2006.5 Kia Optima LX Review


PHOTO

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Kia

2006.5 Kia Optima LX

Yes, despite all of the crossover SUVs on the market today, people still buy cars. And mid-size sedans are the most popular cars made. There are a couple that have a seemingly eternal lock on the top spots, and many other contenders, close and not so close. Kia has not previously been much of a contender at all, but with its second-generation, 2006.5 Optima, it may surprise the big guys.

A car called Kia Optima was introduced in 2001, and ran until the 2006 model year. Don't confuse the new Optima with that car - all they share is a name and the optional 2.7-liter V6 engine. The new Optima is a vastly-improved vehicle, with a refinement level more akin to a European entry-luxury sedan than a budget-priced Korean car. It can compete head-to-head with the top sellers in its class on ability, build quality, and fit and finish, and offers a more engaging driving experience as a bonus.

Like most entries in the mid-size, middle-class family sedan category, the second-generation Optima is a front-wheel drive machine offered with four-cylinder or V6 power. The 2.4-liter four is a new design, and its 161 horsepower puts it at the head of the four-cylinder section of the class. It's matched to a five-speed manual or automatic transmission. The 2.7-liter V6 is smaller than most in the class, but gives a boost to 185 horsepower, and with it, the Optima's price tag is no higher than some competitive four-cylinder models. Its five-speed automatic, like that of the four-cylinder, features a manual-shift mode. All versions feature four-wheel disc brakes.

There are two trim levels available with either engine, LX and EX. Both are well-equipped, but, as is typical, EX models have fancier interior and exterior trim, upgraded climate-control and audio systems, and options including leather interiors that can bring a near luxury experience.

My first experience with the `06.5 Optima was at its introduction last Spring, in Northern California's Napa Valley. At that time I concentrated on the four-cylinder models, as they were expected to be the best-sellers. A morning spent on the hilly, winding roads in the area in a manual-transmission LX was thoroughly enjoyable, and the car had none of the de-contented feel all to typical of the lowest-priced models in the class. Its suspension was the same as any other Optima, a pleasant compromise between comfort and handling that allowed the car to score high in both parameters. The four-cylinder also matched well to the automatic, as it easily had enough torque to render manual shifting merely an entertainment option.

I've just finished a week at home with an LX V6. It is an honest, unpretentious, and roomy sedan with all of the virtues and positive features of the four-cylinder models, plus a little more power. With the latest Optima, a Kia is no longer a cheap car bought merely on price, but a true alternative to any of the popular mid-size sedans.

APPEARANCE: With pleasantly conservative styling that is more European than Oriental, the Optima is a welcome alternative to the trendiness that has infested the midsize family sedan marketplace. It doesn't try to look like a more expensive German or Japanese car, just an honest family sedan with lines that will still look good when it's finally paid off.

COMFORT: In LX trim, the Optima is simple and unpretentious. But it's well-finished, and seat design and comfort are very good for its class. The manually-adjustable front buckets and 60/40 split-folding rear contoured bench provide plenty of space for four or five people. The trunk is one of the largest in the class, with external struts to prevent luggage damage and a convenient power outlet. My test car had the $800 "Appearance Package" option group, which, despite its name, contributes to more than merely appearance, and is quite worth the extra cash. Appearance is upgraded with real textured aluminum trim, not merely plastic, and the electroluminescent "Supervision" instrument cluster not only adds an upscale touch, it's easier to see in any lighting, adding to safety. A useful trip computer and a steering wheel with a leather wrapped rim and cruise and auxiliary audio controls are also part of the package. The steering wheel is adjustable for both tilt and reach in all models except the four-cylinder with manual transmission.

SAFETY: Inexpensive doesn't mean skimping on safety, if the car in question is a Kia. All Optima models come with dual advanced front airbags, front-seat side airbags, full-length head curtain airbags, and active front headrests as standard equipment. Its unibody structure is built with front and rear crumple zones and side-impact beams. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard on all models, even the base four-cylinder, with antilock, traction control, brake assist, and electronic stability control available as an option package.

RIDE AND HANDLING: One important way in which Kia differentiates its cars from the competition is in chassis tuning. The Optima's fully-independent MacPherson strut front, miltilink rear suspension is not unusual in its design, but it stands out in its tuning. It's supple and comfortable, and yet very well-controlled in the manner of a European entry-luxury car. Add in good soundproofing, and the result is a car that is quiet and comfortable, yet capable of giving its driver a very enjoyable experience behind the wheel. One major benefit of that "Appearance Package", and one that nearly pays for the package, is an upgrade to the same speed-rated Michelin Pilot tires that are used in many sport-luxury cars costing $30,000 and up.

PERFORMANCE: You can't go wrong with the Optima's engine choices. The four has enough horsepower to be satisfying with either the five-speed manual or automatic transmissions, and enough torque to work commendably well with the automatic. The V6 adds another 24 horsepower, to 185 at 6000 rpm, with 182 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. Both engines use dual overhead cam architecture, with four valves per cylinder and continuously-variable valve timing for a broader torque band, improved efficiency, and reduced emissions. The five-speed automatic is sensitive to the driver's style, and upshifts early, for fuel economy, in normal operation but can delay shifts when the accelerator pedal is pressed hard. "Sportmatic" manual-shift mode adds control and enjoyment.

CONCLUSIONS: With its second-generation Optima, Kia competes, very well, with the established players in the family sedan class.

SPECIFICATIONS

2006.5 Kia Optima LX

Base Price				$ 19,345
Price As Tested		$ 20,745
Engine Type			dual overhead cam, 24-valve aluminum
				 alloy V6
Engine Size			2.7 liters / 162 cu. in.
Horsepower			185 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			182 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic with "Sportmatic"
				 manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		107.1 in. / 186.4 in.
Curb Weight			3287 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		17.8
Fuel Capacity			16.4 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires				P215/50VR 17 Michelin Pilot mxm4
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc, ABS optional
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut/
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		22 / 30 / 22
0 to 60 mph				est 8.7  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Appearance Pacakage - includes:
  trip computer, auto light control, 215/50 R17 
  tires and alloy wheels, blacked-out headlamps
  & front grille, Supervision gauge cluster,
  aluminum interior trim, leather-wrapped
  steering wheel, fog lamps			$ 800
Freight and handling				$ 600

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