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car review

Kia Optima

The 2011 Kia Optima is anything but boring in what generally is a dull mid-size sedan segment. And we're not talking only about the styling.

Oh, sure, the fake vent on the front fender is a little over the top and the pronounced creases in the sheet metal might be excessive. Also, those Cuisinart-blade wheels aren't for everyone, unless you're an excitable member of the Transformer generation.

Baby Boomers, not so much. But let me tell you, teenagers and twentysomethings gawk and applaud the look of the Optima, at least if anecdotal evidence is any indication. Here's a car that stands out. It is a modern, well-proportioned creation, with a curved roofline and a wedge-like profile.

The car looks fast and the high beltline suggests strength and muscularity. As a matter of fact, the Optima is bigger all around than the old Magentis (in Canada) and Optima in the U.S.

Kia rates the Optima's base four-cylinder at 200 horsepower and the car comes standard with dual exhausts on all versions. By comparison, the top-selling Toyota Camry's 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing produces 179 horsepower. You'll get better fuel economy out of the Optima and Sonata versus Camry, too.

The Optima's four-cylinder provides plenty of power, but it's the turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that provides the better combination of power and fuel efficiency. In both the Optima and Hyundai Sonata, the turbo four comes in at 274 hp.

The Optima and Sonata - which share the same mechanical bits and pieces - represent exactly what parent company Hyundai Motor wants these two brands to do in the marketplace. The Optima is after an edgier, younger crowd, while the Sonata should appeal to the over-40 crowd.

Not surprisingly, the cheapest Optima ($21,995) is $654 less than the base Sonata ($22,649). The pricing reflects nothing other than an attempt to differentiate the brands. I mean, these two cars share most mechanical components and much of the development was done in tandem, too. The Optima's dual exhaust might account for some of the price differential, but not much.

The different suspension tuning certainly does not have an impact on cost. In keeping with Kia's attempt to affect a sportier persona, the Optima's suspension feels stiffer than the Sonata's. The Optima has a decently responsive ride which holds up well for energetic trips to the mall. But the independent suspension becomes harsh when pushed hard through corners and, at higher speeds, the car feels tense and unsettled.

The electric-powered rack-and-pinion steering is just okay. It feels slightly disconnected from the road and you get plenty of oversteer, or plowing, in hard corners. I'd also like the Optima to have stronger brakes.

The cabin is marked by an asymmetrical dash layout and plenty of curves. Nothing is out of place and it all looks quite modern. Unfortunately, Kia has used a lot of hard, shiny plastic materials throughout. They add up to a somewhat cheap, snapped-together look.

The car is loaded with electronics, though. My tester had a back-up camera with a clear display in the centre of the dash board, as well as Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation and USB connections to the stereo. The latter were mounted at the base of the centre stack with a cubby to hold a phone or music player.

The interior also offers lots of leg space in front and in back. The trunk can pack piles of groceries or four sets of golf clubs. If you need more room, the 60/40-split second row folds down flat.

The gauges are big and simple - speedometer, tachometer, fuel level and engine coolant temperature. Together, they tell you the need-to-know basics of the gasoline direct-injection four-cylinder engine driving the front wheel.

This four-banger is quick to respond with a nudge of the throttle - sometimes too quick if the pavement is wet. That's when the front driven wheels lose grip and spin. The engine itself has a coarse growl and can get a little rough at idle. The Sonata's identical four-banger does the same.

The Kia brand does lag Hyundai on the quality front, if various long- and short-term studies can be believed. Hyundai has posted several years of above average results, while Kia remains below average, though getting better.

That said, both the Optima and the Sonata are Top Safety Picks of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Shared engineering should and does result in similar and very good crash test scores. Safety features: six air bags, active front headrests, height adjustable seat belts and a tire pressure monitoring system.

The Optima and the Sonata suggest Hyundai Motor needs to be taken seriously. We've had some indications of where this Korean car maker has been headed, what with recent new models such as the Kia Forte, Kia Soul and Kia Sportage - as well as the Hyundai Elantra, Sonata, Tucson and the coming Accent.

Now we can all agree that the jokes about Korean cars no longer work.

Tech Specs

2011 Kia Optima Luxury with Navigation and AT

Type: mid-size sedan

Price: $32,095 ($1,405 freight)

Gas engine: 2.4-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower and torque: 200/186 lb-ft

Transmission: six-speed automatic

Drive: front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.7 city/5.7 highway using regular fuel.

Alternatives: Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Chevrolet Malibu.

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