Most improved: Kia’s Sportage and Optima turn world-class
summit daily auto writer
If you’re looking for tangible proof of the huge advances made by the offshore auto industry, one need look no further than South Korea’s Kia – whose long-ago machines were once the definition of bargain-basement motoring.
My first experience with Kia was the awkward evening I spent sitting on the Sahara Avenue on-ramp on I-15 in Las Vegas in a new, rented 1997 Kia Sportage, the transmission having blown out a few miles back. I too was not impressed.
Fast-forward a little more than a decade and Kia’s offerings are now truly world-class, considerably more affordable than the German and Japanese imports they target, yet totally contemporary in their design and function.
That once round (and rotten) Sportage has morphed into a fine, small SUV that’s got a real solidity and punchiness to its character, with a long laundry list of features more typical on a mid-size SUV.
Depending on the model (I drove both FWD and AWD editions topping out at about $29K, though a stripped model starts at $18,000 and change), you’ll find an auto loaded with a sequential automatic transmission, heated and cooled seats, a sunroof, Bluetooth, a backup camera built into a touchscreen navigation system, Sirius radio and traffic, plus hill descent control and a push-button starter.
Its design also completely obliterates memories of Sportage the old. Now more in line with the trend-setting Soul, Sportage’s sharp lines, chrome window trim and sculpted tail take it in, dare I say, almost tiny, Audi-styled directions (including LED headlight “eyeliners”). The interior is fiercely plastic but well-executed, with comfortably stiff leather seats, an attractive and ergonomic shift lever and nicely laid-out instruments.
The slightly brittle and bouncy suspension and a moderately noisy 2.4-liter four-cylinder don’t make it the most subtle of experiences, but for basic motoring through the worst of winter, it’ll do the trick, quite effectively.
Further up the food chain, the new Optima is also a totally reinvented beast. It’s a comfortable, mid-sized sedan that’s clearly styled with BMW in mind, yet starts at $19K and came in at nearly $29K with the premium options package.
I had the Optima over the holidays, but the biggest impact I got was seeing a TV spot for the car once I handed back the keys. It truly does posses nearly Germanic lines, with a long, heavily windowed cabin and panoramic sunroof that make the car look like it sports an all-glass top; take a Ford Fusion and blend it with a new Honda Accord and you’ll understand the inspiration for the nose.
Optima’s variation of the engine found in the Sportage ups the horsepower to 200 in its basic form while a turbocharged variation offers 274 horses. There’s also a hybrid model on the horizon.
Even the basic engine makes for a sufficiently powerful yet light and lithesome automobile, though its rear seat space (and 35 inches of legroom) is impressively capacious. You get decent acceleration and ride and up to 34 mpg highway, to boot.
Inside, those aspirational Euro and Japanese targets have been fully met, with hand-stitched (looking) leather nearly everywhere in the airplane-styled cabin. The center stack is laid out with almost the same attention to driver accessibility as a Saab, with a low-positioned navigation screen and intuitive audio, nav and temperature controls.
Slightly low-set seats do mean a bit of a stretch over the long door frames but it’s an otherwise comfortable and sporty spot for you and some real-world-sized passengers.
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