Thumbs Up: Looks good, best-equipped Kia we’ve ever driven
Thumbs Down: More chrome does not equal more luxury
Buy This Car If: You’re a Kia loyalist who’s looking for entry-level luxury
Not too many years ago, Korean automotive brands were shopped almost exclusively by those who couldn’t afford a Japanese alternative. Then Hyundai and Kia borrowed a page from the Japanese automaker playbook; once they’d drawn in the initial batch of customers with low prices, the Korean brands began to step up quality.
Next came Hyundai’s foray into the luxury segment, beginning with the Azera sedan, which was the first Korean car sold in America to top the $30k price point. The Azera’s success led to the introduction of the Genesis sedan, which ultimately led to the introduction of Hyundai’s Equus flagship.
Things are a bit different at family brand Kia. Its own equivalent of the Hyundai Azera, the Kia Cadenza, will go on sale in the near-luxury segment by mid-2013. The Kia Quoris, which shares a rear-drive platform with the Hyundai Equus, is due on these shores as well, giving Kia two legitimate luxury sedans to offer U.S. buyers.
Until these cars hit the market, Kia’s mainstay family sedan, the Optima, is tasked with catering to both mainstream and near-luxury buyers. In de-contented form, the Optima can be had for under $22,000; load up the range-topping SX trim to limited specifications, and you’re looking at a car that’s dangerously close to $35,500.
While that may sound like a lot of money, it’s probably worth pointing out that a loaded Honda Accord Touring V6 tops the $34,000 barrier, while an optioned-out Toyota Camry XLE V6 prices above $35,600. In other words, the Kia Optima SXL is priced about on par with well-equipped examples of its main Japanese rivals.
Where the Kia Optima stands out from the crowd is its Peter Schreyer-penned lines. From its “tiger-nose” grille to its steeply-raked windshield to its tapering-waist character lines, the Kia Optima doesn’t look like any other car on the road, and is arguably the first Kia model to draw buyers into showrooms on looks alone.
Now in its third year of production, the design still manages to look fresh, which is something that can’t be said for a lot of cars on the road today. What we’re not overly fond of, however, is the SX Limited’s excessive use of chrome. It’s everywhere on Limited models, from the gleaming wheels to the door handle accents to the rear spoiler cap. There’s even a strip embedded in the rocker panels for good measure, as well as one outlining the shape of the grille. Kia also tries to dress things up with red brake calipers, but their diminutive size looks somewhat comical behind the chrome wheels. The net effect is heavy-handed on a car with otherwise clean lines, and we’re at least thankful that the Optima wasn’t emblazoned with gold trim instead.
Inside the cabin, the brightwork is minimized in exchange for tasteful materials, colors and textures. The dash isn’t nearly as stylish as the Optima’s exterior (chrome excluded, of course), but it’s well laid out and supremely functional. It doesn’t say “luxury car,” but it’s far less cluttered than the dash layout on most vehicles with legitimate luxury pedigrees.
We like the attention to detail, too, like the dark wood accents used for the door trim and steering wheel, as well as the Supervision color driver information display. The bar graph layout for the coolant and fuel gauges works well, and the brightly lit white on black instruments are easy to read in all lighting conditions.
The Optima’s front seats are more mass-market than luxury, but they’re still comfortable enough for our expectations. The Nappa leather feels stout enough to hold up over time, and we like the fact that the front seats are both heated and ventilated. Kia even provides a two-position memory setting for the driver’s seat and an inflatable lumbar pillow, but the lumbar support can’t be repositioned and there’s little hip bolstering.
Rear Seats, however, fall into the “truly impressive” category. Not only does their sculpted design look good, but it provides a degree of lateral support not often found in sub-luxury level cars. They’re heated, too, and serve up ample leg room. Taller family members may complain about headroom in the rear seats, but we seriously doubt that those six-feet tall and under will have any complaints about second-row accommodations.
Optima SX models are powered by a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, driving the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. Output is rated at 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, which is good enough to deliver a 0-60 mph time of around 6.5 seconds. While the car feels relatively quick, it can also be thirstier than the EPA would have you believe; the Optima’s sticker claims 26 mpg combined (22 mpg city, 34 mpg highway), but we saw around 23 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving.
On the road, the SX struggles to find its identity. On the one hand, its firm ride takes it out of the luxury class, but its numb and uncommunicative steering precludes it from consideration for the sporty class. The same can be said of the car’s paddle-shifted transmission; while it works just fine as an automatic gearbox, shifts executed via paddle are best described as “leisurely,” which more or less defeats the purpose of having paddle shifters in the first place.
That said, the Optima SX Limited will only disappoint those expecting a true sport sedan or those expecting a true luxury sedan. In fairness, the SX Limited is marketed as neither, and most who shop the car will find its on-road behavior to be pleasant. It’s quick enough to provide some entertainment value, and its handling limits are well beyond anything most drivers will ever explore on public roads. Its cabin is near-luxury-car quiet, making the Optima SX Limited a good choice for those who routinely find themselves faced with long highway drives. Its brakes provided a decent pedal feel and returned expected stopping distances, and the car’s overall handling can best be summed up by the phrase “utterly predictable,” which we mean as praise in this case.
So if the Optima SXL isn’t a luxury car and it isn’t a sporty car, what is it? We’d call it a stylish daily driver that’s long on comfort, yet not averse to the occasional spirited on-ramp or canyon road blast. Your car pool companions will like it, too, regardless of whether they’re sitting in the first or second row. The Optima SXL also has distinctive-enough lines that it won’t get lost in the mall parking lot, among the sea of ever-present Honda Accords, Nissan Altimas and Toyota Camrys. For some, that’s reason enough to shop the Kia.
Our Kia-supplied Optima SX carried a base price of $27,575, including a destination charge of $775. Options on our press fleet tester included the $2,950 SX Premium Touring Package (panoramic sunroof, power folding outside mirrors, Infinity audio system, rear view camera, power front passenger seat, driver’s seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats), the $1,400 Technology Package (navigation system with Sirius Traffic) and the $3,350 SX Limited Package (LED daytime running lights, 18-inch chrome wheels, red brake calipers, chrome accent lower door sills, Nappa leather seat and interior trim, black cloth headliner and pillar trim, electronic parking brake, unique interior accents, chrome-tipped rear spoiler, first aid kit) for a total sticker price of $35,275.
For comparison, a similarly-equipped Toyota Camry XLE V6 would sticker at $33,641, while a comparable Nissan Altima 3.5 SL would list for $33,070.