Thumbs Up: Style, performance and a surprisingly low price.
Thumbs Down: Where’s the six speed manual transmission?
Buy This Car If: You’re looking for the best value in a sporty sedan.
Friends and neighbors are used to a steady stream of press fleet cars in and out of my driveway. Most are met with indifference, since manufacturers typically supply a lot more crossovers, minivans and SUV than they do sport sedans or coupes. I’ve had my share of high profile, fun to drive cars, too, but none has ever attracted the same amount of attention as the 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo. It seemed that no matter where I went, someone had questions on the car. Most started with “what kind of car is that?”, while those in the know usually began with “how do you like the new Optima?”. I’m convinced that I helped Kia sell at least three units (so remember me at Christmas time, Kia), but the most remarkable part of my week with the Optima Turbo was the realization that I’d buy one myself.
As much as I liked the Optima Turbo’s sibling, the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, I found that I preferred both the styling and the ride of the Kia. Think of it this way: Hyundai is the Korean equivalent of Chevrolet, while Kia is the Korean equivalent of Pontiac. Kia’s are targeted at a younger audience, so their styling is a bit more edgy and their ride is a bit sportier (i.e., stiffer). I’d stop short of calling the Optima Turbo a true sport sedan, but it definitely has higher limits that the Sonata Turbo, as well as even more distinctive looks. Previous generation Optima sedans had all the appeal of steamed white rice, but the new Optima is more along the lines of spaghetti alla carbonara, made with spicy Italian sausage. That’s not to say it’s perfect, and the most glaring sport-sedan omission is a manual transmission option. As with the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, the paddle shifters really don’t do much to improve shift times, and I can’t help but think that a good six speed manual would really transform the car. There’s still enough of us row-it-yourself buyers out there to justify adding a model to the product lineup, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that Kia considers this for future Optima Turbo variants.
Outside, the Optima SX Turbo looks good from any angle, and tastefully blends the body color with both black and chrome trim. The chrome is kept to a minimum (which is a good thing in my eyes), but it is used well to define both the Optima’s W-shaped front grille and the rounded, swooping roofline. The blacked-out B-pillars and narrow C-pillars are a nice touch, and they combine with the high beltline and curving roof to give the car a futuristic appearance. Deep character lines above the rocker panels give the visual appearance of side skirts to emphasize the car’s sporty stance. That’s not to say that the Optima Turbo is entirely unique in styling; the front fender vents are reminiscent of a BMW M3, while the C-pillar includes Kia’s own interpretation of BMW’s “Hofmeister kink”. Neither styling element is a direct copy of BMW’s own, so they effectively serve as an homage to the Bavarian automaker. Perhaps they’re an indication of Kia’s ultimate target for both styling and performance.
Inside, the Optima Turbo continues the sport sedan theme. Front seats are an interesting blend of ventilated leather and woven fabric, and the combination works very well to keep the driver comfortable across a wide range of conditions. The contrasting white cloth and black leather looks good, too, and definitely enhances the appearance of the interior. The heated and cooled front seats in my top-of-the-line SX Turbo tester were power adjustable, and the driver’s seat had a memory setting for position. A bit more hip and side bolstering would have been nice, but that in no way detracted from the comfort of the front seats.
Rear seats are surprisingly roomy for two adults, or even three on short trips. The Optima’s swooping roofline means that you need to mind your head on entry, but once inside even six footers won’t feel cramped for head room. The rear seats give passengers more bolstering than most sedans, and the outboard seats are even heated for cold weather comfort. If you need to haul over-sized cargo, the rear seats fold in a 60/40 split to give you more room, although the Kia’s trunk is surprisingly roomy even with the seats in place.
The Optima’s dash blends shapes, textures and colors to create a visually interesting environment for the driver. Controls for the HVAC, audio and nav systems are canted toward the driver for easy adjustment, and Kia’s nav system is simple to operate, even for new users. Instruments are large and easy to read, and I especially like the driver information display that Kia shares with Hyundai. Any variable you’d want to see (fuel economy, average speed, distance to empty, driving time, trip odometer, etc.) can be easily called up via a steering wheel mounted control. Speaking of steering wheel mounted controls, no other automaker has a better, more intuitive setup than Hyundai and Kia, which makes me wonder why others don’t mimic their simple-but-elegant layout.
The Optima Turbo gets a 2.0 liter, 274 horsepower turbocharged and direct injected four cylinder engine. Unlike turbos of old, this one isn’t high strung and produces surprisingly crisp power even at low revs. The six speed “Sportmatic” transmission can be shifted manually via either paddle shifters or the shift lever, but it’s more for effect than for an actual performance boost. Leaving the car in Drive produces the same rate of acceleration, so the only choice that drivers really need to make is whether or not to use the Optima’s Eco mode. As you’d suspect, Eco mode diminishes throttle response and quickens upshifts to save gas; it’s not as performance-hampering as other cars “Econ” settings, but the Optima Turbo definitely has a higher grin factor with Eco turned off. Kia doesn’t mandate the use of premium unleaded in the Optima Turbo, but it may be worth the extra cost for maximum performance and fuel economy. I saw about a 5% decrease in highway fuel economy when the car was tanked with mid-grade gasoline versus premium. The EPA tells you to expect fuel economy of 22 MPG city and 34 MPG highway, and I saw an actual fuel economy of 29.9 MPG in mostly-highway driving.
As you might have guessed, the Optima Turbo was a lot of fun to drive. The suspension was noticeably firmer than that in the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, which yielded higher cornering limits without creating an unnecessarily harsh ride. In fact, at this price point the Optima blends comfort and handling better than any other car on the market. Your grandmother won’t complain about a jarring ride in the backseat (although she won’t confuse it with her Buick, either), and you won’t be disappointed by the Optima’s ability to navigate a winding road as long as your expectations are reasonable. Steering was nicely weighted, but a slightly heavier effort wouldn’t have hurt road feel, either. Brakes were more than adequate for street duty, although I’m not sure how well the “meat slicer” wheels would have vented the brakes after turning hot laps on a race track. Don’t expect an Optima Turbo to keep up with a true sport sedan, but I’d be willing to bet it can hold it’s own against other “sporty” competitors such as Acura’s TSX or a front wheel drive Audi A4. The car’s primary mission isn’t filling your living room with autocross trophies, but rather putting a grin on your face every time you give it the beans. Mission accomplished, says I.
My 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo had a base price of $26,690, including a $695 destination charge. Options on my tester included the $2,000 Technology Package (nav system, back up camera, Infinity premium audio system) and the $2,150 SX Premium Package (panoramic front / rear sunroof, power front passenger seat, driver’s seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated outboard rear seats), for a total sticker price of $30,840. For comparison, a comparably equipped Buick Regal Turbo would sell for $31,490, an Acura TSX with the Tech Package would sticker at $33,570, and a similar Ford Fusion Sport would list at $33,975.