There was a time when climbing into a Kia triggered a certain numbness for the driver: no interesting flourishes, cheap-looking plastic trim, lots of hard shiny surfaces.

But no one buying a Kia today has to suffer, as evidenced by our stellar $27,440 Optima EX tester, which dazzles its way onto the 2011 Ward’s 10 Best Interiors list.

“A standout,” says Ward’s editor Steve Finlay of the new midsize sedan. “Quality leather and stitching you’d expect to find in a luxury car.”

Like Finlay, most Ward’s editors find the Optima’s materials exemplary. Besides the handsome pale-grey leather with white stitching, our judges like the ample soft-touch wrap on the dashboard and door panels; the beefy HVAC knobs ringed in a tooth-y rubber for better gripping; plus the thick, plush carpeting.

The headliner is a fashionable and non-fuzzy circular knit, and the hard plastics used are an attractive matte black. Subtle metallic trim adds just the right amount of bling.

An exotic-looking faux wood rings the Optima’s shifter and window-control buttons, reminiscent of the stunning wood trim in last year’s winning Infiniti M56 luxury sedan.

But the Optima wins on more than looks, alone. No, its success has as much to do with ergonomics as aesthetics.

“Everything is where it should be and is easy to use,” summarizes Ward’s editor Drew Winter of controls placement.

The Optima’s center stack is angled toward the driver, putting most knobs and switches in easy reach, and buttons are big, with clear lettering.

The first tier of buttons on the center stack controls radio and navigation functions while the second, lower tier is for the heating and cooling systems.

Our navigation-equipped tester comes with a large display screen that provides another way to interact with the aforementioned functions.

The virtual, on-screen buttons also are substantial, with a sufficient amount of ‘white space’ around them to minimize accidental selections while driving.

The Optima also scores well on fit-and-finish, with the only quibble being minor leather puckering on seat corners.

“Clearly, everyone was on the same page, from design to execution,” Winter writes. “It just doesn’t get any better than this.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com