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Kia and its parent corporation, Hyundai, have been making serious moves in recent years to improve its fleet of vehicles. What was once a low-cost and low-quality alternative to the major Japanese brands now stands as a viable competitor. Initial quality, fuel efficiency, and performance of Kia's vehicles have been dramatically improved with each successive model year. However, one element hasn't changed very much: price. Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, Kia's vehicles still manage to be less expensive than the models with which they are compared.
This brings us to the 2011 Kia Optima, the Korean automaker's midsize sedan and answer to the challenge posed by the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. With more power and better cabin technology than either of these incumbents, the Kia seems like a shoo-in for the win in a spec comparison. However, there's more to any car than the simple numbers. So, we found ourselves behind the wheel of the 2011 Kia Optima in EX trim to see just how it stacks up to the competition.
Performance and economy
Sending power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission is a 2.4-liter gasoline direct-injected (GDI) engine that outputs 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. Factor in a curb weight that's about 100 pounds lighter than the Camry and it's no wonder that the Optima feels more alive when accelerating away from a traffic light. The Kia also manages an EPA estimated 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, beating the Camry by a single combined mile per gallon and matching the less powerful Honda Accord. During the course of our testing, we managed a combined 28 mpg. So far, things are looking good for the Kia.
The Kia also features an Eco mode intended to help drivers to maximize fuel economy. Eco mode is activated by pressing a button on the steering wheel that adjusts the transmission and engine characteristics. Essentially, your throttle inputs will be dulled and the transmission will seek top gear much sooner than it would otherwise. We stayed in Eco mode for much of the duration of our testing (which consisted of mostly highway driving) and found it to be very livable for day-to-day driving. This button doesn't change the Kia into a whole new car, but when we'd periodically deactivate Eco for a fast start or a bit of spirited driving we were able to note the difference between the modes through the Optima's more obvious eagerness to accelerate.
Toss the Kia into a series of turns and the Optima EX certainly feels lighter than the Camry SE that we tested previously, which is odd because the Korean sedan is actually slightly longer and wider than the Toyota. Its roofline, however, sits noticeably lower, creating a coupe-like profile that apes that of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or Jaguar XJ, a flattering comparison for a brand that was until recently an also-ran in the automotive marketplace. Unfortunately, that low roof means that while entering the vehicle this editor managed to smack his head on the edge of the roof more often than he was comfortable with. Proceed with caution.
Styling is a purely subjective matter, but we're of the opinion that the Kia's Tiger Nose design language and more low-slung, svelte proportions are more attractive than those of the bulbous Camry and angular Accord. While the Optima is not as out-there as its sexy sister, the Hyundai Sonata, the Optima does share its basic genetics. On more than one occasion, we caught pedestrians craning their necks as they passed the sedan in an attempt to figure out just what it was. Of course, your opinion may differ.