Bold, Brash Optima SX Proves Kia Can Play Nasty, Too
- Kia Optima SX
- · $30,840 as tested
- · Kia
“Nice car! What is it,” the waitress asked as she brought us our food. She’d seen us drive up in a Spicy Red 2011 Kia Optima SX and she was interested — in the car, of course.
“It’s a brand new Kia Optima,” I replied.
“Oh,” the waitress said, crestfallen. “My mom says those aren’t very good cars.”
I wanted to point out the French seam on the dashboard leather, pop the hood and show off the all-new turbine housing that channels air to reduce turbo lag, let her take the car and floor it on a highway offramp, all just to prove her wrong.
It’s the automaker’s curse: You’re known not by your current lineup, but by whatever now-irrelevant crap you foisted on the public 20 years ago. It explains why, for legions of car buyers, General Motors is defined by the plastic-paneled Lumina APV but Mercedes is remembered as the builder of the rock-solid E300.
Hyundai, who shares a corporate parent with Kia but entered the U.S. market eight years earlier, is already gaining legions of fans who are impressed with a good car, not just the car’s good price. Kia remains new enough that it’s unfairly still considered a budget brand also-ran in most circles. (Are you listening, Geely, BYD and Tata?)
If Kia has any chance of lifting the curse, however, it’s with the Optima, a solid car that exceeds all the requirements of a family four-door. It’s the first, and so far only, Korean car to get perfect scores in NHTSA crash tests, and the 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty inspires even more confidence than a short test drive.
Though Kia’s Optima and the Hyundai Sonata share parents, a platform and a powertrain, the two siblings couldn’t be more different. The Sonata grew up to be a pharmaceutical salesman with a modest wine collection, while the Optima owns his own construction firm and plays flag football on the weekends. In LX and EX trim, it’s a sporty and stylish competitor to the Accord and Camry.
Check off the “SX” box, however, and you’ve got an entirely different animal, one that has no living competition.
The 18-inch brushed-aluminum wheels appear to have been pilfered from Big Ben’s innards, while the side skirts, spoiler and lower front and rear bumpers mimic a Gulfstream V on final approach. Also exclusive to the SX are HID headlights, LED tail lamps, paddle shifters and alloy pedals.
The gas direct injection (GDI) turbo four — also available in the PG-rated EX trim — uses all kinds of technical wizardry to get 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque out of an engine that still promises 34 mpg highway and 22 mpg city. We had a lot of fun driving the car over the course of 500 miles and still managed 27 mpg.
Punch the gas and power is instantaneous and dramatic, with not even a hint of turbo lag. Still, around-town driving remains placid. Even at full throttle, the interior stays quiet with the exception of road noise from the low-profile tires.
The SX’s stiffer suspension makes for a harsher ride over potholes but offers more confidence in corners. Steering, however, is unnecessarily heavy and, at times, feels numb. It does the job, though, as there’s not even a hint of torque steer, and the car gripped the roads even during rainstorms.
Inside, the cabin feels comfortably classic and could be considered a modern evolution of the automobile dashboard had right angles not been banished in the mid-’90s. Even with the sharp roof line, our tester’s heated and cooled back seat has ample room for three medium-size adults, and visibility is not compromised. The dual-panel sunroof is a nice touch, as is the cooled glove box, straightforward nav system and backup camera.
We’re not crazy about the leather-with-mesh trim seats that look more like a pair of New Balance cross trainers than premium upholstery, and we wish the fancy but vestigial “trip info” screen would interact with the main nav screen. For instance, the smaller screen could show turn-by-turn directions while the main screen is being used to change the radio station.
Small gripes aside, this is still an impressive car that leaves us with only one question: Who is this car’s target audience? Our tester, as equipped, had a sticker price of $30,840. The only similarly optioned cars in the same price range and with the same attitude are pre-owned Nissan Maximas and Acura TLs.
Perhaps Kia is targeting the SX squarely at skeptical Americans, hoping a “halo car” can generate buzz and move foot traffic into showrooms. By building an eye-catching sport sedan, Kia is hoping that buyers will also take a look at the practical and modestly priced LX and EX models.
And maybe, just maybe, they might convince that waitress’ mom.
WIRED Proof it’s high time to start taking Kia very seriously. Impressive performance and fuel economy from the turbo four-cylinder engine for not a lot of money. Earns perfect scores in crash-safety tests. Quiet and comfortable on the inside, flashy and dangerous-looking on the outside.
TIRED Stiff suspension and low-profile tires are more Rocky Road than Smooth Vanilla. Interior trimmings could use a rethink.