October 14, 2010 | by Joe Phillips
Surprising sedans

To cut through the clutter of so many sedans — there are more than 220 models available — many automakers are giving their four-door mavens extreme makeovers. This includes such popular rides as the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Honda Accord, Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Camry and VW Passat. Even the tried-and-true Buick Regal is getting an eye-popping redo. Yet most of these faves won’t be available until next year. Luckily, some automakers have beaten their competitors to the punch, often with surprising results. Below are three of the best.

Kia Optima

$18,500

MPG: 20 city/29 highway

Biggest surprise: Sexier than the luxe Sonata

Kia has always been Hyundai’s poor relation, and it showed: lackluster designs, put-put engines and frumpy handling that only your great aunt would love. But that all changed when Kia snagged Audi’s design chief — the man responsible for the uber-hot Audi TT — and decided to remake its entire lineup. For the Optima, this means styling that’s a cut above the handsome Hyundai Sonata, which is built on the same stellar platform. But while the Sonata tries to emulate the much pricier— and relatively bland —Lexus ES 330, the Optima opts for originality, with Origami-like creases in the side panels and a bat-wing grille surrounded by sleek wraparound headlights.

Three engine choices: a capable 200-hp four-cylinder in the base model, a peppy 274-turbo and a hybrid due next year. These are the first turbo and hybrid power plants from Kia, which shows the automaker is trying to offer more thrilling and more eco-friendly models at the same time. And there are plenty of standard features, even on the LX base model: satellite radio, USB input jack, Bluetooth, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power everything and an air-conditioned glove box. The midlevel EX adds voice recognition system, rearview camera, keyless entry/ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control and power driver seat. And the top-of-the-line SX adds leather seats and upgraded interior trim.

Suzuki Kizashi

$19,000

MPG: 20 city/29 highway

Biggest surprise: Two new models — already

Suzuki introduced its all-new Kizashi less than a year ago, yet already this flagship sedan, which received plenty of accolades the first go-round, is getting a glitzy Sport version of its high-end GTS and SLS trim levels. While the engines, transmission and tires are still the same, the GTS Sport and SLS Sport are lower to the ground and have a tighter, tuner-like suspension for better cornering and acceleration. The exterior styling gets kicked up a notch, as well, with crisper front fascia, grille and rocker panels, along with a subtle rear spoiler. All Kizashis — even the base model — have a trendy Euro-like cabin, with metallic accents, keyless entry/ignition, power doors/windows, dual-zone automatic climate control and nine-speaker stereo. Upper-level models add iPod interface, cruise control, heated seats, rear-parking sensors and a blaring Rockford Fosgate audio system.

VW Jetta

$16,000

MPG: 24 city/34 highway

Biggest surprise: Cheaper this year

Bigger, roomier and less expensive — that was the VW game plan for the reworked Jetta. And it works, sort of. All models are $1,700 to $2,300 less than their predecessors. And all come with standard stability control — often a pricey option — as well as free routine maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles. Yet to cut costs, VW put in a smaller engine with 55 less horsepower and nixed the rear disc brakes and independent rear suspension — replacing both with cheaper alternatives. And the classy Audi-like cabins also are now a bit, well, cheaper, in both design and build quality. Still, the Jetta hasn’t lost its sport-sedan roots, with primo handling, accelerating and braking. And it still takes corners and navigates around potholes better than the competition. Another plus: there’s plenty of headroom, legroom and trunk space. Best of all, there soon will be three other engine choices: a clean diesel, a sporty turbo and a hybrid

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