Thursday, April 20, 2006

The all-new Kia Optima, introduced midyear as a 2006.5 model, is all about uncertainty and hesitation.

Let’s say you’re in the market for a midsize family sedan, as almost 2 million people will be this year, and you have an open mind.

You start your research, and wow! Check out the choices.

Now add the new Kia Optima. The South Korean entry, like its cousin Hyundai, has been coming on strong lately in the U.S. market, with interesting new products, improved quality and low prices.

You’re immediately attracted, partly by the good looks inside and out, but also by the price tags. The base Optima, the LX, starts at $16,955, a price that includes side air bags and side-curtain air bags, air conditioning, an AM-FM-CD audio system, power windows, door locks and mirrors, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, and fold-down rear seatbacks.

The standard transmission is a so-so five-speed manual, with a grabby clutch. Add $1,295, for a total of $18,250, and you get a five-speed automatic transmission with a manual-shift mode, a manual tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, remote locking and cruise control.

If you want additional safety stuff, the antilock brakes with stability and traction control will set you back another $600.

The standard engine is a 2.4-liter four that delivers a sprightly 161 horsepower to the front wheels. If you want to go whole hog, you can order the top-line EX model, like the test car here, with all the safety stuff, a 185-horsepower V-6 engine, a motorized sunroof, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, heated and powered front seats, power-adjustable pedals and a high-end Infinity sound system with MP3 capability and a six-disc CD changer.

All of that comes with a suggested sticker price of $23,700, which is well below that of similarly equipped leaders in the family sedan class.

Moreover, you would get a car that is, in most respects, a genuine contender. It has more than 104 cubic feet of passenger space, which is at the upper end of the midsize class, and a well-designed and nicely finished trunk with nearly 15 cubic feet of stowage.

It makes for a roomy car with generous knee room in back and comfort for four.

The Optima comports itself admirably on the road. The suspension system is tuned for a nice compromise between an acceptable ride and decent handling, the steering is properly weighted, and the transmission makes good use of the V-6’s 185 horsepower, which is a low output in this class of car.

Most buyers, in fact, likely would be just as happy with the 161-horsepower four, which is almost as powerful but rougher.

The Kia designers did a careful job on the attractive interior, which has decent materials and workmanship. The white-on-black instruments, however, are tucked away in a hooded recess and are hard to read in some daylight conditions.

Exterior noises from the road, engine compartment and wind are muted inside the passenger pod, which makes the Optima a pleasant place to reside on a long-distance journey.

So where do the uncertainty and hesitation come in? For one thing, this is a new car from a manufacturer relatively unknown in the U.S., trying to compete with established nameplates.

Both South Korean manufacturers, however, have been ratcheting up their production and materials quality at an amazing rate. Moreover, for peace of mind among prospective buyers, they offer warranties of five years or 60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, as well as seven years and 100,000 miles on the engine and transmission.

Though they are not transferable, the warranties help alleviate the uncertainty, although there still might be some hesitation because nobody knows what the 2006.5 Optima will be like, say, five years down the road.

Kia executives are well aware of the concerns. Though they’re certain they have a good car and a good value in the Optima, they also know that they have a way to go before customers brag to their friends, “I drive a Kia.”

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