Buyers of the new Kia Optima - the replacement of the forgotten-before-it's-gone Magentis mid-size sedan - will benefit from both the close ties between Kia and its parent company Hyundai, and the competition between them.
As Hyundai nudges itself up the automotive food chain with luxury-fighting products like the Genesis and Equus, Kia products such as the all-new 2011 Optima benefit by sharing the impressive engineering bones of their corporate siblings, in this case those of the new-for-2010 Hyundai Sonata.
But Kia and Hyundai are also competing toe-to-toe in the marketplace. A base Optima LX starts at $21,995, only $654 less than a base Hyundai Sonata. Opt for the automatic six-speed transmission in both, which virtually all buyers will likely do, the difference melts to less than $200, or about the cost of some upgraded floor mats. By the time you're at the top-end trim of each that includes the in-dash navigation system, the $32,095 Optima actually lists at $1,096 more than the Sonata.
Did someone forget to tell Hyundai that it's the upscale sibling now? No, this price difference likely has more to do with features newly available on the Kia Optima that aren't offered on the Sonata, or many cars at all at anywhere near 32 grand, such as a heated steering wheel, a two-position driver's memory seat, Xenon HID headlights, twin sunroofs plus heated and cooled front seats. Throw in the fact that all Optimas offer a healthy 9.4 cm more rear seat legroom than the Sonata, and the Optima makes a compelling case for itself over the Sonata, which is already one of the best intermediate sedans out there.
The vast majority of Optimas that will arrive in Kia dealerships later this month will be powered by the same direct-injected, 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine as in the Sonata. However, the smooth but occasionally loud-ish Kia engine offers 200 hp (two more than the Sonata) - more power than the majority of base four-cylinder mid-size sedans.
It also has better published fuel economy numbers than its closest rivals, at 8.7 litres/100 km city and 5.7 highway. It won't match the numbers of its hybrid competitors, including the Sonata, but the Optima is slated to receive its own hybrid version before the end of the year.
To at least partly compensate, every automatic-equipped Optima will receive an Eco button on the steering wheel, which Kia says is part of an Active Eco system that adjusts engine mapping to a slightly more economical mode, capable of providing a 2 per cent increase in fuel economy at the slight expense of response. Kia insists all its fuel economy tests were done in regular mode, meaning without pressing the Eco button, but in a few instances of trying, I couldn't detect much if any difference.
The Optima only offers shift paddles on the top-of-the-heap turbocharged SX, which comes with a smaller but more powerful 2.0-litre four that pumps out 274 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque, identical figures to the turbocharged Sonata 2.0T. Incredibly, Kia quotes fuel economy figures of 9.2 city and 5.8 highway, which is competitive with most four-cylinder sedans, though you obviously won't be anywhere near this if you regularly whip all 274 horses around with your right foot. Still, like in the Sonata, it's V-6 power with at least the potential for four-cylinder frugality, and it uses regular fuel.
On the downside to the SX, its shift paddles mean you'll have to give up the comforting heated steering wheel, though lots of (pricier) vehicles manage to employ both. Kia also packages its turbo model differently, coming equipped only as a navi-equipped range-topping Optima that lists at $33,695, or just a couple hundred over the top Sonata 2.0T Limited, though Hyundai does offer the turbo engine in a less exhaustively optioned model for $28,999.
Kia is so confident in its family hauler that it let loose a few Optima SX models on the track in Homestead, Fla., where NASCAR, Indy Car and bike races are run regularly. The front-wheel-drive Optima won't be mistaken for a track weapon any time soon, but it managed to get up quickly to about 200 km/h on the long straights, then dive back down into tight turns impressively, without much in the way of under-steer or tire-squeal complaining.
Still, were it my dime, I'd opt for the non-turbo Optima EX Luxury, and its heated steering wheel rather than shift paddles, especially since a Tiptronic shift up/down function comes on all Optima automatic shifters; there's also a slightly more comfortable ride with the less sporty suspension setup. Although you'd have to give up the go-fast engine along with it, much of the beauty of this car is its value equation, to go along with its sophisticated styling.
This particular beholder prefers the shape of the Sonata, with its superior finishes inside especially, but there's no arguing against the level of driving refinement and goodies offered by Kia with the all-new Optima.
2011 Kia Optima EX
Type: Mid-size family sedan
Base price: $21,995; as tested, $33,800
Engine: 2.4-litre, direct-injection, four cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 200 hp/186 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/5.7 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Hyundai Sonata, Mazda6, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion