Kia's latest models prove style and value aren't mutually exclusive

2012 Kia Optima(Photo: Kia)

Namyang, Korea - In the next two years, Kia will replace every vehicle it sells in North America with an all-new model. That's no small feat for any automaker, let alone one that started out as a bicycle parts manufacturer in the 1940s, and just 12 years ago went bankrupt and joined forces with Hyundai.

And though most of the world's approach to spending has been conservative during the past year of economic turmoil, it's the bang-for-your-buck brands like Kia that grow in such times. In 2009, Kia's global sales increased more than 20 per cent. In Canada, where 46,118 new Fortes, Souls and other Kias were sold last year, that number jumped to 23 per cent.

Here are early driving impressions, for three new Kias set to go on sale in Canada in the next year.

2012 Kia Optima

2012 Kia Optima(Photo: Kia)

Just a few weeks ago Kia unveiled the Optima (formerly known as the Magentis in Canada), at the New York International Auto Show. Canadian auto journalists were invited to be the first in the world to drive it at Hyundai-Kia Motor's R&D Center, in Namyang, about an hour-and-a-half outside of Seoul. Kia describes its current-gen mid-sized sedan as "vanilla" a car that didn't live up to perpetual sales slayers like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.

The Optima is one of the first Kias to be fashioned with the new signature grille, a look led by Kia's chief design officer Peter Schreyer (previously of Audi TT design fame). Hyundai's comparative design with other carmakers - Kia's parent company's admitted design inspiration for its Veracruz crossover comes from the best-selling Lexus RX - is now trickling down to Kia. From the rear-side profile there are clear Lexus lines, like the sweeping chrome strip that runs above the side windows, and an intake vent near the front wheel is a clear inspiration from BMW. Kia describes the new look as "athletic" and "muscular" and, in person, it lives up to those who favour the looks of a sporty family car.

Gallery: 2012 Kia Optima first drive

2012 Kia Optima(Photo: Kia)

The test vehicle was fitted with the new 2.4L GDI four-cylinder that makes 200 horsepower (up from 175 hp in the previous car), and a six-speed automatic transmission. The new engine offers up more power, and less thirst for fuel (Kia's early mileage numbers are 24 mpg [11.8 L/100 km] in the city; 35 [8.1 L/100 km] on the highway). The Optima's new 2.4L engine feels responsive and quickly gets the car up to 100 km/h on the proving ground's straightway. Kia will also offer a 2.0L GDI Turbo that makes 274 hp; while a 2.4L hybrid, Kia's first electric-gas car in North America, will arrive next year.

In the driver's seat, the design is easily laid out to reach dials and controls, and the look is clean and modern - a look Kia hopes will appeal to men in their 30s and 40s. The quality of materials have a nice feel, and there are features available that usually come on more-expensive cars including paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel, a panoramic sunroof and an adjustable driver's seat with power lumbar support. The Optima will also be available with the UVO infotainment system that was developed with Microsoft. The car will go on sale early spring of next year.

2011 Kia Sportage

2011 Kia Sportage(Photo: Kia)

The 'swamp buggy,' best known for its commercials of a Cajun man running it amuck though alligator territory while squealing "AYEEAAHH!" looks - and feels - nothing like its predecessor. In a first drive for overseas journalists, we ran the Sportage along smooth tarmac, rather than rough terrain.

Following cues from Kia's 2007 Kue concept vehicle, the new Sportage now looks more at home fluttering around the city, rather than just the sleepy suburbs. It's modern and sporty, with cargo space to pack all of the necessities for a new family, or city slickers looking to escape to the wilderness for a weekend. It's one of the Kia's best new designs, one I hope will carry over with its other new vehicles. It also gets Kia's new "face" or what the Korean company dubs the "Schreyer line" - after the chief designer.

Gallery: 2011 Kia Sportage first drive

2011 Kia Sportage(Photo: Kia)

We drove the new 2.4L engine with Continuously Variable Value Timing (CVVT) to boost power and fuel economy. Behind the wheel the CUV feels capable of comfortably cruising in the quick lane; the engine was smooth and offered up power when needed. You won't want to take on a Lamborghini with it, but it didn't feel anemic like some of Kia's former engines. We tested the six-speed automatic transmission with Sportmatic clutchless shifting. In full-out, automatic do-nothing mode, the tranny smoothly did its job at the right time. A six-speed manual is also available. Climbing in to the driver's seat it's a short step, and from the captain's chair the Sportage feels low and well-planted to the road. The CUV will also be available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

In a less than flattering description, Kia's product planner said the crossover was dubbed the "Jerked Beefortage" by Koreans after it "crashed like beef jerky" in collision testing. Kia says the new Sportage earns a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the U.S. It's just the safety endorsement Kia is looking for since it's continuing to run its compact utility vehicle up vehicles like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, VW Tiguan and Jeep Compass. The 2011 Sportage goes on sale this fall.