This week, I had a business trip to St. Louis and wasn’t able to ride with my boss as I usually do, so got the chance to book a rental instead, so I could save the 500 miles on Lucy. I booked a full-size rental through Enterprise and hoped to have the chance to drive a 2013+ Ford Fusion.
No such luck, as they had none available, but then I spotted this silver Kia Optima:
Since it was first revealed, I’ve loved the look of this car. Just about every time I see one on the road, I’ve continued to like it and said to myself that, if I was in the market for a sedan, it’d be near the top of my list. Purely on looks, I think it’s right behind the Ford Fusion as the best-looking car in the D-segment (other competitors include the Camry, Accord, Malibu, Altima, 200, Sonota). But I had no idea how it drove and had never really been behind the wheel of any Kia for an extended period, so here’s my thoughts, in bullet point form because that’s how I almost always organize my thoughts on anything.
- Style: like I said, this is a damn good looking car and I think it changes pre-concieved notions about what a Kia is. From the aggressive front end to the nicely styled back end with good-looking dual exhaust tips, to the little touches like the vents behind the front wheels (which can frequently look tacky) and the wrap-around headlights/taillights, it’s nicely done.
- Interior style & comfort: though I was driving a pretty basic EX (the LX is the most basic model), I didn’t feel too slighted by the interior. More hard plastics than I would like but, again, it’s a lower-end model. The cloth seats, though a bit dirty from 30,000 miles of rental car usage, had great bolstering and support (more than my Mustang, which is kind of sad) and a perfect headrest to be useful for somebody my height. The backseat is big, with plenty of headroom and I have no doubt four 6′ tall guys could ride in this car without an issue, or two adults with rear-facing child seats behind them, for that matter.
- Interior tools/technology: love the two storage pods in the dashboard (see the below pic – right in front of the shifter and in-between the radio and climate controls) perfect for devices, wallets, chapstick, etc. and the four cupholders in front, as well as the roomy center console. That lower storage area also includes two 12V outlets and the USB plug-in. The steering wheel controls were nicely done as well, with a mix of buttons and toggle switches. The voice command system worked ok, though it didn’t react as quickly or find people’s names in my phonebook as quickly as the Microsoft Sync system in my Mustang does. I also didn’t like that I couldn’t advance tracks using the steering wheel buttons when streaming music through Bluetooth, as I can do with Sync. Those are minor complaints though. It seems to be pretty equal to Sync and it even sounds like Ford and Kia share voice talent.
- Quiet: even in windy conditions on the highway going 75 MPH, the car is quiet and comfy – great road-trip car.
- Mileage: It’s rated at 35 highway/24 city. I definitely didn’t get anywhere near that but think I averaged around 27-30. Not out of this world but I was driving 75-77 MPG most of the trip with strong winds and the A/C running so I’m good with that mileage.
- Powertrain: Going from Lucy’s 412 HP V8 to a 2.4 liter 4-cylinder with 200 HP wasn’t as big a disparity as I expected. The engine and transmission are matched together pretty well and the car accelerates better than I’d expect a car of this class and price point to. The 6-speed “Sportmatic” transmission shifts gears quickly, though can be a bit jerky on downshifts. It’s set up to upshift when pushing forward and downshift when pulled back, which is backwards from how I like it (and how Mazda and Porsche do it). All in all, a very nice powertrain though.
- Quality: this car was getting close to the end of its rental car life, with 30,000 miles on the clock, but there were zero squeaks, rattles or anything that seemed broken on this rental, which is impressive. The worst thing I can say is that the seats were pretty dirty and that’s not Kia’s fault – Enterprise could very likely have done a lousy job cleaning them.
- Some cheap details: I realize it’s not the loaded model but there were a couple things that let me down about the car. The steering wheel, though nicely shaped and with good tech integration, is plastic all the way around. The parking brake is a foot-activated one, which I realize saves some room on the center console but it feels cheap. A button-activated one would be nicer, though I don’t know what that would add in cost. Finally, having only a driver’s window auto-down function feels really cheap. This 2013 Optima brochure says it should have auto up+down for both front windows, but my rental did not.
- Torque steer: even under modest acceleration, the car pulls to the left frequently and to the right some, which I’m attributing to torque steer, as it wouldn’t do it while cruising so I’m pretty sure it’s not an alignment or tire wear issue.
- Lack of a manual transmission: I’m in the minority here and I realize the take rate would be 5% or so, but Ford still sells a manual Fusion and I’d love to have the option on the Optima.
Another thing I like about the Optima is the long options list. From the base model in the mid-20’s to a loaded SX model at $35,000+, you can get a really nice family car for cheap, or a loaded, almost luxury car for what’s still a strong value. That loaded model comes with options like a heated steering wheel, ventilated seats, paddle shifters, a cooling glove box, and more. Which makes a car like the Buick LaCrosse or Lincoln MKZ for thousands more not such a good value, perhaps. This car feels like a lot for the money, comes with a fantastic warranty and, from what I can tell, the quality is on par with its competition too. My opinion has been validated – if I was in the market, I’d definitely be looking long & hard at the Kia Optima.
(Note: My company paid for the rental and I have had zero interaction with anybody at Kia or Enterprise)