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2011 Kia Optima EX review:

2011 Kia Optima EX

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Cabin technology
The optional Technology package is built around an 8GB solid-state memory-based navigation system that, while basic in appearance, performs quite well. By basic, we mean that the maps are only available in a two-dimensional, top-down view with no fancy 3D or three-quarters view available. Map resolution is very good and easy to read at a glance, which we think is more important than the lack of eye candy. Traffic data is included with navigation, as an add-on to the standard Sirius satellite radio connection. Turn-by-turn directions feature text-to-speech spoken street names. The touch-screen interface is intuitively organized and includes a display for an optional rearview camera. However, switching between the various modes available (navigation, destination input, audio source selection, and so on) requires using a bank of physical keys that is located a few inches below the touch screen. After a week of heavy use, we still had to take our eyes off of the road for a few seconds to find the button that took us from viewing audio playback to viewing the map. However, this is a minor hurdle that we're sure a long-term owner would eventually surmount.

The eight-speaker Infinity audio system provides fantastic sound at a fantastic value.

Speaking of audio sources, our Optima EX was equipped with a number of them. USB and analog auxiliary connectivity are standard, as are Bluetooth audio streaming and satellite radio. Using an Apple product with Kia's audio system requires a $35 adapter. Browsing a connected iPod or iPhone is easy thanks to a responsive interface that allowed us to quickly sift through our longer playlists. More conventional audio sources include a single-disk CD and MP3 player and AM/FM radio.

The stock six-speaker stereo was replaced by an eight-speaker Infinity audio system that includes a small subwoofer with the selection of Technology package. Audio quality is balanced with a nice neutral sound that, at its flat setting, is neither muddy nor harsh. Bass output can be tweaked for a nice thump, but this is not a boomy system. However you choose to tune the three-band EQ, the Infinity system is difficult to put out of sorts, providing mostly distortion-free playback at most reasonable volumes and great staging thanks to its thoughtful speaker placement. (Oddly, the button for adjusting sound settings disappears when streaming audio over Bluetooth.) As a part of a $2,000 package that includes navigation and a backup camera, the premium audio option is quite a good value for the money.

Hands-free calling connectivity comes by way of the same standard Bluetooth connection that provides audio streaming. After a quick and easy pairing process, the Kia's hands-free system will automatically download address book entries from a compatible phone, and features a voice recognition system that lets you initiate calls without having to assign voice tags. Simply press the talk button and say, "Call Wayne at work," and--provided that Wayne is in your address book--the Kia will figure out the rest. Voice command for audio playback and destination entry would be nice, but are unsupported in this model.

In sum
The 2011 Kia Optima starts at $18,995, but that's for a spartan LX model with a manual transmission that has nearly no options available. The action starts with the LX automatic model for around $20,495, but we suggest you take a look at the EX trim level we tested. For your $22,495, you get smart keyless entry and push-button start, dual-zone climate control, and leather seating surfaces with a power-adjustable driver's seat. Add $2,000 for the Technology package, which is a better deal than you could get even in the aftermarket for navigation, a rearview camera, and a top-notch audio system. Before you can opt for the Tech package, you'll have to have also spec'd the Premium package, which adds the heated seating surfaces for all and cooled surfaces for the front seats, the very cool dual panoramic sunroof, and a memory function for the driver's seat that will make life easier for households with multiple drivers, for $2,250. Add a $695 destination fee to reach our as-tested price of $27,440. That's about $2,000 less expensive than a comparably equipped Camry and $3,000 cheaper than a Honda Accord EX-L with navigation. If we were to compare entry level to entry level, the Optima LX with automatic transmission nets an even bigger savings while still retaining standard features that Toyota and Honda charge extra for (such as Bluetooth and iPod/USB connectivity).

In the eyes of the Toyota and Honda faithful, that may not be enough of a savings to jump ship and commit to a Kia for their next new car. But from where we see it, the new Kia owner will drive away with a more powerful car with slightly better fuel economy and a better cabin technology package. Oh, and let's not forget the $2,000 to $3,000 of extra spending money in his or her pocket.

The Kia Optima is not just a good value, it's a good car.

Tech specs
Model 2011 Kia Optima
Trim EX
Power train 2.4-liter direct-injected gasoline, FWD
EPA fuel economy 24 city/34 highway
Observed fuel economy 28
Navigation SSD-based, Sirius traffic, TTS
Bluetooth phone support yes w/ voice recognition
Disc player single-disc CD/MP3
MP3 player support USB port, analog 3.5mm auxiliary input , iPod via additional cable
Other digital audio Sirius satellite radio
Audio system 8-speaker Infinity premium audio
Driver aids backup camera
Base price $22,495
Price as tested $27,440

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