Like Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell, the 2009 Kia Optima is an out-of-the-spotlight player that's fully capable of delivering the goods when need be. Rather than dazzle those in the stands with either a deep-center homer or a struck-out-swinging-for-the-fences at bat, Lowell is more apt to hit a single or double and get a few runners across the plate. And though the Optima isn't capable of making a great catch and starting a double play like Mr. Lowell, it likewise boasts a subtle, well-rounded character that's easy to like -- for those willing to take notice.
Previously, we described the Optima as being "styled by the witness protection program." Kia actually listened to our criticism, and some visual tweaks have been made to the 2009 Optima to make it look, well, less inconspicuous. But under the generic yet attractive enough styling is an admirable car that offers a lot to the midsize-family-sedan shopper, such as strong crash test scores, a lengthy features list and a well-crafted interior.
Following the Kia philosophy of offering maximum value, the Optima comes well-equipped for such a low price. In fact, a fully loaded EX V6 with leather, heated seats, premium audio and sunroof doesn't crack $24,000, which is about five grand less than similarly equipped rivals such as the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry. Of course, those competitors, as well as every other car in this segment, offer a more powerful V6 engine than the Optima. Although the Optima's V6 has been upgraded to 194 hp for 2009, it's still down by as much as 76 horses compared to the strongest entries. On the upside, the standard four-cylinder has also been improved and boasts class-competitive power and fuel economy.
Overall, we think pretty highly of the 2009 Kia Optima. Though lacking the higher levels of refinement and performance found in the Accord, Altima and Hyundai Sonata, the Kia shines as a well-made, well-rounded choice at a low price, especially when compared to four-cylinder models like the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion and gradually slipping Toyota Camry. As with the Red Sox third baseman, the Optima may not be the most ballyhooed player in the game, but considering how competent this Kia is, it certainly belongs on your scouting list of top prospects.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options:
The 2009 Kia Optima is a midsize sedan offered in LX, EX and SX trim levels.
Standard equipment on the LX includes 16-inch steel wheels, air-conditioning, full power accessories, a tilt steering column, and a six-speaker sound system with a CD player, satellite radio and auxiliary and USB audio jacks. LX models with the optional automatic transmission gain keyless entry, cruise control and a tilt and telescoping steering wheel with audio controls.
The Optima EX adds (to the LX) 16-inch alloy wheels, foglamps, chrome door handles, automatic climate control, leather upholstery, an eight-way power driver seat, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a trip computer and further upgraded interior trim. The SX adds 17-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, a blacked-out grille and headlight trim leather and cloth seating, aluminum cabin accents, and sport pedals.
A handful of optional, trim-level-specific packages can add equipment. Those for the EX and SX trims offer luxuries such as a power sunroof, a power passenger seat, heated front seats, a manual rear-window sunshade, power adjustable pedals and an upgraded audio system with a subwoofer and a six-CD/MP3 changer. A navigation system is a stand-alone option on the EX and SX trims.
Powertrains and Performance:
The base engine on all 2009 Kia Optimas is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that makes a competitive 175 hp and 169 pound-feet of torque. Available on the EX and SX trim levels is a small-for-the-segment 2.7-liter V6 that produces 194 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on the LX. Optional on the LX and standard on the EX and SX is a five-speed automatic transmission.
Fuel mileage estimates are 22 mpg city/32 mpg highway and 25 mpg combined for the four-cylinder (both manual and automatic) and 20/28/23 for the V6.
Standard safety equipment includes front-seat side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, antilock brakes, stability control and traction control.
Crash test scores for the Optima are top notch. The government gave it a perfect five stars for front and side impact protection, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave it the highest possible rating of "Good" in its frontal offset crash test. The IIHS side impact test resulted in a second-best "Acceptable" rating.
Interior Design and Special Features:
Like the exterior, the 2009 Optima's cabin isn't a standout in terms of visual presentation. However, it counters any lack of character with simple control layouts and good interior materials. On both counts, it outdoes better-known competitors like the Toyota Camry, but not the Accord and Sonata.
There's plenty of legroom up front, and the seats are well-shaped and supportive with nicely padded bottom cushions. Legroom is good in back as well, but those seat bottoms are a little short, offering less support for long-limbed occupants than many rivals' accommodations. Trunk capacity is 15 cubic feet, and all Optimas have a 60/40 split-folding rear seat.
Between stoplights the 2009 Kia Optima V6 feels plenty powerful, but that engine runs out of steam as the rpm climb. Passing power is adequate but unimpressive for a V6 in this class, and the five-speed automatic is reluctant to downshift. Thankfully, there is a manual mode when you want some extra punch. Given the boost in power it received this year, we'd therefore recommend the base four-cylinder engine for most buyers, as it provides fully adequate performance while keeping the price and fuel consumption low.
Thanks to its tightly tuned suspension and relatively communicative steering, the Kia Optima has a somewhat sporty feel around town, especially the new SX model. The trade-off is that this Kia ultimately doesn't feel as luxurious as more plush-riding midsize sedans. In addition, if you start pushing it harder in the corners, that sportiness goes away quickly, something that might be cured with a set of performance tires. However, most folks won't be looking for all-out sport sedan athletics in this segment. Used as a daily commuter and family car, the Optima provides more entertainment behind the wheel than one would rightly expect.