Optima makes a statement in Detroit

The author drove this Optima around Detroit for about a week, and the reaction was informative. Photo credit: RICK KRANZ
Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News

If the Detroit reaction is any indication, Kia is on the right track.

The redesigned 2011 Optima, with European flair and an upmarket feel, is turning heads -- literally -- here in Motown.

Earlier this month I was driving a black Optima Hybrid sedan and was shocked by the reactions it elicited. I expected locals to snub their nose at anything carrying a Kia badge in favor of Detroit 3 metal. I have seen that reaction time and time again.

How wrong I was.

The car is the creation of Peter Schreyer's design team. Schreyer, who is German, is the design chief of Kia Motors Corp. He was snapped up in 2006 after a 26-year career as a top designer at Volkswagen and Audi. Kia's Frankfurt studio did the Optima's exterior, and Kia's Irvine, Calif., design team handled the interior.

Automotive News' headquarters is a short distance from the Detroit Tigers' stadium. Fans park their cars nearby and walk past our building as they head to the ballpark.

As I drove out of our parking lot, I was forced to stop for a group of Tigers fans walking to a game.

"Nice car," one fan yelled. Another chimed in: "That's a sharp-looking car. I like those wheels."

The next day as I was driving down the Lodge freeway, a car passed, then slowed. The passenger gave me a thumbs up as the driver tried to position his car and turn his head to take a good look at the Optima.

Optima sales have taken off nationally. The redesigned model went on sale last fall. Up to now, the best sales year had been 2004, when Kia sold 53,492 Optimas. Kia is well on its way to breaking that record. Kia sold 29,518 Optimas in the first five months of this year, a 103 percent increase over the same period a year before. The base models starts at around $20,000.

Did the Detroiters know the car was a Kia?

I don't know. The Kia badge is prominently placed on the center of the hood and trunk lid.

One thing is clear: They recognize an attractive sedan, and they're not afraid to say so.

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