Driver's Seat: Kia Optima moving in right direction

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2013/14 Kia Optima SX: Honda Accord/Toyota Camry attacker.

Price: $35,275: The 2013 SX starts at $26,800. The Optima starts at $21,350. A $3,350 SX Limited Package adds special 18-inch chrome wheels, red brake calipers, interior accents, electronic parking brakes and Nappa leather interior, all things I can live without. A $1,400 navigation package seems like a lot.

Marketer's pitch: "Not your average midsize sedan."

Conventional wisdom: liked the "solid acceleration with any of the engines; handsome cabin; conventional gasoline models offer impressive value" but not the "rear-seat headroom; real-world mpg."

Reality: Holy Acura, Batman. A $35,000 Kia sedan?

More optimum Optima: Watching the new model years arrive can be like seeing your kids grow up. You notice the little changes in vehicles that you've already tested and think, "Darn, that's nice to see." Since I tested the 2013 Kia Optima in spring, the promotional materials for the 2014 model have been posted, and I'm seeing Kia went in the right direction on its minor changes.

The basics: The Kia Optima is a four-door sedan that aims to challenge the Accord and Camry with roominess, a touch of luxury, and, since it's from a Korean automaker, a better price. It offers a 2.4-liter four cylinder with a six-speed automatic transmission in lower forms, but the SX gets a 2.0-liter turbo with a six-speed.

Outside: The exterior is handsome enough, though a little conservative in styling.

And so it goes: Looking back at my notes, I made zero mention of how the thing drove. Which is telling. It goes. It stops. Solid acceleration, like Edmunds said. Turbo lag was kept to a minimum. Performance was adequate, but no rubber was burned in the making of this review.

Sounds of improvement: The Infinity Audio System (part of the touring package) is where the 2014 has it all over the 2013. The 2013 Optima made it easy enough to change stereo functions from CD to radio by using buttons under the display screen. But other functions rely on bevy of buttons with no good layout or relationship, and they are hard to adjust to on the fly. A big volume knob is the lone button-free adjustment.

For 2014, I see Kia offers both volume and tuner dials, arranged like olden days, with the buttons in the middle. A classic design that'll be much easier to use.

Bad air: The Optima interior's reliance on unusual shapes carries over to the heater vents. Unfortunately, oddly shaped heater vents make it difficult to direct airflow. I also found the heater control layout kind of confusing in the 2013. Kia has revised it a tad for 2014, but I can't tell if it's much better from pictures alone. It simply switches the defrost buttons closer to the driver and changes shape a bit.

Comfy: The driver's seat feels so right it hardly even makes itself noticed.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat offers plenty of room. A middle occupant will be perched on a high cushion between the two favored children, but legroom is not sacrificed to the hump. The trunk provides plenty of room for groceries and other paraphernalia.

Fuel economy: 28 mpg in a mix of driving. Not bad for its size.

Where it's built: West Point, Ga.

How it's built: It's on Consumer Reports' "recommended" list, and overall reliability looks pretty good since its debut in 2007.

In the end: It's definitely on the right track for 2014.

As a Soul owner, I'm well aware of Kia's pricing structure. If you're satisfied with the bargain features, it's a great deal. But those option packages can add up. I repeat: A $35,000 Kia sedan? I'd probably go straight to the ILX or TSX. I may sacrifice some features and space, but I'd be driving an Acura.

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Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at First Published July 31, 2013 4:00 AM


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