We just got back from driving the 2011 Kia Optima at Road Atlanta, and unfortunately, we don't have much to report. Why? Because we only got a handful of very reduced-pace laps around the track with the car. But we did spend enough time with Kia's latest sedan to give you the 10,000-foot overview. The executive summary: it looks darn good from this height.
Steering is better than the Sonata, without the floaty, divorced-from-the-road feeling or large on-center deadspot, though it's still a bit light and low on feedback, not that we really got to push the car hard. Braking is solid, what you'd expect from a midsize sedan, tracking straight even when hammering moderately hard on the slow pedal.
Step on the go pedal and things pick up quicker than you'd expect for a 2.4-liter four-cylinder in a large-ish four-door, but you're not going to be the Stoplight Commando. The six-speed automatic transmission features paddle shifters and a sport mode that acquits itself well when it wants to, but can be balky on upshifts and downshifts alike. These were pre-production vehicles not legal for the road yet, however, so fine-tuning may take place before they are sold en masse.
In the handling department, we had basically zero opportunity to push the limits, but body roll does seem to be more than you'd expect. In fact, riding at the same pace in the 2011 Sorento SX in the hands of Trevor Hopwood, one of the KONI Grand-Am Kia Forte Koup race drivers, the crossover seemed to take to the corners more ably than the Optima, with less lean.
Inside the cabin, the Optima is what you should expect (but may not know) of new Kias: it's really quite nice. Good but not great materials, very nice fit and finish, controls where they should be, and an intuitive layout and marking structure meet up with an attractive design that could teach the Japanese a lesson or two. Seats are comfortable for a 15-minute jaunt (which is about all we got), though they could use a bit more bolstering for sporty driving.
After our brief test, the Optima, with its (in my opinion) better looks, equal-or-better cabin, and better steering feel, is the smart choice between it and the Sonata, and the Sonata is a very good car, especially for the price. If the Optima offers similar pricing and features, it'll be a no-brainer--unless, of course, a longer test reveals things we didn't have time to notice on this brief initial drive.