Future Curbside Classic: 2002 Kia Optima – Anyone Fancy a Rambler?


(first posted 8/7/2015)    I want you to take a look at the car above. If it isn’t the most generic vehicle produced so far in the 21st century then it’s definitely in the running. But it and its positioning in the market reminded me of another simple vehicle. Say the world ‘Rambler’ to anyone that was alive when they were still manufactured and sold, and they will instantly get images of plain-jane vehicles puttering along the streets of their memories. Driven by sensible people with sensible lifestyles and a price-conscious attitude. Rambler’s were all about no-nonsense vehicle ownership. And I think this Kia, willingly or otherwise, embodies this philosophy wholeheartedly.

2001_kia_optima_lx_3(Gold and Blue Optima images obtained from cargurus.com)

The current Kia Optima is a striking design. Certainly a lot better looking than other offerings in the segment such as the Toyota Camry and the Chevrolet Malibu. Kia’s corporate image is one of the sleekest in the business right now and the Optima carries it very well indeed. It’s very well equipped, reasonably priced and it’s backed by a 10-year/100,000 mile powertrain warranty (with the added benefit of roadside assistance for the first 5 years or 60,000 miles). For the man or woman that needs a mid-size sedan and wants a bit of style for around $25,000 to $35,000 it would definitely be a vehicle to give some serious thought to. How the times have changed haven’t they?


From its introduction to the American market, to around the time the Kia Forte was released, there wasn’t any reason to pick the Kia offering over its competition apart from price. In fact, for most of its stay in these shores, price was the biggest thing going on for Korean manufacturers in general. The original Optima is a perfect example of this. As you can see, it’s a styling-free vehicle. If you asked someone without any interest in cars to draw you what they thought a normal ‘90s sedan looks like, you’d get the profile of one of these. It looks like the generic cars you put as props in videogames to make the environment seem more dynamic. In fact…


No, I apologize, Grand Theft Auto’s Kuruma still manages to have more style somehow.

Things don’t improve a lot on the rear of the car, not even the chrome strip between the tailights can hide the fact that there’s nothing there. I won’t lie to you, I had a hard time deciding whether to do a writeup on this one. To showcase a bad car is easy, to showcase a “nothing” car is a lot more difficult because there are only so many ways you can say “It’s not bad, but it’s not good either”. It’s not like the Toyota Corolla, a car that receives many a jabs for being the default choice for someone not interested in cars. For the Optima, there’s nothing in here to work with, it’s like trying to be critical of a cloud.

kia optima engine bay

I will say though, this cloud actually had some interesting engines propelling it. The base engine was a 2.4-liter version of Mitsubishi’s 4G63 engine, the very same engine that propelled Mitsu’s turbocharged rally monsters. Except that in this case it was actually a 4G64 block mated with a 4G63 head. Not an uncommon modification in tuning circles if I recall correctly. And it did give 150 horsepower, which was a respectable amount and not too far off of some of the engine choices you can get in Today’s Optima. The other option was a 2.7-liter V6 that produced 170 horsepower. Both were available with either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic.

The interior was still not on par with the competition of the times but it was definitely improving with each generation. I haven’t had much seat time in Hyundais of this vintage, but I seem to recall that while everything in them was perfectly serviceable it didn’t feel substantial. Like if they were made from the same plastics that off-brand cheap cellphones were made of. Not to mention the writing on them would disappear after a year or so.

Some facelifts in 2002 and 2005 did little to improve (create?) its image. Sales were poor throughout its run and in its best year (2004) it sold 53,492 units. It was a lot better than the Saturn L-Series that it competed against (19,453) but a hell of a lot worse than more traditional mid-size alternatives such as the Honda Accord (386,770). It’d take the Optima eight years and the current generation to break the 100,000 sales mark, but once it did the car blasted through it and has stayed there since. With its third generation, the Optima was now a car that you could say you wanted instead of a car that you settled for or bought only because your main concerns were the size and the price tag. It had stopped being a Rambler.


But this leaves us a gap in the market, thrifty buyers have never really left, they have just moved. From Ramblers to Bel-Airs to Reliants to Optimas. There must always be an option for those people that are completely ruled by the accountant in their brains. So which is the car for the Rambler crowd today?


Oh Hello.