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posted: 8/13/2011 6:00 AM

Review: Hot red mystery car Is Kia Optima

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  • Starting at just under $20,000 for the base LX model, the Kia Optima mid-size sedan is mechanically related to its Hyundai cousin, the Sonata. But the exteriors differ completely.

    Starting at just under $20,000 for the base LX model, the Kia Optima mid-size sedan is mechanically related to its Hyundai cousin, the Sonata. But the exteriors differ completely.
    Kia Motors

By Jason H. Harper, Bloomberg News

With a 200-mile, one-day round trip ahead of me, I was in the mood for a fast, luxurious ride. I looked at my schedule to see which car I was testing that day.

A Kia.

When I arrived at my underground garage, my mood brightened considerably.

Painted "spicy red," the Optima is like the geeky girl in high school whom nobody talked to, and who shows up at the 10- year reunion in sexy Louboutin heels.

My, Ms. Optima, you've changed. Would you like to dance?

The 2011 model's redesign is so thorough and absolute that it would put a contestant in a makeover reality TV show to shame. If you ever see a still-running 2001 Optima on the street, you'll find it impossible to trace any connection from that banal, shoddy cart to today's sharp and stylish offering.

As I pulled away, one of the garage attendants looked bemused. "That's a Kia? I thought it was European."

That gave me an idea. I stopped off at my apartment and picked up a roll of painters masking tape. I taped over the front and rear badges, the Kia-branded hub caps and any place on the interior that displayed the name.

Then I went to pick up two colleagues whom I was driving for a tour of the Monticello Motor Club in the Catskills, two hours away.

Starting at just under $20,000 for the base LX model, the mid-size sedan is mechanically related to its Hyundai cousin, the Sonata. But the exteriors differ completely. While both South Korean companies have successfully developed a distinct design language -- no easy feat -- the Kia's cues are younger and fresher.

The Optima has a blacked-out grill and a low-hanging front fascia that feels modern. The side profile has a sharp crease running under the windows, managing to look both svelte and speedy. Nothing about it says economy.

That mostly goes for the interior. Doors close with unexpected heft. Seats are upright for an authoritative driving position and the large oval glass in the rear allows a clear view of the road behind you.

Seats are trimmed with leather and the top of the dash is soft, touchable plastic. Windows, temperature controls and seats are all automatic. Bluetooth is standard.

A $2,000 technology package added an optional Infinity audio system with oversized door-mounted speakers. It looked premium and sounded good too, with lots of buzzy bass.

A touch-screen navigation system came with the upgrade, and the integrated iPod controller worked far better than any other I've tested. An additional $2,250 premium package scored a big sunroof with an automatic screen, heated and cooled front seats and heated rear seats. Even a heated steering wheel.

I pulled up to an apartment building to pick up my first driving companion and began an informal poll, asking the bored- looking doorman if he could identify the make. He walked around slowly. "Looks better than an Acura," he said. "Infiniti?"

Another curious resident grabbing a smoke had no clue either, but said it looked "classy."

My friend arrived and asked, "Why is this Kia all taped up?" He's a bit of a car expert, so he didn't really count.

We headed crosstown and picked up our next passenger, who isn't so knowledgeable. And so began a car game which lasted a good half-hour before he became irritated and pulled up a piece of tape. "I knew the Koreans were making nice rides, but I'd think about buying this thing," he said. "It rides well."

True enough. The last Kia I drove left me with concerns about the wobbly suspension, but the Optima slid smoothly over bumps while still feeling generally connected to the asphalt. The steering is tight enough to give you a sense of road without being distracting.

The engine is a 2.4-liter, direct-injected, four-cylinder with 200 horsepower. A 274-hp, 2.0-liter turbo is also available, as is a hybrid version. Gas mileage is good, getting 24 around town and 35 on the highway.

Too bad the six-speed automatic transmission was a tad too slow on downshifts: Step hard on the accelerator to pass another car and there's a hiccup before it slides down a gear. And while the brakes generally suffice, I found them sluggish during emergency-style stops. Not as hard-halting as I would prefer, especially from a fairly light vehicle.

Nonetheless, the Kia shot us along the freeway and over two-lane roads in comfort and good speed. It was only when we arrived at the private racetrack that I felt a twinge. This was a swank place, akin to an upscale golf club. Ferraris and Porsches are the cars most often passing through these gates.

The kid manning the security gate leaned out. His eyes popped and he asked, earnestly, "Is that the new Optima?"

"Seriously?" I asked.

"My buddy is thinking about buying one," he said. "Do you like it?"

I thought for a second. "You know, I suppose I do."

The 2011 Kia Optima EX at a Glance

Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in about 8 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 24 city; 34 highway.

Price as tested: $27,440.

Best features: Looks good, many conveniences.

Worst features: Slushy brakes; sleepy transmission.

Target buyer: The economy driver who wants a dollop of style.