So what's the most exciting smell in the world? Before any of you take this in a terrible direction, I'll just stop you and say it's new car smell. And that's the very smell I've been enjoying since last Thursday, when I traded in my 2009 Pontiac G5 for a brand new 2014 Kia Optima LX. Let's get down to brass tacks and go through the process of how I ended up buying Korean.
So first of all, why did I decide to get rid of my Pontiac? Well, short answer is after 5 years of good service, she was starting to act up. I had just replaced my front shocks and serpentine belt (it's always nice to have family with tools and a hoist!), but then I started getting an intermittent warning popping up stating that my ABS and Traction Control needed work.
This in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the car has been in the shop before for this sort of thing and they have never been able to pin down the problem. It probably just needed some front brake servicing. Anyway, I'd just plunked down a lot of cake in the past few weeks on this car and with an odometer reading of over 200,000km I seriously doubt that it was going to get cheaper over time.
Also, there was the ever important feeling of car awesomeness that was lacking from my poor G5. Sure, it was a decent car, but it never was really a car that made you want to drive. I mean, destinations made me want to go places and my car would take me there, but I was never excited to get behind the wheel.
So, for the next car my main priorities were something fuel efficient, safe, good storage and at least a little fun to drive. I figured my storage and comfort needs would likely mean I was looking at big(ish) hatchback or mid-sized sedan. Although I fully expect to have one in my future at some point, I'm not big on crossovers and compact SUVs.
I also wanted to buy new because I drive a lot. I put all but 14 of the 202,000km on the Pontiac and it was only 5 years old. So, I need all the warranty I can muster out of a car, plus the piece of mind in knowing that the maintenance has been done correctly and regularly is a major plus in my books. Also, finance rates on used cars are terrible and finance rates on new cars, which go as low as 0%, are good. Now sometimes you have to forgo some cash incentives to get that low rate, but in the long run the overall costs are lower if you have to finance. And since I didn't have an extra $30K in cash just hanging around to pay for my new car, I was definitely going to be financing.
I took a look at some larger compact hatches (Ford Focus, Kia Forte5, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra GT) and I wasn't terribly interested in any of them. I've read great things about the Mazda3, but the base motor on it is a little underwhelming. Maybe the Mazda3 with the 2.5L would be an awesome car, but then the sticker is over my budget of mid-$20K. From sitting in it at the auto shows, I know I don't like the way I fit in the Focus. The Elantra GT is a pretty decent car, but my co-worker literally just bought one and I didn't want to be a copycat. The Kia Forte5 was decent too, but had a little too much wind noise on the highway (where I do most of my driving).
I know what you're thinking, with all of my Subaru love why didn't I test drive one? Because Subaru doesn't have good financing rates (usually) and I find their entry level offerings a little too pokey. Great, smooth drives yes, but not a lot of the factor that Mazda refers to as Zoom-Zoom. If I had a bigger budget, I would likely have gone with the new WRX. But I didn't, so that dream has to lay dormant for now.
So, I moved on to the most over populated segment in the automotive world, the mid-sized sedan! I drove a Hyundai Sonata, a Kia Optima and a Ford Fusion. The other cars that I would have considered are the new Mazda6 and the Nissan Altima. To be honest though, I avoided the Japanese brands because the content level on the models I could afford was too low. The Mazda6 is probably a great car, but there were some compromises with insurance costs and exterior features I like (for instance I couldn't afford fog lamps... not that I ever use them, but I like the way they look, dammit!).
It was the same story for the fusion. It's a gorgeous car, but the base model leaves a lot at the door before it ends up in your garage. It had the almost embarrassing 2.5L motor, steel wheels with plastic covers and no fog lamps. The handling was pretty great, but it's hard to ignore the fact that the car can't get out of its own way. When Michelle drove and tried to get it to move the first words out of her mouth were "What the hell is this [crap]" *edited for content.
So it was down to the Korean brands. To be honest, I like pretty much every car in this segment and the Kia and Hyundai are no exception. Add to that the fact that both brands were having a sale with aggressive financing, and it's pretty clear to see why I was leaning towards the offerings from the land of Samsung. But which was better?
The Sonata and the Optima are essentially the same car under their skin. They have the same platform and engine/transmission options. Where they differ enormously is looks and where they differ slightly is content per price point. The Optima is the way more aggressively styled of the two. While the Sonata is sleek and flowing, the Optima is raked and ready to pounce. As for content at the dollar level that I was shopping at, the two cars were fairly close.
Both cars had satellite radio, heated seats and good safety ratings. The Sonata was a sea of hard plastic inside, while the Optima had cloth inserts in the doors and softer materials on the dash and on upper door sills. And on the outside, the Optima had the all important fog lamps and around back, some bad ass dual exhaust tips. Sold.
I also really enjoy the ride. It's well composed and extremely quiet inside. Not BMW quiet, but certainly closer than the sticker price would suggest. The steering is a little numb at certain speeds and I'm still getting used to the brake pedal's lack of feedback, but all in all I'm really pleased. The engine has more than enough get up and go for my driving needs and the six-speed auto has a playful select shift mode for added sportiness.
Over all though, the Optima was the most car I could afford. It checked all my boxes: good safety, in my budget, great storage, comfortable, fun to drive, good fuel economy and great styling. And not only did I stay on budget, but my insurance costs went down.
My main point is there are a lot of factors to take into consideration when purchasing a new vehicle. Without an unlimited budget, you are going to have make some compromises along the way. In the end, your decision on what to buy needs to make sense to you from the most angles possible. It may be daunting, but if you do your research and take some test drives, you're best option will likely present itself.
So is the Optima LX the best mid-sized car you can buy? Probably not at that trim level. But it's the best car I've ever owned and that's more than good enough for me. At least for now, anyway!