Sometime in the late 1990’s I started seeing “Suzy”, a very cute, petite, and very smart girl. Suzy owned a Honda Civic hatchback (EC) which I probably liked more than I liked her. One day, as we were walking through our college campus parking lot toward where she parked her car, she says to me “I got a new car on Saturday! I traded-in the Civic, my brother picked it out for me”.
These are thoughts that immediately ran through my head: Whaaaaa? Wait… And you didn’t consult me? And you just traded in my beloved Civic? How could you? I loved that car! What’s going to happen to it now?
Being fairly smart and having learned a thing or two (literally) about women by that age, I did not say any of that. I said “oh, really, cool, congrats, what did you get?”
“This” she said.
There, in front of me, was a black Kia Sephia. It wasn’t an ugly car as much it was a generic car. There was absolutely nothing special about it; nothing inviting, nothing warm, nothing original, and nothing descriptive. It was just there, a car, completely bland, so much unlike its new owner. And that was pretty much the beginning of the end of my little relationship with Suzy.
Over the last decade, or so, Kia has completely turned itself from being a maker of generic entry-level cars to a brand that sells quality cars designed with style. With its corporate partner, Hyundai, Kia has been on a growth spurt similar to that of Honda several decades back. They have even developed a successful racing team!
Introduced at the 2010 New York Auto Show, the third generation Optima got everyone’s attention. This was a car which looked really good and offered features which were available only on so-called luxury cars. With a spacious interior, an increasing reputation for good quality and a reasonable price, the Optima became an instant winner.
This fully loaded Optima SXL was my first experience with the car that put Kia on the radar of many buyers. The spacious midsize sedan is pleasant to the eye both inside and out. It looks good on paper, too: a choice of two 200hp+ engines, over 30mpg on the highway, and a starting price of under $22,000 (which can top $34,000 as it did on my fully loaded test car).
The car drives well enough. There’s a bit of turbo lag followed by a bit too much torque steer. The suspension is smooth on bumpy roads and predictable when pushed. Brakes work well, too. Overall there is nothing exemplary about its chassis dynamics, just as there is nothing faulty.
Inside, the front seats are comfortable but the headrest constantly hits you on the back of your head. All passengers have plenty of room, too. The dash is logically laid out and all controls are easy to use. Again, there is nothing groundbreaking here, just as there is nothing to dislike.
What is different about the Optima, however, is the availability of features which are typically reserved for cars costing twice as much. These features include:
- Heated AND ventilated front seats.
- Heated rear seats.
- Illuminated door sills.
- Panoramic sunroof.
- Leather, everywhere.
- Power folding mirrors.
- Back-up camera.
- Smart keyless entry and push-button ignition.
- Fancy audio system with streaming this and blueteeth that.
- Xenon HID headlights, Audi-like LED running lights, and LED taillights.
- Red calipers – not sure if that’s a luxury feature.
- Chrome wheels – ditto.
While none of these features are standard on the base model cars, they are available on higher trim vehicles. Kia representatives say that those features pull in a lot of the buyers, but I think those buyers are expecting to get a Honda but are surprised to get an Acura instead. Many people who buy entry-level BMWs or Audis buy the badge and not the features that are available on those cars, and that’s where Kia cannot compete.
The mid-size sedan market segment is full of dull, boring, cars. Optima’s styling is a welcome departure from the rest of market and it, along with the available high-end features, is what sets it apart from its competition. Having just Googled Suzy, I noticed that she has received her Ph.D. and looks better than ever, which immediately made me draw parallels* to how far Kia has come since the Sephia of the 1990’s.
*Yes, I may need help, but that’s a separate issue.
[Images copyright 2013 Hooniverse/Kamil Kaluski]