Basing your opinion on rental cars might be dangerous. Rental cars are not broken-in properly, are abused and fed the cheapest gasoline. I recall renting a Mitsubishi Galant that behaved and subjectively felt much worse than my own Galant.
However I was pleasantly surprised when I drove a rental 2004 Kia Optima LX for three days. The car I drove had a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine and a 4-speed automatic transmission in beige color with 19,900 miles on its odometer. I drove the car in Oregon, mostly between Portland and Astoria (small town by the coast). I put a few hundred miles on the car and drove it in a highway/city mix.
I also got a change to drive it as fast as was safe in the mountains when the major highway on the way from Astoria to Portland was closed and I had to try to get back to Portland on time to make my flight. I made the flight only by virtue of the flight being delayed 1.5 hours.
About the KIA Optima LX 2.4
The Kia Optima LX 2.4 Auto is a midsize sedan with a 138-hp 2.4-liter inline-4 engine, 4-speed auto transmission and front-wheel drive configuration.The car has a host of features and an excellent warranty.
There is sufficient room both in front and in back. The box under the arm rest is smaller than in some other midsize cars, but still seems capacious enough. The trunk fits two travel suitcases easily and the rear seatbacks fold in 60/40 split fashion. I was able to fit both suitcases in the trunk and the opening is good enough to simplify taking them out or putting them in.
The list of Optima's standard equipment is long and even more impressive for the price. The car has cruise control, air conditioning, side airbags with head extensions, CD player, power mirrors, windows and locks, remote keyless entry, and other features.
The car is equipped with front and side air bags (with head extensions). The car is equipped with 15-inch steel wheels with 205/60R15 tires and has disc brakes in both front and rear. The braking seemed well controlled and the brakes were effective.
The headlights seemed not bright enough, at least not as bright as the headlights employed in 2004 Volvo S40 or the Infiniti G35. The car (at least in this trim level) doesn't have fog lights. If you get this car, I suggest you get better headlight bulbs (PIAA or similar). Or perhaps even upgrade to HID using one of the HID kits available for all kinds of cars.
The seat belts in front have pre-tensioners and the rear seat has three 3-point belts and headrests.
Still, even with side airbags, Kia Optima and its corporate cousin 2004 Hyundai Sonata got "Poor" side impact rating from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and got "Acceptable" rating overall. The car got 4 stars in both frontal and side impact testing from NHTSA, which is not bad.
The car originally carried impressive warranty: 60-month/60,000-mile basic warranty and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty with 5-year/100,000-mile rust protection warranty.
The only disappointing aspect of this car is ergonomics. The driver's seat has no lumbar support whatsoever and the upper seatback area with its headrest seem to protrude forward, making your lower back bend backward like a bow. Tilting the seatback backward would help, but then you are either too far from the steering wheel or too close to the pedals.
The Optima has sun visors that are flimsy and require quite a bit of force to separate from the plastic clips they are attached to in the closed position. The cruise control button is located below the instruments on the left of the steering wheel. You have to look down at the green light on the button itself to see if the cruise control is on or not.
The Optima's trunk lid requires a lot of force to open or close. It needs to receive acceleration at the bottom of the travel, otherwise it will not close shut. It is that heavily dumped, and I can't see why.
Otherwise, the rest of ergonomics is good. The controls are easy to use and the air conditioning is controlled by easy-to-use knobs and buttons. The air conditioning was powerful enough for Oregon, but I have not had a chance to test it in Southern California.
The driving experience was not all positive. Overall, it seems that the manufacturer tried to replicate Toyot Camry, at least in some aspects. Some people like it, but I wouldn't say I do. The Optima's steering is over-assisted. It is very easy to turn the steering wheel and the wheel lacks the road feel. The steering feels artificial (which is similar to Camry). The car handles well for its size, however. I had to drive pretty fast on some twisty roads in Oregon (to try to avoid missing the flight) and the car behaved satisfactory.
The braking is well-controlled and the brake pedal is easy to modulate. The tires were adequate for a midsize FWD sedan. Of course, had I have to drive the Optima on a daily basis, I would have replaced the tires with something more responsive.
The 2.4-liter engine in Optima produces 138 hp and, connected to its front wheels though a 4-speed automatic transmission, produces mediocre acceleration and tractor-like sounds. I think Volkswagen Polo 3-cylinder turbo-diesel I drove in Germany sounded better and less diesel-like. Now, I have to repeat that the car was a rental and perhaps some of the rough engine sound might be due to improper care. But with less than 20K on the odometer, probably it wasn't.
Overall, in normal driving, the engine power was adequate. But going uphill at 55 mph with cruise control engaged required two downshifts to sustain the speed (that's downshifting to 2nd gear) and passing required careful planning.
The transmission has a manual shifting gate, which works well, especially on downhill grades. In that "manu-matic" mode, the car downshifts automatically if you are slowing down, preventing you from stalling. I wouldn't use the manual mode for anything else, other than downshifting on downgrades, because there are only 4 gears to play with and the shifts are somewhat slow.
The 2.4-liter engine, although it lacks refinement, produced decent fuel economy resulting in 330 miles consuming only 3/4 of the fuel in the tank. Of course, most of the miles were highway miles. In any case, if you consider buying the Optima, I suggest that you check if the engine power and sound are acceptable to you and perhaps consider a V-6 option.
The overall noise level while driving seemed to be only slightly higher than in the 1999-2003 Mitsubishi Galant. There was a slight whistling sound around the front door area and the engine is noisier, especially under full-throttle (I must repeat myself, it sounds somewhat like a diesel engine). I wish it was a turbo-diesel engine. Since it already sounds like one, might as well save us some oil and provide better torque.
Pros: Price, outward visibility, features, warranty, controls, MPG
Cons: Seat comfort, noise, tractor-like engine sounds, oveboosted steering that lacks road feel
The 2004 Kia Optima is a decent car with good price and feature content and excellent warranty. But make sure that you can get comfortable in the driver's seat first. And check if the noise level and mediocre headlights are adequate for you.