Kia's Optima midsize sedan is a "sleeper," often overlooked by shoppers seeking an affordable, family car that can handle many tasks.
But a redesigned, more powerful version -- albeit with weird model year nomenclature in some references -- is expected to bring more attention to the pleasantly styled, unassuming, five-passenger Optima.
Best of all, the 2006.5 Optima, as the new, mid-year model is called by Kia officials, retains a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of just under $17,000. Indeed, the $16,995 price for a base, new, 2006.5 Optima with four-cylinder engine and manual transmission is just $5 more than the 2006 Optima it replaces.
It also compares favorably with other low-priced mid-size sedans such as the $16,990 starting price for a 2006 Chevrolet Malibu LS with four-cylinder engine. The base 2006 Pontiac G6 with four cylinder starts at $16,990, too.
But the base Malibu and G6 don't have all the standard safety features of the new Optima, which includes six airbags, tire pressure monitor and active, anti-whiplash, front head restraints on every car.
At the same time, the Malibu LS and base G6 come standard with automatic transmission, while a 2006.5 Kia Optima with automatic starts at $18,250.
There are two trim levels of the new Optima.
The LX has manual ventilation controls, base AM/FM/CD audio and six-way, manually adjustable driver seat while the EX comes with automatic climate control, Infinity audio system with MP3 player and six-CD changer and eight-way, power driver seat, among other things.
Leather-trimmed seats and power sunroof are available only in the EX as $1,300 and $800 options, respectively.
A five-speed manual is offered only in the LX with four-cylinder engine.
Consumers, however, can choose between a four-cylinder and a V6 engine with automatic in either trim level.
Optimas with four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission are expected to make up most of the U.S. sales, and this configuration was in the test Optima EX.
The styling is more upscale now, though still mainstream enough that the test car did not attract attention on the streets.
It rode smoothly, with a more controlled ride than earlier Optimas. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering comfortably kept the front-drive car on track without the driver making a lot of adjustments of the wheel.
There wasn't a lot of outside noise that entered the interior. But engine noise came through on acceleration, and I noticed increased road noise when driving the four-cylinder Optima with standard 16-inch tires versus an Optima with optional, 17-inch tires.
Now with 161 horsepower -- up 15 percent from its predecessor -- the Optima's 2.4-liter four cylinder provides more power than the Malibu and G6.
The Optima's peak torque is 163 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm, and while it doesn't rocket the car forward in sporty fashion, it provides decent pickup to merge into many traffic situations and get going from a stop without any sluggishness.
The four cylinder also doesn't have much of the buzzy sound that's heard from some other small engines.
In government fuel economy ratings, the new Optima ranks fourth among gasoline, internal combustion-only midsize sedans, after the 2006 Hyundai Elantra, Honda Accord and Kia Spectra.
Specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency reports a rating of 24 miles a gallon in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway in a new Optima with either manual or automatic transmission.
In real world driving that wasn't necessarily focused on maximizing fuel use, the test car got more than 24 mpg in combined city/highway driving. And it didn't signal it needed a fillup until it had traveled 364 miles.
The Optima's satisfying, 185-horsepower, 2.7-liter V6 is less thrifty with fuel and has a rating of 22/30 mpg.
The new interior has an upscale appearance when compared with earlier models. Buttons and knobs are nicely sized, well-arranged and reminiscent of those in a Lexus.
Rear-seat legroom of 37.8 inches is commendable, rear door windows go down all the way and the rear, pulldown, center armrest sits up nicely from the seat and has two covered cupholders.
The rear seatback folds down, though not completely flat, so long items can extend from the good-sized, 14.8-cubic-foot trunk.
The black material lining the trunk of the test car, however, looked thin and cheap and was already wrinkling in some areas.
I also noticed there wasn't even a hint of leather smell in the test car, even though the vehicle had the optional leather package.
The 2006.5 designation is a Kia label that will appear on all advertising and marketing material to distinguish this Optima from the 2006 Optima that has been sold since last fall.
The new car went into production in South Korea too early to qualify as a 2007, company officials said.
But they noted that because U.S. government rules don't allow a half-model year label on new-car window stickers, the new Optima will carry a 2006 designation on that document.