2011 Kia Optima Review | National Post

2011 Kia Optima Review

By Graeme Fletcher, National Post – March 2011
Miami – In spite of the sluggish economic climate, Kia is on a tear. While it took the company 30 years to ship its five-millionth vehicle after exporting the first South Korean automotive product in 1975, it has taken just six years to double that number – the 10-millionth car was a pearl white edition of the all-new Optima. That only tells part of the story. The other half is found in a product portfolio that has been completely revamped in a little more than five years – the oldest vehicle in Kia’s stable is the Rondo.
The new Optima replaces the ageing Magentis in the lineup. While it was a decent ride in its own right, the outgoing sedan remained anonymous. The new Optima will not suffer the same fate – it is one of the better-looking mid-sized sedans on the market. Its sweeping style not only earned it a prestigious Red Dot award (the Oscars of the design world), it was also named the “best of the best” by the panel of international designers that comprise the committee.
The exterior flair flows into the cabin where the use of soft-touch materials, French stitching, tasteful accents and a sensible ergonomic format deliver the right blend of richness and functionality. There’s also a ton of content – the base LX arrives with all the usual power toys, air conditioning and Bluetooth as well as a full slate of active and passive safety items.
Move up to the EX Luxury tested and things such as a two-panel panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled leather-wrapped front buckets, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, a backup camera and a loud and proud Infinity sound system that blasts 530 watts of crystal-clear sound through eight well-placed speakers become standard. It also features an instrument cluster with a 3.5-inch LCD screen between the tachometer and speedometer – it displays all the usual trip computer information as well as warning the driver if the front wheels are not in the straight-ahead position when the car is first started. The only option was a navigation system. The final price? A very reasonable $32,095.
From a dynamic standpoint, the Optima is equally accomplished. In base form, it is powered by a 2.4-litre direct-injected four-cylinder that pushes 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through a six-speed manumatic transmission (the base LX arrives with a six-speed manual). For most potential customers, this powertrain will be more than enough.
However, when enough is not quite enough, there’s the SX and its 2.0L turbocharged four-cylinder. It transforms the Optima into a seriously quick car. Credit for the performance goes to the twin-scroll turbocharger that blows the air into the engine at 17.4 psi. This delivers 274 hp, which is more than any of the Optima’s V6-powered competition. However, it is the prodigious torque that makes the bigger difference – there’s no less than 150 lb-ft at the driver’s disposal at 1,000 rpm and a heady 269┬álb-ft at 1,750 rpm. This urgency of the work ethic eliminates turbo lag.
When pressed, the SX hustles to 100 kilometres an hour in 8.1 seconds, which is pretty good for a family hauler. In the mid-range, however, the Optima SX is a veritable road rocket – it takes just 5.2 seconds to accomplish the 80-to-120-km/h passing move. To put that into perspective, the 305-hp Subaru WRX STi is only marginally faster at 4.9 seconds. Remarkably, the turbocharged engine consumes regular gasoline and it has the same 5.8-L/100-km highway rating as the base engine. Go figure ? better than V6 power with four-cylinder economy.
The second bit of good news is that the SX’s paddle shifters work regardless of whether the shifter is in drive or in the manual position. This allows the driver to make good use of the engine braking and hold a gear through a fast corner without having to meddle with the shifter first – it worked very nicely around Miami Homestead Speedway.
The Optima’s handling is sharp – it is, in reality, more sports sedan than family sedan. The use of front struts, multiple rear links and two-stage shock absorbers (High Performance Dampers in Kia speak) delivers a compliant ride when loafing along. However, when the Optima is tossed into a corner, the setup firms up quickly. The net result is very little unwanted body motion – even under hard braking, nosedive is minimal, as is understeer. Similarly, the steering feel is precise at speed and easygoing when parking. If things do go awry, there is a good traction/stability control system waiting in the wings.
The SX earns a sportier suspension that is noticeably firmer without feeling harsh – it is very European in its feel. The unspoken advantage is that the turbocharged four places much less mass over the front wheels than a V6, which reduces the risk of understeer. If there is a nit to pick, it is that all models would benefit from better tires ? this would sharpen an already agile car.
The new Kia Optima is a very well-conceived and well-executed car – it has great looks, a refined cabin and the right driving dynamics. It’s also priced to sell. The Optima LX with the manual transmission starts at $21,995 and tops out at $33,695 for the Optima SX.
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