Americans have always had a can-do spirit. But as today’s global economy demonstrates, we no longer have a lock on that market. Perhaps no foreign car company proves that more than Kia. From its humble beginnings, this Korean marque has slowly risen to serious player status in the small car segment. But fresh from its recent purchase by Hyundai, Kia has now entered the brutal mainstream family sedan arena with the introduction of the Optima. So now fender to fender with the likes of Camry and Altima, can Kia, can do, again?

Well, to steal market share from big boys Toyota, Nissan, and even Honda, the 2001 Kia Optima will have to do more than just offer family buyers more room. To that end, the Optima, which shares its platform with the latest Hyundai Sonata, is sized to fit perfectly into the very competitive mid-size family sedan segment. The Optima measures 185.8-inches long, the same as the Altima, and rides on a 106.3- inch wheelbase, longer than Camry and only a hair shorter than Accord.

Like most of its competitors from across the east sea, however, the Korean Kia is powered by both 4-and-6-cylinder engines, with the top power plant being Hyundai’s 2.5-liter, all-aluminum, twin-cam, 24-valve V6. But, with 170 horsepower, and 169 pound-feet of torque, it’s definitely at the low end of the V6 power scale. The base engine, a 2.4-liter 4-banger, makes 149 horsepower and 159 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices are either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic for 4-cylinder Optimas. The V6 fits a 4-speed auto only, but it does include adaptive logic, and Tiptronic manual-shifting licensed from Porsche.

This allowed our Optima to hit 60 in a respectable 8.6 seconds and run the full 1/4 mile in 16.6 seconds at 86 miles-per-hour. There’s little bottom end grunt, with the engine not coming on strong until almost 5,000 rpm. Power is delivered with a touch more vibration than competing V6s. The transmission delivers solid automatic shifts. And, surprisingly, we found the manual mode would upshift on its own before we wanted it to.

For cornering, the Optima is equipped with an Accord-style double wishbone front suspension, while the rear is a sophisticated multi-link design. Add in our SE’s 15-inch tires, and it puts the Optima’s handling easily on a par with more established competitors. There is the expected front drive push on turn in, but the Optima is very balanced and predictable. It’s no sport sedan, but it does hold its own, and the road quite well. To stop, V-6 cars are equipped with 4-wheel discs. With optional 4-channel ABS they bring the Optima down from 60 in an average of 127 feet. Distance is reasonable, stability is quite good, and pedal feedback plentiful. The Camry should have brakes this good.

In real world driving, the Optima delivers a ride that’s comfortable, but with a little more bounce over bumps than a Camry or Altima. EPA fuel mileage estimates are 19 city/25 highway. We got a fine 22 miles-per-gallon in mixed driving. But good mechanicals mean little in today’s family sedan market, without a roomy, comfortable and well-equipped interior. And here, the results are mostly in the Optima’s favor.

The dash is a clean, no nonsense design. While the plastics are still a bit utilitarian, the Optima is well equipped and controls are easy to decipher. The SE adds power to the 8-way driver’s seat, and while leather is optional, side impact airbags are standard. Rear seating is a comfortable 60/40 split-folding bench, while the trunk is a large, 13.6 cubic feet. Though what will likely impress potential buyers most is the high level of comfort and convenience features standard on Optima. A/C, 6-speaker cassette stereo, power windows, locks and mirrors, tilt wheel, and even a first aid kit.

And the price of it all starts at just $15,749 for the 4-cylinder LX model. The LX V6 starts at $18,949. While the SE, which adds keyless entry, CD, cruise, and a sunroof, carries a base price of $20,399. Our fully optioned test car went out the door for a mere $22,269. That’s an awful lot of mid-size family sedan for the dollar! And a pretty good one to boot, even before you consider the 10-year, 100,000 mile powertrain warranty.

So the 2001 Kia Optima truly does reflect the can-do spirit of its Korean creators. A spirit that is already setting monthly sales records, and one that could soon make Kia a three-letter staple in the American suburban garage.


  • Engine: 2.5 Liter, 24-valve, V6
  • Horsepower: 170
  • Torque: 169 Lb Feet
  • 0-60 MPH: 8.6 Seconds
  • 1/4 Mile: 16.6 Seconds @ 86 MPH
  • 60-0 MPH: 127 Feet
  • EPA Mileage: 19 MPG City 25 MPG Highway