NEWPORT COAST, CA – Thanks to its upscale features and dramatic styling, Kia Motors America expects midsize-sedan shoppers to put the ʼ11 Optima on their consideration lists – perhaps for the first time.

“This vehicle is going to be a game-changer,” Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing and communications for KMA, says here at a recent Optima media event. “It will be the vehicle that helps us overcome consumers’ pre-conceived perceptions of the Kia brand.”

Those perceptions of being a lesser-quality marque, thanks to Kia’s cheap-but-not-chic history, have kept the auto maker’s vehicles from getting a final thumbs-up from attendees of consumer clinics.

In recent years, even if a de-badged Kia won the initial evaluation process during a clinic, once the brand was revealed the car would be viewed negatively, Sprague says.

But Kia says the ’11 Optima, on sale in the U.S. in November, is the first model to break that pattern.

The car was the “clear favorite (against midsize competitors). Consumers told us this vehicle does not blend in,” Sprague says.

Ho-hum looks – and sales – of the first- (’01-’05) and second-generation Optima (’06-’10) pushed Kia engineers and designers to give the latest iteration “much, much more” to be on par with the segment’s top sellers, says Ralph Tjoa, KMA manager-car product planning.

Through August, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Camry and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s Accord are the No.1 and No.2 best-selling midsize cars in the U.S. this year, with 220,061 and 193,207 deliveries, respectively, Ward’s data shows.

The Optima has sold 19,198 units so far in 2010. Its best year was 2004, when deliveries reached 53,492 units.

With the ’11 model, Kia “took a chance on dramatic styling,” Tjoa says. Designers employed a chrome accent strip across the top of its side windows. The third-generation sedan also has large dual exhausts, side-mirror turn-signal indicators, a steeply raked windshield and four different 18-in. alloy-wheel designs for its SX grade.

Kia also upped the styling ante with the Optima’s interior, Tjoa notes, angling the center stack 10 degrees toward the driver, using metallic paint finishes and Leatherette faux leather finished with French seams.

Options include a heated steering wheel (EX grade only) and panoramic sunroof (EX and SX). The latter is something Kia planners “fought for,” Tjoa says, despite the lack of a panoramic sunroof on competitors’ vehicles.

Besides styling and creature comforts, Kia also overhauled the Optima’s engine options. Gone are the previous-generation’s 2.4L I-4 and 2.7L V-6.

Instead, the ’11 model offers a choice of a 200-hp 2.4L GDI 4-cyl. or 274-hp 2.0L turbocharged GDI 4-cyl. A 2.4L hybrid-electric Optima is due early next year.

All three powertrains are the same as those used in sister brand Hyundai’s new Sonata. Tjoa says the major differences between the two cars are styling and interior features.

The ’11 Optima will be offered in three trim levels: LX, EX and SX. A 6-speed manual transmission is available only on the LX; the grade also can be had with a 6-speed automatic. The EX grade comes with either the 2.4L GDI engine or 2.0L turbocharged GDI mill.

The 2.0L turbo is the Optima SX’s only engine.

Standard features across all grades, including the manual LX, are a cooled glove box, front armrest with storage, steering-wheel mounted controls, keyless entry and power windows.

Navigation is optional on all but the manual LX grade.

Kia expects Generation Xers, those consumers 35-49 years old, will comprise most of the ’11 Optima’s buyer base – younger than the outgoing model. However, Sprague foresees ’11 buyers having higher household incomes.

New Optima buyers also are likely to be married with school-age children and shopping the segment for the first time, he predicts.

The Optima ad campaign gets under way in December, with commercials planned for theaters during the busy holiday movie season.

The major push for the Optima comes early next year, with “heavy TV” ads from January-May.

Kia isn’t releasing sales expectations, but says it expects the vehicle to become one of its two top-selling models in the U.S.

With 68,835 units sold through August, the Sorento cross/utility vehicle, redesigned in 2009, is Kia’s best seller this year, followed by the Forte compact sedan and coupe (46,613).

Optima pricing hasn’t been announced. Kia officials decline to reveal if the car’s price will increase as sharply as some recently redesigned models, namely the Sportage, which saw a $1,300 jump from ’10 to ’11.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com