brakes remain a $795 option rather pricey given competitor pricing.
Thankfully, other safety features are standard, including the front-seat side air bags and shoulder belts and head restraints for all five passengers.
Trunk space already is competitive at 13.6 cubic feet, but the Optima's split, fold-down rear seat-back adds more cargo room.
Other Kia models haven't fared well in quality surveys over the years, but Mr. Macedo said the company is making gains since it was acquired by Hyundai.
Also, Kia last summer added an industry-leading, new-warranty program that includes 10-year/ 100,000-mile limited coverage on powertrains.
Mr. Macedo said Kia hopes the Optima expands its buyer group beyond "credit-challenged" new-car shoppers. Those consumers shop primarily for price.
Targeted buyers for the Optima will have a median age of 39 with $70,000 annual household income, he said. Fifty-six percent will be college graduates, 61 percent will be married and half will be women.


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