Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

March 4, 2013

Kia Optima has become a luxurious brand

By Derek Price
CNHI News Service

The fact that the latest Kia Optima is spectacularly nice is no surprise.

Kia has been running circles around Honda and Toyota for a couple of years, and the Optima shows why: excellent quality, a luxurious driving feel and gorgeous looks.

But I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around one thing. The Optima I drove this week cost more than $35,000, a number that seems stratospheric given Kia's budget-car roots. 

A mid-size Kia has never come with that kind of price before — for one reference point, you can get a Lexus IS for about the same cost — but then again, a mid-size Kia has never been a serious competitor with Lexus, either.

This one is.

If you could muster the courage to ignore the badges on the hood, the fully loaded Optima would match up nicely with the Lexus. Not only does it have the kind of solid, stitched-leather interior and grainy wood trim that makes it look like a luxury car on the inside, but it drives with the smoothness and silence of a more expensive car.

That's unusual for mid-size sedans. Today's vehicles are usually tuned to feel crisp and responsive, more like Honda and BMW have built their vehicles for years.

The Optima drives more like a full-size luxury car with a squishy, supple ride, something that sharply contrasts with the pseudo-sporty sedans that are so popular these days.

But there's still that elephant in Kia's living room. At what price does the Kia badge become a liability?

At the Optima's base price of $21,350, nobody would ask that question. But after you add a good 60 percent onto the price by getting the turbocharged engine, leather, electronics, giant chrome wheels and dual sunroofs — all the things that contribute to its upscale impression — that's when buyers have to ask themselves if they want a Kia that's priced like a BMW.

History shows that's a tough mountain for automotive companies to scale. Volkswagen tried it 10 years ago with the Phaeton, one of the best luxury cars in the world at the time, but its price that climbed over $100,000 is one reason its sales disappointed. Another was the plebeian VW logo on the hood.

A $35,000 Optima doesn't fall into that ridiculously over-the-top category, for sure, but it does show how far Kia is willing to go to stretch its brand. It's built one of the best mid-size cars in the world, and it's priced the car accordingly.

Looked at another way, the upscale Optima could be a great value for the right kind of buyer. My first impression driving it was that it felt like a $50,000 car, so I could see luxury buyers cross shopping the Kia dealer if they wanted an amazing luxury driving experience while saving some money.

They'd just have to ask themselves whether they want the best value for their money or the best brand name.

It will be interesting to watch how buyers respond. Whether it ends up being a sales success or a flop, the super-loaded Optima is proof of just how far Kia has come from its economy-car days.

Derek Price is an automotive columnist for CNHI News Service. Contact him at carcolumn@gmail.com.