The party favors have been taken down. The celebrations died down. Now, last year’s Vehicle of the Year rests on its mantle overlooking all of creation.
Long live the 2011 Hyundai Sonata!
Um…wait…there’s something you need to know. The Sonata is not the only family-sized sedan that has been turning heads and taking prisoners. The Hyundai’s DNA is shared with an evil twin – a member of the family tree devoid of niceties and manners.
The bad apple of the Hyundai-Kia family wears the gap-toothed grille of the nomenclature starting with a “K.” It also wears a skin that could evoke various automobiles ranging from GM A-Body coupes of 1968 through the early 1970s to quick European sedans. Inside, there are cues of sporty sedans never taken under consideration by South Korean engineers.
But, what is this bad-assed Korean sedan challenging the interest of family sedan buyers looking for maximum space and comfort with sporty manners?
For your consideration, I present the 2011 Kia Optima.
The Optima is not just a mere Kia body on a Hyundai platform. Kia put in some thought into how to differentiate itself with its somewhat plusher twin. If Hyundai was to tackle the mainstream of the marketplace, Kia wants to skew its offerings towards enthusiasts. The new Optima appeared to do exactly that.
But, how did Kia differentiate itself from last year’s VOTY? One thing must be clear is that the Kia is still built back in Korea while the Sonata rolls off the Montgomery, Alabama plant for North American consumption. It doesn’t matter where these sedans are built, but this fact may come into play on a few fronts later in this post.
What drew me towards the Optima’s clutches is a design that not only sidesteps Hyundai’s “Fluidic sculpture” styling philosophy – it pulverizes it! The Optima’s greenhouse eliminates a third distinct plate of glass on the side for a C-pillar design that emulates the profiles of muscle cars of decades past. The chrome frame of the roofline is a paean to the new Jaguar XJ – or, so it appears to some angles. The rear end may appear somewhat Audi-like…the newer ones, in fact. Now, what about those side intakes just before the front doors? Hmmm…can’t figure out which automobile influenced this design feature.
Overall, the Optima’s exterior pushed the envelope of design in its price class – and that’s a good thing! It could also be a blessing or a curse, depending on your taste in automobiles.
It wasn’t the only thing that piqued my interest in the Optima. The cabin was just as stunning as the body. The instrument panel wrapped around you with touch points that are easy to feel and nice to work with. Switchgear, from the steering wheel all the way to the right on the audio and HVAC systems just felt right. I was entertained by an awesome instrument cluster that delights my eyes and keeps me informed of everything I do. There is a circular screen similar to the one in the new Sonata, but, in a Kia, everything lights up in red.
You sit nicely in seats that are not only comfortable, but also supportive. This is just in the LX model – their lowest-priced version! Rear room is extraordinary for the legs. I need to caution tall passengers to watch their head of the coupe-like rear glass.
The drivetrain is familiar: It is the shared 2.0litre direct-injected four-pot with the Sonata connected to a six-speed autobox. Though it has an even 200HP on tap, two more than the Sonata I drove last year, it felt sportier than the Sonata’s setup. How is that possible? Well…Hyundai-Kia played this one smart: No badge engineering! Think of the Kia as a Pontiac that should have been. The G6 was completely different than the Chevrolet Malibu it shared on the same Epsilon platform before bankruptcy felled the arrowhead brand. Kia learned its lesson by being somewhat outrageous in their look and exuberant in the way it drives – completely differentiating itself from Hyundai.
What that means is simple: A ride that solid, handling that is much more sorted than many of its competitors, sharp steering and a strong braking action. One drawback would be the choice of Nexen tires on the Optima. They didn’t seem too keen on wanting to competently grip on caked snow surfaces. They were quiet, though.
In terms of fuel economy, I could only compare any figures to the Sonata, since the last Optima I drove was years ago in its last iteration with a V6 motor underneath the hood. However, considering the colder air and slippery conditions, I managed 24.7MPG in the Optima with my foot firmly planted on both the accelerator and brake – making the traction control and anti-lock brakes work overtime. If I can make them beg for daddy to get through a Minnesota winter – they better work! Alas, they did!
There are two questions that need to be asked to resolve this intra-company quandary. First of all, is the Optima is better than the Sonata? On some levels, the answer is “yes.” The design differentiation comes off successfully to engage drivers looking for something that stands out and gives off a sporty vibe. Not that a Sonata Turbo or SE will do the same thing, but the overall impression of the Optima is to create something a bit more hardcore for audiences wanting something along those lines.
Then, the huge question: Which one would I have? I think of the Optima as a Korean Dodge Charger – a bad ass amongst family sedans, even in the LX trim I sampled here. This means the Hyundai Sonata is more of a Chrysler 300 – and that’s not a bad thing! In fact, it’s a compliment! Between the two – it would depend on my mood. If I wanted to kick a little tail, I choose the Optima. If I wanted to chill, relax and take a date to a fine restaurant, the Sonata fits the bill.
The bottom line is this: The Optima should not be overlooked. Not as it was in the past when the Optima ended up being a stepsister to the Sonata. Not anymore. Not that Kia has raised the game in another automotive class again.
All Hail the Evil Twin!