If you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, let me give you the good and the bad news: Kia makes some of the best looking cars on the road. That is all. You can decide if that is good or bad for yourself.

The 2011 Kia Optima showed up outside of my door the other day, and it’s a really good thing they put big logos on the grill and tail, because you really have to convince yourself it really is a Korean car. It looks like Kia took lessons on how to design a car right off the page of Honda or even BMW. And guess what? They did.

Kia’s design team has hit one out of the park before most Americans even realized they were playing. For years, Kia occupied the bottom wrung of the automotive ladder by providing the most “economical” (read: cheapest) cars in the market. What they had was a brand new car with one of the best warranties in the business but you had to live with driving something that felt as “Economical” as it indeed was.

A couple of years ago, Kia had a perception problem. After all, this company lead their landing in this country with a Ford-branded mini-car called the Fiesta. It was tiny, underpowered and rather pathetic. They then began to establish their own dealer network and started to roll out cars carrying their logo. The first couple of generations really didn’t help that quality reputation as they had the on-road handling of an Igloo Cooler with wheels and bore more of a horsepower comparison to a lawnmower than to the average American car. Most people saw them as cheap and were mostly worried about the little things breaking, so Kia addressed this by rolling out the longest warranty in the business.

Kia is now a part of Hyundai, their one time major Korean car rival. And the two companies share platforms the way General Motors does. The Optima and Hyundai Sonata are under-skin twins, which allows for shared development costs. This allows both brands to share in some stunning engineering and design success.

Driving around North Texas in the Optima was unique as I kept checking to see if it really was a Kia. For a while there, I thought one of my suppliers was trying to trick me and slipped me an Accord with Kia badges on it into my driveway. It really is that good.

A four door sedan that looks this good sounds like a great idea. Add in the fact it produces a respectable 24/34 mpg number out of either a four cylinder, or even a turbocharged option, and pushes 200 horsepower out of the normal 2.4l, and a very impressive 275 out of the turbo. Bring all of that together and add an interior with a feel of quality not-in-the-least cheap or clunky. Really, the interior of the Optima is as good as any car from any manufacturer, and when you consider the as-tested price of $27,440.00 comes in thousands below comparable vehicles, it starts to sound even better.

This car helps Kia, and the Korean automotive business in-particular, establish themselves more firmly in the North American market. Their incredible increase in sales numbers are testament to their success. Hyundai and Kia both have been on fire.

As important as the sales success and money that goes with it is to them, the Koreans covet something even more: Respect. Consider if you will: South Korea is the only country currently competing in the global automotive market that was once occupied militarily by three of its major business rivals. The Japanese, Chinese and Americans have all invaded, occupied or fought wars on Korean soil over the last 100 years. They share a peninsula with one of the few truly megalomaniac dictators left who seems hell bent on making South Korea an island by imploding the north in a great, James Bond-worthy master villain plan of destruction.

If ever there was a country that could suffer from “collective short-mans syndrome” it would be Korea. Their focus on not just building cars, but building the best cars, has been mirrored in other businesses. Just look at how companies like LG and Samsung have dominated the consumer electronics business over the last five years. They’ve usurped Japanese companies’ once total domination of that market by undercutting manufacturing costs and becoming true technological innovators.

If you look at it, Korea has done to the Japanese what the Japanese did to American manufacturing only 20 years off-step. This is a significant number, as I see Hyundai/Kia as sitting in almost the exact place that Toyota and Honda occupied 20 years ago. They have a great product line that includes sporty cars like the Forte Coupe (where the Civic SI used to be), the Optima (Camry Accord), and even the Hyundai Genesis, reaching into where Lexus and Acura once roamed unchallenged.

If you don’t believe in the idea of a Korean car with that kind of curb appeal, I highly recommend going out and driving the Optima soon. Also consider, that in the early 1980’s, people laughed at the idea of Toyota someday competing with Cadillac or Mercedes with their new Lexus Brand.

Oh, how times continue to change. But we as consumers win on this one.

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