It’s beginning to look as if the surging South Koreans have adopted an old American marketing strategy.
The idea, as exemplified by the classy 2011 Kia Optima, is to develop a new car and then give it multiple identities. That, as the theory goes, broadens the appeal and results in increased overall sales.
Think Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan, and any number of General Motors models. In the 1980s, GM sold its compact J-Car through all five divisions: Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac 2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron.
The badge engineering practice has fallen out of favor in recent years, maybe because consumers wised up and decided they wanted their cars to be distinctive individuals instead of fraternal twins, triplets or even quintuplets.
Despite that history, Hyundai, the giant South Korean conglomerate that owns most of Kia, is doing the same thing. Except for their distinctive styling and features lineup, the 2011 Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata are essentially the same cars, as are other models, including the Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage.
Both the Optima and Sonata use the same six-speed automatic transmission and four-cylinder engines, with 200 horsepower in the Kia and 198 in the Hyundai. They each also offer a 274-horsepower, 2-liter turbo motor.
The Kia is an inch longer at 15 feet 11 inches. Passenger volume of 104 cubic feet in the Sonata is slightly larger than the Optima’s 102, and some versions of the Sonata edge into the large car category while the Optima is a mid-size. The Sonata also has a slightly larger trunk.
The weight difference is 24 pounds, with the dietary edge to the Kia. And the city/highway fuel economy with the 2.4 engine and six-speed automatic is 24/34 for the Kia and 22/35 for the Hyundai.
Despite the cozy familial relationship, however, the strategy could work, for several reasons. First, not too many potential customers know that Kia and Hyundai are part of the same company. Second, both cars are independently outstanding any way you look at them.
Both deliver sleek new styling that turns heads. The Optima was designed in Germany and California to look more athletic and sporting, the image Kia wants to project.
They both operate in the most competitive territory in the marketplace: Mid-size family and sport-oriented sedans. The competition includes Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Mazda6, Subaru Legacy, Mitsubishi Galant, the new Volkswagen mid-size sedan, and the 2011 Chrysler 200 and Dodge Avenger.
But the Kia Optima, the subject here, certainly has the sinew. It is the third generation of a forgettable car that had its start in 2001. Ten years later, it is in the design vanguard and thoroughly desirable.
It eschews six-cylinder power, sticking with its relatively powerful four, followed by a turbocharged version. That’s a concession to U.S. government fuel consumption standards that will require a corporate average fuel economy of 35.5 miles to the gallon by 2016. There’s nothing like getting a jump on the competition.
There are three Optima versions. The base LX model ($19,690) is the only one offered with a six-speed manual gearbox, while the top of the line SX ($26,690) comes only with a 274-horsepower 2-liter turbocharged engine and six-speed automatic. Tested was the mid-level EX with the naturally aspirated 2.4 engine, although the EX also is available with the turbo.
Base equipment on all models includes full safety equipment: traction and stability control, antilock brakes with brake assist, hill assist (to keep the car from rolling backwards), tire-pressure monitoring and six air bags. Also: air conditioning, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, power windows and door locks, audio system with satellite radio, a glove box that keeps contents cool (with the air conditioning on) and a power driver’s seat lumbar support.
The tested EX, with a sticker price of $23,190, adds an eight-way power driver’s seat, leather seating surfaces, pushbutton starting, alloy wheels, heated outside mirrors, fog lights, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, compass and garage-door opener. A premium package includes a panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel, and is a $2,250 option. Another $2,000 gets you navigation, a backup camera and Sirius satellite radio.
The Optima’s knockout exterior styling continues into the interior. It all looks well-crafted but the front seats, although they are comfortable, do not offer much lateral support. Outboard back seats offer plenty of room and there’s a big trunk, though with giant C-hinges that could damage luggage.
Step on the gas and the Optima EX fairly leaps forward. It’s referred to in the trade as quick throttle tip-in and helps create the illusion of rapid acceleration. Shifts are quick and smooth, although the four-cylinder engine often sounds raspy and unpleasant.
Even without quick tip-in, the power is there to keep the Optima in the race, including with some six-cylinder competitors. An economy mode slows things down by shifting the six-speed automatic at lower engine revolutions, which enhances fuel economy.
The Optima also offers balance between competent handling and a good ride.
- Model: 2011 Kia Optima EX four-door sedan.
- Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder, 200 horsepower.
- Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
- Overall length: 15 feet 11 inches.
- EPA passenger/trunk volume: 102/15 cubic feet.
- Weight: 3,223 pounds.
- EPA city/highway fuel consumption: 24/34 miles to the gallon.
- Base price, including destination charge: $23,190.
- Price as tested: $27,440.