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2011 Kia Optima: New Challenger in The Key Midsize Sedan Stakes Race - VIDEO ENHANCED

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By Marty Bernstein
Senior Editor
The Auto Channel

SEE ALSO: Kia Buyers Guide

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A new entry in the competitive race of midsize sedans, the most important retail sales category (over 51% of sales), has arrived with the all new 2011 Optima. It’s joining the event as a serious challenge, not just a contender, to the seven top ten selling midsize sedans sold in America last month:

Race Entries & Post Positions
The new Optima must make up for the head start others in the field enjoy, but this is not a long shot and could be a big winner.

#3 - Toyota - Camry
#4 - Honda - Accord
#5 - Toyota - Corolla
#6 - Hyundai - Sonata
#7 - Nissan - Altima
#8 - Honda - Civic
#9 - Chevy - Malibu

The morning line
• Exterior Design – stunning trend setting exterior from Kia’s Frankfurt design studio and auto design guru, Peter Schreyer. Longer, lower and wider with a distinctive Euro feeling. Three trim levels.

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• Interior Design – more spacious than others in the category with driver oriented cockpit and use of new materials, colors and technologies from Kia’s California design studio.

• Powertrain -- choice of three new engines including Kia’s first hybrid, direct injection and turbo charging add value and improve performance. 24/34 mpg

• Platform – all new of high-tensile-strength steel, the unibody frame is longer, wider and lower than previous generation adding stability and comfort.

• Safety – six air bags plus important driver acronym titled warning systems and technological innovations

• Warranties – powertrain100,000 mile 10 years, plus 60,000 mile five year basic and 5- year 60,000 mile roadside assistance program.

• Pricing – with a starting price that will probably be under $20,000.

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Through and through, bumper to bumper, top to bottom … the Optima is a race ready thoroughbred.

Driving the Optima
Okay, so the Optima has good lineage from an increasingly popular line-up, what’s it like out on the road? I’m not going to compare it to the old Optima except to say, the new Optima is better, much better. It starts with the all-new platform that’s longer, wider and lower and made of high tensile strength steel. The result is improved aerodynamics, good handling characteristics – it’s nimble and agile - and ride quality for a mid size vehicle was exceptional.

On a recent media introduction over some of Southern California’s least auto friendly, lots of twisty turns and banks with changing elevations, that auto writers love, but may strike fear in others, the Optima was responsive, handling was excellent, power was ready for the challenge and braking was solid as a rock. The car was very quiet.

Power for the front wheel drive Optima comes from three new Theta II powerplants in shares with its Korean cousin:

• 2.4-liter GDI four-cylinder direct injection produces 200 hp and 186 torque

• 2.0-liter GDI turbo V6-type power with a 4-cylinder engine 274 hp (EX Turbo & SX)

• 2.4-liter hybrid engine.

This is Kia’s first GDI (Gasoline Direct Injection) which for the non-techy-gearhead readers means it is similar to fuel injection in that it enables a multi-level fuel charge (ultra lean burn) combustion for improved fuel efficiency and reduced emission levels at low load. Result: More power and efficiency and lower emissions.

The Optima has a smooth six speed auto transmission with clutchless shifting on all models; for stick shift lovers a manual six-speed is only available on the LX model. The 2.4-liter four-cylinder has a 24/34 mpg when coupled with the automatic transmission, while the 2.0-liter turbo GDI is 22/34 mpg.

Sleek and Streamlined Exterior
I’d seen a few sneak preview pictures of the 2011 new Optima but had an OMG moment when I first saw it live at Kia’s headquarters in Southern California. Kia has crafted sheet metal into a dynamic, distinctive design that gives the sedan a sleek coupe look. This is not a derivative on anything, this is a unique Kia design that is stunning.

Available in three trims, LX, EX and SX, the 2011 Optima offers numerous standard features for each model:

• LX includes dual exhaust with chrome tips, solar glass, outside mirror turn signal indicators and 16-inch steel wheels fitted with 205/65R16 tires.

• EX all the LX features plus fog lights, heated outside mirrors, exterior chrome/body-color door handles along with 17-inch alloy wheels with P215/55/R17 tires. The EX Turbo adds a unique front grille design.

• SX adds HID headlights with auto leveling, LED rear combination lights, unique front grille design, rear lip spoiler, sculpted side sills, aero wiper blades, black front brake calipers and 18-inch black machined finish alloy wheels furnished with P225/45R18 tires.

Moving up the trim level adds to the price of the vehicle.

Luxuriously Equipped Interior

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The moment I opened the door and stepped inside was a bit of a surprise: this is a very roomy airplane like cockpit designed for the pilot, er driver. The instrument panel is contoured toward with precise gauges and controls. Paddle shifters behind the steering wheel have usually been reserved for luxury price cars, but they are included and are fun to use.

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A huge list of infotainment, entertainment, Blue Tooth, MP3, Satellite radio, a/c, and other features are standard and there are a number of options available depending on the model:

• LX offers a convenience package which includes Driver’s eight-way power seat, auto-dimming rear view mirror w/ Homelink, compass, navigation system w/ back-up camera, Infinity premium audio system and speakers, and dual-zone automatic temperature control w/ rear vents.

• EX level models can add Panoramic sunroof w/ high-gloss B-pillar, front passenger’s four-way power seat, driver’s seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, wood trim door inserts and center console and a navigation system w/ back-up camera and Infinity premium audio system and speakers. There’s a special group of options just for the EX turbo model too.

• SX buyers can add the following options panoramic sunroof, front passenger’s four-way power seat, driver’s seat warmer. heated and cooled front and rear seats and a navi system with back-up camera and Infinity premium audio system.

My favorite option is the optional new Microsoft UVO system which allows voice commands and provides a whole list of techno goodies everyone can enjoy.

It’s Post Time
No bets are necessary, but if I were a betting man I’d put the new Kia Optima on my Daily Racing Form as one to bet on. It’s a late entry but could be a big winner in this important race. See it at Kia dealers in just a few weeks. Price? Well not yet confirmed but base model will probably start fast out of the gate at a bit under $20 thousand. Pro basketball fans will be pleased to learn Kia has renewed its partnership with the NBA. Could there be a special NBA Kia model? Don’t know, didn’t check, but could be a very good idea, couldn’t it? Stay tuned.

Click PLAY to watch the Kia Optima promo video