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Kia Optima: Midsize rule-breaker

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Though it has to yet find the sales chart’s upper reaches, Kia’s Optima has changed the rules of the midsize sedan market.

Thanks to Kia and its corporate parent Hyundai, the family sedan segment is awash in technology that a short time ago was the exclusive domain of the luxury segments.

Kia was among the first to understand that buyers of compact and midsize family sedans would spring for amenities common among larger cars. Hence the availability of such options as heated steering wheels, high-end leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats and ventilated front seats.

Ventilated seats in a mid-priced family sedan? Never thought I’d see the day.

This year’s Optima updates include available keyless ignition/entry, blind-spot monitoring, rear parking sensors and new display screens. Outside, the front and rear fascias are updated, with the brand’s signature tabbed grille making its Optima debut.

Standard gear on every 2014 Optima (from $22,300, including destination) includes foglights, full power accessories, cruise control, air-conditioning, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and Bluetooth phone connectivity.

Fancy electronics don’t make a lackluster car worthy, of course, and Kia aggressively pursues new buyers with cutting-edge design, comfortable cabins and strong engines. A focus on quality has elevated Optima’s reliability ratings to about mid-pack in the segment.

The front-drive sedan is available in four trims — LX ($21,500, including destination), EX ($23,950), SX ($25,500) and Limited ($35,300) — and in gasoline and gas-electric hybrid formats. A 192-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine powers LS, EX and SX trims. A 274-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four is standard on the Limited trim and optional on the SX. A six-speed automatic transmission is standard.

With the 2.4-liter, EPA-estimated fuel economy is 27 mpg combined (23 city/34 highway); the turbocharged engine is good for 24 mpg combined (20 city/31 highway). 

The 2014 Hybrid debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in February but has yet to reach dealerships. Updates include aerodynamic revisions to the front and rear fascias, new wheel designs, and unique grille and LED lighting elements.

Ever since Kia hired VW/Audi designer Peter Schreyer, Kia’s exteriors have grown more rakish and its interiors more Continental. Some interior plastics recall Kia’s old budget-aware days but  most surfaces are covered with soft-touch materials and overall otherwise materials quality is very good.

Kia’s voice-activated Uvo electronics interface system allows vocal control of cell phones, MP3 players and other devices and services, such as navigation points of interest and turn-by-turn directions. It’s among the most intuitive and useful of the systems on the market.

The Optima is reasonably responsive and entertaining to drive. Steering is a bit numb and artificially weighted, but is accurate and has good on-center feel. Ride quality is very good, though some drivers may find the SX and Limited trims’ sport-tuned suspension too firm.

Optima’s coupe-like silhouette curtails rear-seat headroom; otherwise, the cabin is spacious and comfortable.

It may not (yet) be the country’s best-selling midsize sedan, but the Optima is a major-league trend-setter. It belongs on the shopping list of every buyer committed to owning latest and the greatest.

Don Adair is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Contact him at don@dadair.com.

2014 Kia Optima SX Turbo
Vehicle base price: $21,500
Trim level base price: $27,500
As tested: $33,900
Optional equipment included panoramic sunroof; UVO telematics; rearview camera; heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; navigation with SIRIUS services; blind-spot warning system; rear parking sensors.
EPA ratings: 20 city/31 highway/24 combined