It’s the kind of thing that can make a competing automaker go crazy.

It’s the kind of thing that can make a competing automaker go crazy. First, Kia announces it’s building a $1.2-billion plant in West Point, GA, with the capacity to produce 300,000 vehicles per year. Next, it plunks down $70-million to expand its U.S. headquarters in Irvine, CA—including $17-million for an on-site design center. Then it launches the 2006.5 Optima (it started production too early to be classified a 2007, and too late for the start of the 2006 model year) for $16,355. This base price is $45 less than the smaller 2005 model, despite having $1,900 more content than its predecessor. If you’re consoling yourself by thinking this is a decontented Hyundai Sonata (Hyundai is Kia’s partner/majority owner), and that Kia has just cut some corners to get to this price, think again. The company claims the Optima’s platform is unique to Kia, though the dimensions of the two cars are within tenths of an inch of each other.

Len Hunt, executive v.p. and COO of Kia Motors America, Inc. says this is just the beginning for a company that began by selling 12,000 vehicles in the U.S. in 1994, and is on track to move 300,000 in 2006. “We have been given greater input in the ride and handling of each model to tune them to the needs of the North American market, and have a number of new models on the horizon.” These include a new Sorento SUV, an updated Spectra sedan and wagon, and a heavily revised Amanti near-luxury sedan. In addition, Hunt and his staff are pushing for a sporty SUV along the lines of its Soul concept, and downplaying the addition of a pickup as not fitting with Kia’s emerging “fun-to-drive” image. If that project rolls forward, it may appear wearing only Hyundai badges, while the large SUV built off the same platform will be shared by both companies. In the interim, the Optima and its impressive standard equipment list will be center stage at Kia.—CAS