2011 Kia Optima
Five years ago, the lowly Optima ranked fourth in sales popularity among Kia's seven models. Competing family cars like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord were sales leaders for their brands. Then, Kia went to work, and the smashingly handsome Optima debuted in April. Nine months have passed, and we'll tender a verdict: The 2011 Optima should become Kia's top seller and give Camry and Accord shoppers a better choice. It wins Cars.com's highest award, Best of 2011.
As befits an age-old group, family cars generally have played it safe, even when the big fishes are redesigned. Like its platform sibling, the Hyundai Sonata, the new Optima did not play it safe. Its declarative stance will look good years from now. The cabin's wraparound contours recall pricier Saab and Audi interiors, and its upscale materials — upholstery-stitched portions of the dashboard, for example — are a far cry from what this segment usually delivers.
The Optima delivers an outstanding fuel efficiency and a good driving experience — better on both fronts than the Sonata. The smaller Chevrolet Cruze was the strongest runner-up in our voting on this award, but the Cruze's impressive gas mileage comes with only one of its five trim levels. The fact is, the Optima's mass-market drivetrain — a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic — renders 27 mpg in combined EPA city/highway ratings, and you can get that in the mainline LX and EX trims. That matches the most efficient four-cylinder competitors; you'd have to get a hybrid family sedan to beat it.
Speaking of which, Kia plans to offer an Optima Hybrid soon. There's also an Optima Turbo, whose 74 extra horses ring up an outstanding 26 mpg, but with no premium fuel needed. Spacious rear legroom, a large trunk and uncommon premium options — cooled front seats, heated rear seats — seal the deal. Despite the alternatives, family sedans remain a cornerstone of the market: More than one in seven new models sold in the U.S. is a member of this group. We've recognized cars that elevate what the segment can represent — like last year's winner of this award, the 39-mpg Ford Fusion Hybrid. With its value, sharp packaging, outstanding fuel efficiency and lofty features, the Optima gives all family-car shoppers a shot at something far more compelling than the segment represents.
With strong entrants from the Soul to the Sorento, Kia's been storming the market for some time. We're certain the Optima will be another success, and we suspect it will be the biggest one yet.
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