Recently the Kia crew came through Seattle, throwing a press event for their new Sportage crossover. The major redo starts with designer sheetmetal penned by a team led by former Audi stylist Peter Schreyer. The interior is larger, more comfortable and adds upscale touches like panoramic roof and ventilated drivers seat.

I ll have a full review of Sportage in a couple weeks but first something that whipsawed me around so hard my neck will hurt for a week. During the lunch stop the Kia folks trot out a bit of a surprise, the new 2011 Optima. To my knowledge this is the first time it s been seen in America (other than the New York International Auto Show where it debuted).

Often photographs don t do a car justice and to be honest my first impressions of the Optima s web pics were tepid. I m now a believer. In person this car has a gravity that s hard to describe. It s design appears more expensive than many cars wearing established premium badges. These days it s hard to create an attractive signature look that doesn t mimic some other brand, Kia appears to have done it. It s a home run.

If your not familiar with the current generation, the 2011 version is MUCH more dramatic. Drawn up in Germany and California studios, there are cues that are almost like a Swedish SAAB but the overall shape is more evolved and complex. It is slightly longer lower and wider than the car it replaces. The current 2010 model goes for 27 grand loaded. If Kia can remotely hold that price, buyers will look like they got a big fat raise.

Behind Kia s corporate grille will be a choice of 2 engines, and in 2011 a hybrid version. A base model gets Kia s 2.4-liter GDI (Gasoline Direct Injected) engine producing 200 horsepower. Moving up to the SX finds a 2.0-liter turbo GDI engine 4-cylinder that produces 274 horsepower. Six speed automatic and manual transmissions will be available depending on engine choice. The hybrid will use a 2.4-liter engine.

In other markets Optima will be called K5 and the copy on display had that logo lighted up on the sill plates. The interior gets an upscale look with small panels of stitched leather on the instrument panel. No doubt it will come with tilt telescope wheel, keyless ignition and UVO, Kia s answer to the Ford Sync system. Woven panels in the well bolstered leather seating is part of the SX trim level which also gets you a spoiler, carbon fiber-like trim and other sporty stuff. Buttons on the center console show red and blue graphics telling the seats will get a heated and cooled option.

For practical people the rear seat seems roomy and the seat backs will split and fold. How big is the trunk? Hard to say, we couldn t open it.

That s all the info I have for now. It will hit Kia dealerships in the fall. A link to the full press release from the New York International Auto Show is posted below for all you car geeks like me out there. It s obvious by looking at the Optima and the new Sportage (along with the recent Forte and Sorento), that Kia is getting into the fashion business in a major way. A reminder that competition is a good thing.

Link: Kia Motors debuts all-new 2011 Optima at New York International Auto Show

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