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2004 Kia Optima
John Matras

Introduction
The Kia Optima is a remarkably good car for the price. Kia offers a strong value when compared against the big Japanese brands. You get a lot for your money, and unlike earlier Korean attempts at building a mid-size sedan, the Optima achieves a level of sophistication in its engine and chassis that is competitive for its size, and not just its price. For 2004, the Optima's styling is more sophisticated as well, with a new front end that gives the whole car a more subtle appearance.

The available V6 engine is exceptionally smooth, and works well with the four-speed automatic transmission that comes with it. The Optima's refined and unruffled road manners will please most of the people who are in the market for mid-size family transportation.

Kia Optima is based on the platform of the current Hyundai Sonata and shares the Sonata's engine and suspension layout; if you like one, you'll no doubt like the other. But the Optima offers unique styling, sharing no body panels with the Sonata and offers different features. Model Lineup
The 2004 Kia Optima comes in two trim levels, LX and EX, with a choice of four-cylinder engine or V6 in either.

Optima LX ($15,500) is powered by a 138-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and comes complete with air conditioning; cruise control; rear defroster: six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo; eight-way manually adjustable driver's seat; power windows, mirrors and locks; front-seat side-impact airbags; four-wheel-disc brakes; and P205/60 all-season tires on 15-inch steel wheels. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, a four-speed automatic ($920) optional.

The LX V6 ($17,895) gets a 2.7-liter V6 rated at 170 horsepower. The automatic transmission is standard, along with woodgrain interior trim and P205/55 Michelin tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels.

The four-cylinder Optima EX ($18,095) adds a tilt-and-slide glass sunroof, electronic climate control, Infinity AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, fog lights, HomeLink universal transmitter, heated outside mirrors, self-dimming inside mirror, remote keyless entry with alarm, eight-way power driver's seat, leather wrappers for the steering wheel and shift knob, and other appointments. It also comes with aluminum wheels, but they are 15-inch units wearing the base-level P205/60 tires. The four-speed automatic is the only transmission available.

The EX V6 ($19,495) comes with all the above: the 170-horsepower V6, 16-inch wheels and tires, and all the EX-level luxury goodies.

The list of factory options is short. Anti-lock brakes ($795) are available only with the V6. Leather seating ($1095) is offered only on the EX. Port-installed accessories include a CD changer ($375), carpeted floor mats ($85), and a rear spoiler ($220).

All Optimas come with Kia's 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty and 5-year/60,000 mile basic warranty, plus a 5-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance plan. Walkaround
The 2004 Kia Optima breaks no new styling ground. It's a basic three-box, four-door sedan with conventional proportions. Not a head turner by any means, it is handsomely done and presents itself well, with distinctively sculpted panels and balanced forms.

Last year's bright gridwork grille has been replaced for 2004 by a simple, trapezoidal opening split by a single horizontal bar. Now flanking the grille are dual headlamps, round inboard and rectangular outboard. The description sounds busy, but the actual look is satisfying, sophisticated and vaguely European.

The alloy wheels that come on the V6 models are redesigned for 2004, and EX models are accented by chrome door handles and bodyside moldings. The brightwork is well done and makes the car look richer. In fact, the Optima looks better the longer you look at it, with both an overall shape and details that are appealing. Interior
The Optima's interior is as conventional as its exterior, and there's little here that will either surprise or confound the new driver. The overall quality of materials is okay. The color matches are good and the layout is appropriate, but the fit and finish is not up to the standards of Honda and Toyota. Some of the panels don't fit flush and the rear ashtray in one car squeaked. The available leather interior complements the rest of the interior nicely. It comes with genuine wood trim, though it was so over finished that it was difficult to differentiate it from the imitation wood trim that is also used.

The front bucket seats are firm, supportive and fairly flat, comfortable and well suited for hours of commuting, with enough fore-and-aft travel to accommodate the longest of legs.

The back seat is good, though putting three adults in back is requesting a bit more intimacy than most are accustomed to. The 60/40 folding rear seatback increases the versatility of the Optima.

Trunk size is adequate, with 13.6 cubic feet of cargo space, compared with 14.0 for the new Honda Accord. Optima's trunk lid has articulated hinges that don't impinge on luggage space or crush grocery bags, a nice feature. Driving Impressions
The Optima is most enjoyable with the V6 and automatic, though the four-cylinder and manual shifter make a fine combination.

The four-cylinder engine works well around town and cruising at high speeds, but it doesn't have a lot of power at altitude on winding roads. The manual gearbox works well. The clutch pedal is easy to operate and it's easy to shift smoothly and.

The V6 engine in the Kia Optima is so smooth and quiet that one of our colleagues got into one with the engine idling and promptly tried to start it. It's that polished, and the impression doesn't fade once the Optima is underway. The engine quietly goes about its business, at least until given full throttle. Then it's still smooth but it can be heard sonorously churning out power. The V6 and automatic are a responsive team. The V6 surrenders 2-3 miles per gallon, but seems worth it for the smoothness and improved response.

The Optima's automatic transmission is a good match for the V6 engine. It shifts imperceptibly in normal driving. Slam the gas pedal down and it quickly downshifts. The transmission also has a manual-shift feature: Sliding the console-mounted shift lever over to the right allows the driver to shift up and down with a flick of the lever. It's sometimes helpful or enjoyable to slap the lever over and downshift manually to pass, but it's not necessary. This system is built by Kia, but was designed by Porsche and is similar to the Tiptronic.

Kia tuned the Optima's suspension for comfort, not handling. That doesn't mean a floaty, imprecise ride. It's smooth and stable at high speeds. It doesn't feel as connected to wet roads as a Honda Accord or Mazda6, though. While hustling down some back roads, the Optima displayed remarkable poise over bumps and lumps in mid-corner, its line not diverted by bumps in the road. The Optima operates best in its comfort zone. Push it really hard and you begin to see more chassis flex than that of the leading brands. The nose dives under hard braking and the rear squats under hard acceleration. There's considerable understeer (the tendency of the front tires to lose grip before the rear tires, causing the car to describe a wider arc in a corner). Also, the steering is relatively slow, so you have to turn the wheel more than you do in an Accord.

Kia engineers have managed to filter out most road and tire noise, but there's a ruffle of wind noise from the top of the windshield. Overall, it isn't quite as quiet as the Hyundai Sonata. At highway speeds, conversations between front and back seat were easy at normal speaking volume. Summary
The Kia Optima excels at providing good transportation at a reasonable cost. It's smooth, reasonably refined and comfortable. Its price makes it attractive, especially considering the long warranty, the roadside assistance plan, and all the standard features.

Model as tested
Kia Optima EX V6 ($19,495)
Basic Warranty
5 years/60,000 miles
Assembled in
Hwasung, South Korea
Destination charge
540
Gas guzzler tax
N/A
Base Price
15500
Price as tested
22010
Options as tested
antilock brakes ($795); leather seats ($1095); carpeted floormats ($85)

Model Line Overview
Model lineup
Kia Optima LX ($15,500); LX V6 ($17,895); EX ($18,095); EX V6 ($19,495)
Safety equipment (standard)
front airbags w/passenger detection, front side-impact airbags, front seatbelt pre-tensioners w/force limiters, rear childseat anchors, first aid kit
Safety equipment (optional)
N/A
Engines
2.7-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Transmissions
4-speed automatic

Specifications as Tested
air conditioning, in-glass antenna, variable intermittent wipers, heated power mirrors, fog lights, aluminum wheels, Infinity AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, power locks w/keyless remote and alarm, 8-way power driver's seat, 60/40-split folding rear seats, map lights, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, power tilt-and-slide glass sunroof

Engine & Transmission
Engine
2.7-liter dohc 24-valve V6
Drivetrain type
front-wheel drive
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
170 @ 6000
Transmission
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
20/27
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
N/A

Suspension
Brakes, front/rear
disc/disc with ABS
Suspension, front
independent, double wishbone with coil springs and anti-roll bar
Tires
P205/55R16
Suspension, rear
independent, multi-link with coil springs and anti-roll bar

Accomodations
Seating capacity
5
Head/hip/leg room, middle
N/A
Head/hip/leg room, front
39.0/55.8/43.3
Head/hip/leg room, rear
37.6/54.4/36.2

Measurements
Fuel capacity
N/A
Trunk volume
13.6
Wheelbase
106.3
Length/width/height
185.8/71.5/55.5
Turning circle
34.1
Payload
N/A
Towing capacity
N/A
Track, front/rear
60.6/59.8
Ground clearance
6.1
Curb weight
3279


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