2007 Kia Optima car reviews

Review Notes: Kia Optima EX four-cylinder automatic
Personality Quiet-bodied, docile little sedan
EPA gas mileage 24/34, manual or auto; V6, 22/30 (auto only)
Above Average Quietness, gas mileage
Needs Work Drivetrain responsiveness
Price EX model, $20,000; as tested, $23,000; starts at $17,000
Notes Review by David Zatz

The Kia Optima is the Hyundai Sonata’s stablemate, updated now with a new engine jointly developed with Chrysler and Mitsubishi to overcome the main criticism of any Korean car. Like all modern Hyundais, the Kia is surprisingly quiet, with an interior that can shame some pricier cars, and lots of standard features; but the bargain quotient is falling nonetheless.

The “world engine” powering the Optima is a technological tour de force, with more buzzword-compliant features than you can shake a stick at, and the latest technologies and designs; they call come together to make an engine that produces 161 horsepower, yet claims quite good gas mileage (for the power). Unfortunately, the engine is a slug at lower speeds, only really coming into its own above 4,000 rpm. With a stick-shift that wouldn’t be so bad, we think, but our test car was an automatic (with five speeds and a manual override feature). Getting off to a quick start was difficult, and then the engine surged and we zoomed forward quite quickly; once moving rapidly, acceleration was brisk. But getting moving in the first place was a bit hard, and the end result was the feeling that a giant rubber band stood between the gas pedal and the engine. Hit the pedal, and there is a delay while the band tightens up, and suddenly you slingshot off. It’s not unlike turbo lag, and it’s not especially pleasant. On the highway, the same effect occurs, only then you have to wait for the transmission to downshift - which it sometimes does even when operating under cruise control at rapid highway speed. Even after sharing resources with other companies, the engine turns out to be Kia's weak point.

The engine is also rather buzzy, not unlike the version Chrysler uses in the Caliber, and we now suspect that Mitsubishi will have the same issue. We’ll try to get a stick-shift version to see what can be attributed to the engine; but in our test Caliber, we had similar issues with engine responsiveness (in that case, complicated by Nissan’s CVT transmission, which tricked our senses into thinking acceleration was lower than it was, because the engine didn’t get any louder as we put on speed).

The 185 horsepower engine feels much better though it doesn't have much more peak power. However, it comes with a gas mileage penalty of 2 mpg city, 4 mpg highway, and is by no means a screamer. The V6 is only available with an automatic; the manual is unfortunately limited to the low-end LX model.

Aside from acceleration, we had little to complain about in the Optima. The ride was smooth, with good road feel but insulation from shocks and bad roads; dampened but not soft. The interior was quiet with little wind or road wind noise. Headlights were strong, and visibility was good in every direction; sun-blocking was aided by sun-visor sliders, which come out to extend the length of the sun visors when needed.

Cornering was quite good for a car in this class, aided by an active suspension; the Optima could easily be whipped around turns and had no problem with emergency maneuvers, with or without acceleration. Torque steer was minor and generally not felt at all. The end result of all this is that passengers with their eyes shut may well believe they are in a luxury car rather than a standard mid-sized Korean sedan.

The interior featured Kia’s new dashboard, with bright trim rings around large gauges featuring round circles with purplish "fading colors." The effect was controversial, with one tester thinking it looked terrific and another thinking it looked cheap. Our test car had an optional interior package with perforated leather, all done in black and aluminum; standard cars should look more airy than our black getup.

Controls were generally sensible; controls generally felt good and provided feedback, and the gauges were clear and readable in all light. The trip computer button took some reaching to get to, but since it only provided fuel range, thermometer, and average speed (not gas mileage), most people will probably set it and forget it. Cruise control was wheel-mounted, with a button behind the wheel that activated the system (and turned on the CRUISE light), and three buttons for setting, temporarily disabling, accelerating, and decelerating. When a speed is locked in, the SET light comes on next to CRUISE, a helpful feature not used by most automakers - and dropped by at least one in a fit of senseless cost-cutting.

The automatic climate control was easy to figure out and operate, and unlike many seemed to have a fairly well thought out algorithm that didn't simply involve turning recirculation on and blasting the fan on the top speed when air conditioning was needed. It also allowed manual intervention for fan speed and venting. That brings us to the strength of the air conditioning - far better than past cars and quite satisfactory indeed, sending out chilled air within a minute or two of the engine starting up.

The stereo was disappointing compared with the rest of the car; sound quality was average at best, and heavy bass caused buzzing. Adjusting audio was fairly easy, as was flipping through stations and such. Audio controls on the wheel help owners to keep their focus on the road ahead.

There were some interesting conveniences, including a hole cut into the divider in the center console so that a cellphone or iPod battery charger could be run from the upper half down into the lower half of the console (the hole had a plug in it by default), where the power outlet is. A storage bin in the center stack had a nicely done cover which included a chrome-bar latch, making it easier to open than most; the overhead sunglass bin had a similar thought (though the map lights used relatively small buttons rather than the "push on the light" feature, a minor inconvenience at worst). Front cupholders included primitive spacers to accommodate different-sized cups. Our test Kia also featured a trainable garage door opener integrated into the automatic rear-view mirror (we don't consider automatic rear-view mirrors to be features on their own, since they tend to do a worse job of blocking bright lights than standard day/night mirrors.)

Interior space was good considering how small the car is on the outside. Both front and rear passengers had ample room, and the trunk is quite large; the Optima is indeed optimized. The Optima is actually larger inside than the 2006 Camry or the Honda Accord. Storage spaces include one closed and one open slot on the center stack, the two-level small center console, map pockets in both front doors, and map pockets on the back of both front seats for rear passengers, who also get cupholders integrated into the center rear-seat armrest (as long as there aren't three passengers.)

The Optima EX starts at almost exactly $20,000, including destination charge, making it competitive with the Accord and such, especially given the features: automatic, alloy wheels, front and rear power discs, front and rear side and curtain airbags, tire pressure monitor, filtered, thermostatic climate control, CD/cassette, 8-way power driver's seat, power windows, locks, and heated mirrors, cruise, alarm, automatic rear-view with garage door opener, trip computer, and five year, 60,000 mile warranty (plus 10 year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty). Our test car had antilock brakes ($300), an appearance package that added to the imitation-Lexus styling with blackout kits, a black interior, and aluminum trim (at a stunning $1,500), the electronic stability control ($300), and power sunroof ($800). Drop the appearance package and you have an attractive car at an attractive price, but not including antilock brakes is a bit unusual. The Camry starts with a four-cylinder engine of similar power, at a similar price.

Overall, the Kia Optima is probably quite a fun little car with a stick-shift; and for those who aren't looking for acceleration, such as Camry four-cylinder buyers (the majority of people, indeed), but who like comfort and good cornering, the Optima is a good choice, assuming the quality is there (Kia has tended to lag behind Hyundai). The 2.4 liter engine has helped to bring gas mileage to reasonable levels, but coupled with an automatic, it can be frustrating and the lag means driving with added caution. There are also some rather nice alternatives; for example, for those who like high gas mileage, the Toyota Prius is in the same price and size class, comes similarly outfitted, and trades off good handling for excellent city-cycle gas mileage and low emissions. The Toyota Corolla, likewise, provides better mileage without much of a ride or noise penalty (albeit with smaller space). Coming soon from Chrysler is the Sebring, which promises to be in roughly the same price class as the Optima, as well; though its base engine is a slightly more powerful version of the Optima’s 2.4, it has a choice of two V6 engines too. Then there is the inevitable Camry, and the Hyundai range which is similar to the Kia.

For a comfortable “point A to point B” family car, the Optima does a nice job and is worth a look; but it’s a crowded field, and there are many options. You could spend more and get less, but you might be able to spend less and get more.