SONOMA, Calif. - As if the mid-sized sedan segment doesn't have enough players, Kia Motors America Inc. will try to snare a small piece with the 2001 Optima.
'The mid-sized market is hard to crack, but once you have a foothold, you can expect to stay in it,' B.M. Ahn, president of Kia Motors America, said at the media introduction here for the new sedan. 'Optima has a combination of quality and value to compete against the best.'
Interestingly, the Optima allows Kia to be the lead vehicle on a new platform shared with the Sonata from parent Hyundai Motor Co. Hyundai's U.S. subsidiary doesn't get a replacement Sonata sedan on this platform until next fall.
Even though the Optima looks to be a price leader compared to its Japanese and American rivals, Kia also will try to sell the car on its merits.
Kia has a strong licensing connection, borrowing the Optima's Tiptronic automatic transmission technology from Porsche, although Kia builds it.
Kia also chose to use an expensive double wishbone suspension up front at a time when many automakers are moving toward less opulent alternatives. The rear suspension is a multilink setup; both front and rear get anti-roll bars as standard equipment.
Brakes are typical for the class: front discs and rear drums are standard, while rear discs come with the ABS option package.
Other standard features on all models include: air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, variable-speed wipers, seat-mounted side airbags, AM/FM/cassette stereo and dual illuminated vanity mirrors. Moving up to the SE edition gets a CD player, fog lights, cruise control, moonroof, keyless locks and 15-inch wheels with Michelin tires.
Like all other Kia products, the Optima comes with a five-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper limited warranty and a 10-year, 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty.
Pricing is designed to undercut the segment leaders. A base four-cylinder, five-speed Optima LX will sticker at $15,749, including freight. A V-6 automatic Optima SE will sticker for $20,399 with freight. Fully loaded, with all possible options, the Optima tops out at $22,269.
The four-cylinder comes with either a five-speed manual or traditional four-speed automatic. The V-6 model comes with the Tiptronic automatic transmission.
The underlying message is that the Optima provides more style and substance than expected for the price, said Dick Macedo, Kia executive vice president of sales and marketing. From the front, the Optima looks rather Korean with a hint of Cadillac in the grille, while the rear views appear to have been culled from the stylish Mitsubishi Galant.
30,000 annual sales
Kia is setting its sights low for the Optima: about 30,000 sales annually, 90 percent with automatic transmissions.
'Camry and Accord account for 800,000 units out of 2.3 million mid-sized cars,' Macedo said. 'So if we can capture a small percentage of that remaining 1.5 million units, we can do very well. There's plenty of business out there.'
Target demographics are evenly split between male and female buyers, with 61 percent married, although few with children. The average age will be 39 years old with a household income of $70,000. This will not be the first new car purchase for most Optima buyers, Macedo added.
Changes will come quickly to the Optima line, Ahn said. The 2.5-liter V-6 will get a displacement bump to 2.7 liters within 18 months. There also is the possibility of yet another trim level, with even more luxury and a 3.0-liter V-6, being added to the lineup.
The first units are arriving at dealerships now, but the official launch date is not until March 14.