On the Road Review: Kia Optima SX


Peter Schreyer is not a household name in America, yet he is a significant mover and shaker in the automotive industry. Schreyer is the head of design for Kia, a product planning position that has evidently had a huge impact on Kia’s rapid ascension up the sales ranks in America. To borrow an old saying, “This is not your father’s Kia”.

Schreyer cut his teeth in the auto industry as an innovative designer for Volkswagen’s Audi division, creating many of the impressive cars that Audi sells today. Poached from Audi after Hyundai took majority control of Kia, Schreyer has been working his magic in Korea for over six years. In that interval, Kia has produced the trendy Soul, the popular Sorento crossover wagon, plus totally revised Forte compact offerings as well as this week’s eye-catching Optima midsize sedan. Also new is a large, premium sedan coming to market right now — the Cadenza.

{gallery}kia{/gallery} The latest Optima debuted in late 2011, making a strong visual statement in the midsize category. Virtually a mechanical clone of the Hyundai Sonata sedan, the Optima shares few styling cues or external design emphasis with its sibling sedan; however, some similarities are visible inside. Given the great upheaval and sudden interest in clean sheet styling for the midsize class, the Optima gives up very little to the latest sedans named Fusion, Altima, Mazda 6, etc.

Built in the United States, at a $1-billion complex in Georgia, the Optima also is sized like several rivals. Overall length stretches to 191 inches while the fully independent suspension utilizes a 110-inch wheelbase — near the top of the segment.

Unfortunately, the Optima’s rough road ride doesn’t exude the same grace and balance as several midsize rivals in this arena despite the advantage of those extra inches between the wheels. Road imperfections exact a clumping toll on the SX-trimmed and firmer Optima chassis, with audible impacts and less overall composure than offered by Malibu, Altima or Accord. The smoother tarmac is predictably more compliant, but then, most cars perform well given ribbon-smooth pavement to work with. While Peter Schreyer has created some exciting European-inspired designs, superior chassis compliance along the lines of German cars remains an elusive virtue for both Kia and Hyundai.

Interior noise suppression is average; again, certain surfaces create more interior noise than others, indicators common throughout automobile-dome. Today’s harder, low-rolling resistant tires combined with worn, cracked pavement creates a din that is often difficult to suppress without adding lots of weight via thicker glass, more sound insulation and thicker door seals.

But impressions improve quickly when the Optima’s turbocharged GDI engine is summoned for work. A smaller 2.0-liter displacement, this direct injection four-cylinder spins to life with lineal authority and provides ample acceleration and urgent mid-range power that makes the Kia a swift sedan. Several automakers have forsaken V-6 power in favor of more efficient four-cylinder motors, often choosing to augment power requests by adding one or more lightweight turbochargers to increase peak power demands. The Optima’s 2.0T should leave no one wondering about adding a larger V-6 engine back into the lineup.

Teamed with a six-speed automatic, the front-wheel-drive Optima gives buyers steering wheel paddle shifters as well as an Eco-mode; seemingly a contradiction in driving pursuits, yet the Kia is versatile enough to achieve each emphasis. Driven spiritedly, the Optima provides a satisfying rush of torque that will entertain many a driver. Push the Eco-mode button and the Optima should reach its projected 34-mpg EPA rating — a responsible number given the SX’s 274-horsepower rating.

As with most Kia and Hyundai models of late, the Optima overwhelms with a plethora of features and devices that compensate for any perceived shortcomings in other areas. With base Optima LX prices starting at $19,500 — 200-hp 2.4-liter, automatic, lots of power accessories — our SX-trimmed sedan started at $26,900 before options rendered an out-the-door list price of just over $35,000. Who would have thought that a Kia would sell for over $35,000 five or 10 years ago?

Well, there are two answers for that question. This nicely equipped Optima has the content of a premium sedan of just a few years ago, with equipment levels that would match — or exceed — a like-sized Lexus or Acura sedan. Plus, Kia is pushing the envelope further with a new, larger sedan called the Cadenza. Again, this is not your father’s Kia anymore.

Key features include HID headlights and LED taillights, with very distinctive LED daytime running lamps that will remind you of Audi — where Peter Schreyer also made these lamps an integral part of being noticed on the road. Flick on the Optima’s fog lamps and its bright headlamps and you will get noticed while running down the road.

Add striking dual-spoke five-vane polished wheels (BMW?), red-painted brake calipers, integrated dual exhaust outlets, rear lip spoiler, plus a dual-panel panoramic sunroof (tinting makes the car’s whole roof appear to be sunroof) and the Optima SX makes a very appealing visual statement.

Inside, product planners have equipped the SX with push-button ignition, passive locks, Bluetooth, plus heated and cooled front leather seats. There is a tilt and telescoping wood and leather steering wheel, a very pleasant wood and leather steering wheel, which best some presentations in cars that cost thousands, many thousands, more than this Kia. That one item reinforces the Optima’s mission; high-end value, low-impact price.

The outside mirrors power fold, the satellite radio system features HD radio, plus the parking brake is electronically operated. The rear seats also are heated and there is the expected back-up camera and auto-dimming mirrors all around as well as one-touch lane change and one-touch power windows.

Strangely, the power passenger seat cannot be raised for shorter occupants, and while the navigation system is simple to use, it lacks some of the sophistication and features of more recent designs.

In the end, the Optima SX makes points for presenting a comfortable, well-designed cabin that is opulently appointed for this price point. This Kia has more front leg room than any other midsize sedan — a focus point for Kia’s sponsorship of the NBA — while its exterior styling breaks from the traditional Camry/Accord/Altima stance enough to stand out from the pack. Sleek, yet powerful looking, the Optima’s design should wear well.

If Kia can get a bit more chassis compliance into its cars, then sedans such as the Optima will need make no apologies. These cars are truly nothing like the Kias that your father drove.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.