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2007 Kia Optima EX Test Drive

Mounting a challenge in the mid-size market

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

By Chris Amos

2007 Kia Optima

2007 Kia Optima

Photo © Kia
The mid-size sedan market is flooded and many good choices exist for potential buyers. The difficulty lies in identifying the right car to match your personal style, option preferences and pocket depth. Whatever your priorities, the Kia Optima EX is a car worth considering. Fuel economy numbers of 24 mpg city and 34 highway render steep gas prices less painful. And with a base price of $19,995 ($22,695 as tested), the Optima offers much more than its price tag (or brand name) suggests.

First Glance: More than meets the wallet

For most mid-size sedan shoppers, two vehicles typically come to mind: the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Reigning as segment stalwarts for as long as most of us over the age of thirty can remember, they have earned that distinction by producing cars that are easy to understand, easy to drive and even easier to own. In the process, they have also set the standard for the parade of contenders and pretenders that have followed. Redesigned as a "2006.5" model and largely unchanged for '07, the new Optima fits the former category and serves notice that Accords and Camrys are no longer your only choice for a stylish and solidly built family car.

In the sweet spot of vehicle price points ($15,000-$25,000), many automotive manufacturers have resorted to a templated, formulaic approach to vehicle design: take what has been popular in the past, tweak the front and the rear and improve fit and finish. The result has been cars that, while not particularly unique, allow the shopper to know what to expect from manufacturer to manufacturer. Here, the Kia Optima Falls into place. Although not particularly distinctive, the Optima is sporty and clean, and at times even impressed me with an upscale feel.

Continued below...

In the Driver's Seat: Ample features are only half the story

2007 Kia Optima dashboard

2007 Kia Optima dashboard

Photo © Kia
I've referred to Kia as the poor man's Hyundai, but the latter's purchase of the former has certainly improved its product. The Optima EX features a laundry list of amenities I would not expect in a Kia and certainly not at the quality level I found. A great sounding 6-disc Infinity stereo with MP3 and cassette capability is standard, as is an 8-way power driver’s seat, split folding rear seat, cruise control, keyless entry with alarm, power windows and locks and heated mirrors. My test vehicle had a power sunroof and the $1,300 leather package option, which includes heated leather seats, power passenger seat, power adjustable pedals and a rear window sunshade -- great features, particularly in a $22,000 car. I was impressed by the seats which were covered in soft, supple leather that was comfortable and looked great.

I'm a big guy (6'3", 250+), and certain products, such as flat-front slacks and coach class airline seats, are just not intended for me. But the Optima, apparently, was. Even with my seat moved about 1/3 of the way forward to provide extra room for the baby seat behind me, I was relatively comfortable -- even on a 3-hour trip from Washington to Philadelphia that morphed into a 4.5 hour pilgrimage.

On the Road: Comfortable, but try the V6

Comfortable seating notwithstanding, the Optima performs respectably on the road but isn't without it shortcomings. My test vehicle's four-cylinder engine felt adequate around town but lacking on the highway. I found myself constantly pressing the accelerator to get the Optima to move when and as fast as needed it to. I felt cheated -- here I was surrounded by supple cowhide and premium audio, without the ability to swiftly and safely negotiate a short freeway merge. The engine was smooth and relatively quiet, though it's sewing-machine-like buzz cheapened the feel of the otherwise classy Optima. I suspect that the optional V6 engine, while only 23 horsepower more, would've given the Optima just the kick it needed, while being more accurately mated to the vehicle.

The Optima’s suspension gives it a ride that's comfortable, if not compliant. As a city driver my vehicles are typically magnets for potholes and rough pavement. It was here that the Optima struggled, bouncing around a bit and generating a fair amount of thumps, bumps and clunks from the wheels.

Journey's End: Great value, but not quite prime time

2007 Kia Optima leather seats

2007 Kia Optima leather seats

Photo © Kia
The good news is that there isn't much to criticize with the Optima. The bad news is that there is equally little to outwardly praise. At first glance the vehicle concedes little, if anything, to its competitors. In fact, when compared to class leaders like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Optima holds it own, boasting comparable head and legroom, similar power and acceleration and an impressive list of standard features and options. It's a good looking, solid vehicle with clean lines, a nice interior, decent build quality and a laundry list of creature comforts. All this things, combined with Kia's 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty and a sub-$25,000 price tag make the Optima EX an attractive car and a great value.

But compared to the class leaders, I just don't think the Optima quite measures up. Vehicle purchases are becoming less about brands and more about amenities and quality. With a $22,000+ price tag for the EX, the Optima is positioned in the sweet spot of mid-sized automobiles. Despite its offerings, performance and obvious value however, there doesn’t seem to be enough to distinguish it -- outside of price -- in this already crowded market segment, especially for an emerging brand.

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