Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

On The Road

A contrast in styles: Camry more practical, but Kia has splash


There are lots of fun cars on the road these days – some budget-priced and some aspirational, some designed for the track and others for the mountain cabin – but the fact is that the best-sellers are the midpriced and practical four-door family sedans.

Last month we drove the Toyota Camry, a mainstay in the market for more than a quarter of a century, and the Kia Optima, a relative newcomer.

The two sedans have several things in common. Both are priced at approximately $25,000, have medium-sized four-cylinder engines, offer excellent fuel efficiency and suit the primary transportation needs of the average family. In addition, rear-seat legroom is adequate in both cars, and their trunks are as roomy as those of larger and more luxurious sedans.

However, beyond those similarities, they are a study in contrasts. About the only distinguishing feature on the Toyota is its signature grille, while the Kia adds a bit of distinctive body detailing – a little grille on the front fender – and some feature lines on the hood extending back from the unusual blacked-out grille and neatly designed headlamps.

On the inside, the contrasts are even more striking. Maybe Toyota believes that its customers spurn affectation, but the interior of the Toyota is as plain as vanilla. Nothing about it suggests that this car is in competition with or even inspired by sportier or more luxurious automobiles.

The Optima, on the other hand, offers nice contrasts in textures and materials, with wood veneer on its top-line model. Clearly the design of the console, control stack and instrument binnacle was the loving work of a young stylist. Even the seat contours look sporting next to the “Plain Jane” look of the Toyota seats. However, the detailing on the Kia can be distracting when the sun glares off a chrome piece. And every point at which materials change is a place where a piece of trim can come loose or look tawdry as it starts to wear.

The contrast goes the other way with the driving experience. All of those years of engineering evolution represented in the Camry are definitely reflected in the ride and handling of the car, which is rock-solid and reliable, albeit sedate. There is little road or wind noise transmitted into the cockpit, perhaps a legacy from the chassis and body engineers who work on the Lexus lines.

Steering feel on the Toyota is excellent, with the car easily maintaining a straight line and only moderate pressure required to change directions. Though one would not be tempted to race around the ramp from San Antonio Road north onto Alma (our favorite cornering test), the car doesn’t display much chassis lean on cornering.

By contrast, the Kia, with more horsepower and torque, and less weight, is quicker off the mark and a bit more fun to maneuver. It is also just a little more sporting in its handling, though somewhat at the expense of stability in a straight line, especially in heavy weather or crosswinds.

On the whole, we found ourselves spending more time enjoying the exterior and interior looks of the Optima, and suspect that new owners are more likely to show off their car to their friends than would be the case with the Camry. On the other hand, Camry owners are more likely to brag about the reliability and practical design of their cars, rather than pointing out the chrome bezels on the speedometer.

So which sedan is right for your family? We suggest if transportation is just another need to be met for your family, and your idea of a good car is one that will last a long time, the Camry may suit you just fine.

If, instead, you think that time spent in your car should be enjoyed, and that this sedan is simply a stepping stone to something more expensive in a few years, perhaps the Optima should be your choice.

Either way, we think you’ll be buying a fine car for your family.

By the numbers

2011 Kia Optima

Engine: Front-drive 2.4 liter 4-cyl gas-direct-injected

Power: 200 horsepower

Torque: 186 pound-feet

Transmission: Six-speed automatic (manual available)

Weight: 3,223 pounds

Fuel efficiency: 24-mpg city, 34-mpg highway

0-60 mph: 8.9 seconds

Length: 190.7 in.

Cargo capacity: 15.4 cubic feet

Base price: $22,495

Price as tested: $27,440 (with optional navigation, audio and trim packages)

2011 Toyota Camry

Engine: Front-drive 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine

Power: 169 horsepower

Torque: 167 pound-feet

Transmission: Six-speed automatic (manual available)

Weight: 3,351 pounds

Fuel efficiency: 22-mpg city, 33-mpg highway

0-60 mph: 8.4 seconds

Length: 189.2 in.

Cargo capacity: 14.5 cubic feet

Base price: $23,365

Price as tested: $25,654 (with optional audio and trim packages)

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