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2001 Kia Optima Road Test

By John Heilig  
Photos by Charles Ofria and John Heilig

Category: $15,000 to $22,000 Mid-sized Sedan
Who should buy this car: A person looking for a competent mid-sized sedan at a bargain basement price
Comparable models in this class: Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Taurus, Hyundai Sonata, Mitsubishi Galant, Saturn L-Series 

I confess, I likesurprises. Especially when it comes to automobiles. The Kia Optima is asurprise, and a pleasant one to boot. Yes, there are unpleasant surprises, butwe won't go into those.

Kia is known for its line of small inexpensive-to-cheap sedans and sportutilities. The last Kia I drove, for example, was the Rio subcompact sedan,which is really at the bottom of the car chain.

But this week the vehicle of choice was the Kia Optima. This midsize sedan isKia's new flagship vehicle, replacing, I would guess, the Sephia compact sedan.The Optima is Kia's first venture into a larger vehicle and it's a successfulventure.

Let'sbegin with the size and, therefore, the accommodations. The Optima is a fullfive-passenger vehicle. Up front are two comfortable bucket seats, with areasonably wide bench in the rear. True, the center passenger would be crampedover a long ride, but in general the seating is comfortable. In addition, thedriver's seat was power adjustable (my wife was upset because her side wasn't).All seating surfaces were leather-covered (a $995 option). During our test weekwe drove to greet our newest grandson. My wife and I sat up front and ouryoungest daughter hitched a ride in the back. She was crowded in by gifts,luggage and an aquarium (don't ask), but enjoyed the ride because there was morethan adequate legroom.

Under the hood was a 2.5-liter double overhead cam V-6 that pumped out 170horsepower. This proved to be more than adequate for our long trip to theWashington D.C. area. The engine drove the front wheels through a four-speedautomatic transmission with Tiptronic, Porsche's version of an automatic stickshift. For the most part we just left the gearbox in "Drive," butthere were a couple of situations on winding roads where we downshifted and tookadvantage of the higher engine revs. The Tiptronic feature was another one ofthe surprises I didn't expect in a $22,269 car.

Ourtester was the top-of-the-line SE trim level. In addition to the leather seats,other options over and above the $19,949 base price included antilock brakes($795) and carpeted floor mats ($80). Normally I would scoff at the need forcarpeted floor mats, but I have driven cars with the bare minimum, and thecarpeting does make the ride more comfortable.

The SE has, as standard equipment, alloy wheels with Michelin tires, heatedexterior mirrors, power-activated antenna, fog lights, moon roof, keyless entryand alarm, cruise control (a handy addition on a long trip), 120-watt stereosystem with cassette and CD player, and the power seat. In addition, with theV-6 engine, the rear brakes are discs instead of drums.

I also was impressed with the Optima's handling. The reason was anall-independent suspension, with double wishbones, coil springs and tubularshocks in front and a multi-link design with coil springs and tubular shocks inthe rear. On the highway this offered a smooth ride with little road noisetransmitted back into the passenger compartment. We also did some maneuveringover some twisty roads and the attitude of the Optima was generally flat. Itwasn't stiff, as in a sports car, but still inspired me with confidence that thecar wasn't going to get away from me and start driving itself.

Webrought a lot of packages down to my daughter's house to greet the new arrival.So we appreciated the Optima's 13.6 cubic foot trunk. This is slightly smallerthan the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima, for example, but proved to be justright for what we had to carry. I remember back to trunks of the past, which mayhave had larger nominal capacities, but had fewer useful cubic feet.

Since we had to keep in constant touch with the hospital to monitor theprogress of the baby and mother-to-be, we had two cellular phones in operationat all times. We had two power outlets in the Optima, so both phones werewell-charged.

The Optima is stingy with fuel. We averaged more than 25 mpg with theautomatic transmission, the only choice with the V-6 engine. This was in almostfull highway driving. The EPA estimates 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway.

With a bottom line of slightly over $22,000, the Optima comes in with a lowersticker than its main competition. It's a solid car with decent performance.There's a lot of competition in the mid-size class, and we applaud Kia forjumping in with both feet with a car that can hold its own against thatcompetition.

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Engine Type 2.5-liter DOHC V-6 aluminum block and head
Horsepower 170 @ 6000 RPM
Torque 169 @ 4000 RPM
Transmission 4-speed ECT automatic transmission with Sportmatic clutchless shifting
Tires P205/60 R15
Overall Length 185.9"
Wheelbase 106.3"
Width 71.5"
Curb Weight 3190 lbs.
Fuel Recommended Regular 87 Octane Unleaded.
Fuel Tank 17.2 Gals.
Miles Per Gallon EPA city 19 , hwy 25 
Acceleration 0 to 60 9.3 Seconds
Base Sticker Price $19,949  + Destination Charge of $495

2001 Kia Optima SE

Standard Equipment

  • 2.4-liter, 16-valve, 4-cylinder DOHC engine or 2.5-liter, 24-valve, V6 engine
  • Five-speed manual transmission (four-speed automatic standard with V6)
  • Front-wheel drive
  • Four-wheel independent suspension
  • Power-assisted front disc/rear drum brakes ( 4-wheel disk brakes standard with V6)
  • Air conditioning
  • Power windows w/driver express down
  • Power door locks
  • 8-way power adjustable driver seat
  • Heated dual power mirrors
  • Power moonroof w/sliding sunshade
  • Theft-deterrent system
  • 120-watt AM/FM/Cassette/CD stereo
  • 6 speakers with door-mounted tweeters
  • Fold-down 60/40-split rear seat
  • Alloy wheels
  • Dual illuminated visor vanity mirrors
  • Wood trim accents
  • First-aid kit

Major Available Options

  • Four-speed automatic transmission (standard with V6)
  • Leather-faced seats
  • Antilock Braking System (ABS) (only available with V6)
  • Mud guards

For more information on the Optima, visit

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