Okay, repeat after me: Kia sporty, Hyundai premium.
Now you understand everything the marketing people want you to know about these two brands from South Korea, each part of the same ultra-ambitious corporate monolith, each wickedly competitive and not just with the Nissans and Toyotas and Hondas and Fords of the world, but with each other.
Kia, folks, is sporty right down to the Optima’s styling, with all those creases and curves and lines, not to mention the dual exhausts on all versions. And what about those wheels? Subtle they are not. The wedge-like profile and high beltline look strong and kudos to Kia’s designers for pushing the wheels to the corners. Sporty.
Hyundai Sonata – premium, with dual exhausts only on the racier versions of this mid-size sedan which shares most of its mechanical components with the Optima.
Despite the obvious rivalry between these two brands, the corporate parent, Hyundai, wants separation even if they share some factories and much product development work. Badge engineering a la pre-bankruptcy General Motors is not something Hyundai wants.
In truth, the Optima does not look too much like a Sonata, though plant them side by side and the dimensions and profile are similar. Interestingly, the Optima delivers less interior space, which surely must be a sporty attribute, no? And that fake vent on the front fender? You decide if it’s sporty or a faux pas.
One place where the two are identical is in crash test ratings by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Both are Top Safety Picks.
Pricing? The starter Optima lists for $21,995, while the base Sonata is $22,649. At the other end of things, the Optima SX Turbo stickers at $33,695, while the Sonata 2.0T Limited – with the dual exhaust – lists for $31,749.
The Optima Turbo, naturally, is intended to be the sportiest version of both these mid-sizers and it seems as such. At first blush, the suspension feels reasonably stiff, though not punishing, and that means this front-drive four-door is pretty responsive – at least for this class.
Still, in a racy car I want more stopping power. I found myself mashing the brake pedal pretty hard when trying to halt things in a hurry. On the other hand, the electric power steering lands right in the sweet spot between numb and lumpy. The assist is very close to being just right and only fails when pushed in quick manoeuvres.
Inside, my tester had the look of a sedan striving to be cool. I love the big gauges; they deliver information quickly and clearly. Missing, however, are gauges for oil pressure, temperature and volts. Hey, sporty cars have these things, in addition to indicators for fuel level and engine coolant temperature.
Gauge deficiencies aside, the Optima has a roomy enough cabin for most adults and the trunk can pack a week’s shopping easily. Split and fold the rear seatback 60/40 if you need more room. The cabin design itself is a wash of curves which is okay; not so good is the array of hard, shiny plastics throughout – and not everything looked well snapped-together.
Still, the car is not short of electronics. My test car had Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation and USB connections to the stereo. Also on board was an eight-way, power-adjustable driver's seat, auto-dimming rear-view mirrors, a killer audio system, navigation system, back-up camera and dual climate zones.
Meanwhile, under the hood, well, the Optima and Sonata share an engine and it’s excellent. The gasoline direct-injection four-cylinder is powerful and fuel-efficient. In the Optima Turbo, horsepower is rated at 274, just like the Sonata 2.0T.
In both cars there is a slight vibration at idle; however, I love the growly sounds coming from under the Optima Turbo’s hood. Very sporty.
Both Kia and Hyundai offer two other powertrain choices, each in the Optima and Sonata: the base engine is a direct-injection, 2.4-litre, four-cylinder (200 hp in the Optima, 198 in the Sonata) and a gas-electric hybrid (209 hp net combined). This full lineup of power choices is impressive from a company that a couple of decades ago was buying engines from Mitsubishi.
The turbo in the Optima SX is the one I’d want most, and at 9.2 litres/100 km city and 5.8 highway it’s almost as thrifty as the base four (8.7 city/5.7 highway) – unless, of course, you punch the SX around, taking full advantage of the power.
What you need to know is that the turbo outperforms the V-6s offered by most competitors. This is good and bad. It’s good to have power to spare, but not so good when that power overwhelms the independent suspension at higher speeds or, worse, when you get a head of steam up and start carving corners. In short, things can get harsh and start to feel disconnected.
The Optima suggests that Kia knows where it’s going and has a road map to get there. Kia has a ways to go to be top-of-class, but take notice.
2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo
Type: Mid-size sedan
Price: $33,695 ($1,455 freight)
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, DOHC, turbocharged
Horsepower/torque: 274 hp/269 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/5.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata