The all-new aluminum, 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder engine also has plenty of zip off the line and for passing. It reportedly outpaces the base four-banger engines of others in its class (Toyota Camry, Mazda6, Ford Fusion, and Chevrolet Malibu).

For those seeking a sportier feel, there's a four-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode. The V6 version comes only as an automatic. I was a bit disappointed (even with gas back down to two bucks a gallon) that the four-banger only managed about 23-city/27-highway mpg. That's about average, however, for its class. V6-equipped models reportedly get 20/27 mpg.

According to Kia, the 06's wider stance and suspension layout — MacPherson struts in front and multilink suspension with coil springs in back — improve handling and performance over last year's model.

Inside, I liked the subdued hues of the dash and beige upholstery with black accents. Although many critics describe the interior as not very upscale, I thought the Optima had its own subtle elegance, especially for a car with a price just over $16.5K.

Seating is comfortable all the way around (43 in. of legroom in front and over 36 in. in back). With the driver's seat at its highest setting and the adjustable foot controls extended, I could sit high and comfortably back from the steering column while still maintaining good command of the road, both fore and aft. Dash controls are within easy reach and logically arranged.

Although I'd describe myself as having a tin ear, the standard AM/FM stereo with CD and six speakers left much to be desired. I'd suggest getting the premium Infinity audio upgrade including MP3 player and six-disc CD.

For peace of mind, standard fare includes side air bags for front occupants, three-point seat belts for all five seating positions, four-wheel disc brakes, and toll-free driver assistance with over 17,000 roadside service providers. There's also Tire & Wheel Hazard Coverage: 12 months (or 12,000 mile) protection against tire and wheel damage.