NEWPORT COAST, CA – After years of lingering in Hyundai’s shadow, Kia finally is one-upping its big sister.

The inequality between the two brands has been especially stark in recent years. When Hyundai received the glittery Genesis near-luxury sedan and performance coupe, Kia was bestowed with a midsize SUV – just as the segment was becoming completely irrelevant.

Sure, there was last year’s great and Kia-exclusive Soul. But, overall, Kias typically have been overshadowed by similar models from current media-darling Hyundai. Both brands are owned by the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group and share platforms and powertrains.

Now, with the stunning new-generation ’11 Optima midsize sedan, on sale in November, Kia jumps to the forefront, thanks to styling that is cleaner and more-organic than that of Hyundai’s super curvy and chrome-tastic Sonata.

Unfortunately, the Optima shares the same powertrains as the Sonata, meaning a sizable chunk of consumers almost certainly will shop both. Badge engineering is rarely a good thing, and Hyundai-Kia needs even greater differentiation under the sheetmetal in same-segment models to limit cannibalization.

But there’s nothing wrong with the Optima’s 2.4L 4-cyl. all-aluminum gasoline direct-injected engine, which performs just as well as in the Sonata.

Noteworthy for its power and fuel efficiency, the engine delivers 30 mpg (7.8 100L/km) on one, albeit low-speed (34 mph [55 km/h]) route here. A longer, faster-moving (40 mph [64 km/h]) morning drive results in a more modest 23.3-mpg (10.1 L/100 km) average.

The Optima’s engine makes 200 hp, 2 hp more than the same mill in the Sonata. Torque is 186 lb.-ft. (252 Nm), also two up on the Sonata.

As in the Sonata, the naturally aspirated 2.4L can feel underpowered at times, and the car’s new 6-speed automatic up-shifts a little too quickly in an effort to maximize fuel economy. Taking the transmission out of the Eco setting helps, but to really tap into the available torque requires shifting into manumatic mode.

Still to come for the ʼ11 Optima is a turbocharged 274-hp 2.0L GDI 4-cyl. and a hybrid-electric version, two powertrains that bow first in the Sonata.

The Optima rides on a fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link setup at the rear, the same as the Sonata. However, Kia dials in somewhat stiffer settings. The sporty SX grade, offering only the 2.0L turbo motor, gets firmer shocks than the base LX and mid EX grades, as well as 18-in. tires.

Still, handling in an EX Optima is best dubbed “sport lite.” The car’s ride can be rough, but not so much so to induce pining for a Toyota Avalon.

Steering is on the light side of a BMW 3-Series, putting the Optima squarely in the we’re-trying-to-please-everyone midsize sedan segment in the U.S.

’11 Kia Optima EX with navigation
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan
Engine 2.4L DOHC direct-injected and inline 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head
Power (SAE net) 200 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 186 lb.-ft (252 Nm) @ 4,250 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 88 x 97
Compression ratio 11.3:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 110.0 ins. (279 cm)
Overall length 190.7 ins. (484 cm)
Overall width 72.1 ins. (183 cm)
Overall height 57.3 ins. (146 cm)
Curb weight 3,323 lbs./1,507 kg
Base price TBA
Fuel economy 24/34 mpg (9.8-6.9 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Nissan Altima, Chevy Malibu, Ford Fusion, VW Passat, Subaru Legacy
Pros Cons
Style, style, style Kia’s rep still shaky
Three fuel efficient engines 2.4L GDI lacks low-end torque
Interior on par with best Seats could be more supportive

Where the new sedan really shines is styling. While design is subjective, the Optima, with its relatively unadorned exterior, looks better than the Sonata.

Instead of lots of character lines or bling, Kia uses the shape of the headlights and taillights and its now-signature tiger-nose grille as the design focus of the car.

The most obvious similarity between the Sonata and Optima is their tails, which share the same heavy eyelid look with an overlapping trunk lid. But the redundancy is minimized by the Optima’s thinner horizontal taillights.

Another standout exterior feature is the Optima’s cool wheel designs, most notably the four 18-in. styles offered on the SX grade. The asterisk-theme alloys are the sharpest.

Optima’s interior, at least in the EX testers driven here, is equally stylish, although the center stack, skewed toward the driver for easy access, is more conventional, with its single fan-mode button instead of Sonata’s man-in-chair controller.

Typical of new Kias, interior lighting is a menacing red, contrasting nicely with the black interior and echoing red stitching on seats.

Fit and finish is above average in the EX grade. Pillar trim fits tightly together, and the headliner is finished, not frayed, where it meets the windshield. The Leatherette soft-touch skin on the instrument panel is low gloss.

Some flashing on hard-plastic door pockets, and puckering where two pieces of leather meet on the back of the front seat, are noticeable flubs.

Seating comfort is so-so. More bolstering is needed to keep the driver in place, and the rear middle position is predictably cramped. Rear cushion foam feels extra soft.

The Optima’s trunk is unusually deep front-to-back, with a total 15.4 cu.-ft. (0.4 cu.-m) of space.

The LX model offers a 6-speed manual or automatic. EX and SX trims are standard with the 6AT.

The EX grade comes with either the 2.4L GDI engine or 2.0L turbocharged GDI engine. The 2.0L turbo mill 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-equipped LX.

The ʼ11 Optima finally will carve out a niche for Kia in the midsize sedan segment, thanks to its emphasis on style and fuel economy.

Unknown is whether it will boast the same value proposition as the previous Optima. Recent next-gen Kias have stepped up in price, although they still come in below most competitors, namely the Japanese.

Still, a big price gap is better to sway on-the-fence shoppers.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com