The 2011 Kia Optima SX is the third Optima reviewed at CNET this year, which suggests some sort of weird obsession. But each of these Optima models is different enough to warrant the attention.
The first, the Optima EX, inaugurated this generation of Kia's midsize sedan, and showed off some excellent styling work and cabin electronics. The second Optima we reviewed marked the debut of Kia's first hybrid vehicle.
And now we come to the Optima SX. Although it uses the same body and cabin electronics as the EX model, it features another engine advancement for the company. The Optima SX comes standard with a turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine. It uses just about every technology currently in vogue to maximize power and at the same time gain fuel efficiency.
The numbers show the apparently painless gains from turbocharging. The Optima SX gets 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, while the 2.4-liter, which also uses direct injection, in the Optima EX gets 200 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque. The EPA fuel economy numbers for the Optima SX stand at 22 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, and the EX gets only 2 mpg better in the city. That's a big power boost for little fuel economy sacrifice.
Kia topped this 2-liter engine with a turbo, giving the Optima 274 horsepower.
However, in CNET's testing, which involved long freeway trips, highway cruising, mountain driving, and city traffic, the Optima SX fell below its EPA range, coming in at 21.6 mpg. We admit to occasionally being heavy on the throttle, but most cars we test at least get in their EPA range.
Part of the fuel economy variance might be due to the car's Eco mode. A button on the steering wheel engages Eco mode, which slightly detunes throttle response. It doesn't hamper acceleration much, but makes it easier to start off gently from a stop. In our testing we used it approximately half the time when driving the car.
In passing and merging maneuvers, the 274 horsepower was a big advantage, giving the car an amount of boost you wouldn't expect in a midsize sedan. It readily leaps forward, even when already at cruising speed. Turbo lag wasn't an issue when taking off from a stop, thanks to engine and transmission tuning.
But despite the car's ready acceleration and paddle shifters on the steering wheel, the Optima SX is not some sleeper sports car. First of all, it has front-wheel drive, which automatically disqualifies it among the cognoscenti.
Secondly, when powered into a turn, it gets overwhelmed, the front washing into understeer and traction control pulling back on the power. That's not to say it handles poorly, just that its limits are easy to reach. Keeping to speeds appropriate for the car, the body does not exhibit much roll as it comes around corners.
The Optima SX has paddle shifters on the wheel, but it is not much of a sports car.
In normal driving, the car rides well. It is not a soft suspension, so it keeps rocking to a minimum. But it also does a good job of masking the jolts and bumps from the cabin occupants. Cars that cost almost twice as much don't do much better.
That ride quality is accentuated by the cabin of the Optima SX. With the Premium package, this car gets features such as heated and cooled seats, memory settings for the power-adjustable seats, and even heated rear seats. There is very little separating the Optima SX from a luxury midsize sedan, such as an Audi, Lexus, or Infiniti.
The premium Infinity audio system, part of the optional Technology package, adds to the luxury feel of the Optima SX. With eight speakers, this system delivers very detailed sound reproduction. Stereo separation is excellent, and it makes each sound, each instrument, distinct. Although well-balanced among the frequencies, it does not have a lot of punch.
That audio system is fed by most modern audio sources, including iPod integration, Bluetooth audio streaming, and USB drive capability. It also includes satellite radio. But one area where other automakers are making great strides is app integration, usually bringing in Pandora, something Kia hasn't yet done.
Kia uses a consistent theme for its various cabin tech control screens, with large buttons that are easy to use when driving.
The onscreen menus for music selection and other cabin tech functions are easy to comprehend, and very responsive. Where systems from other automakers often take a little time to react, this one is as fast as your typical smartphone. You can also control many functions through voice command. When using this interface, help automatically appears on the LCD, showing next possible commands. Voice command also makes it possible to dial contacts in a paired Bluetooth phone by name.
The navigation system is the same as in the other Optima models, with bright, clear maps showing traffic information. Stored in flash memory, these maps refresh quickly as you drive, and make it easy to browse a map to set a destination. The maps are limited to 2D views, as opposed to the richly rendered perspective maps from other automakers. But despite this lack, the navigation system handles route guidance well, showing graphics to explain upcoming turns and reading out street names for the voice prompts.
Kia throws a lot of modern technology into the 2011 Optima SX, pushing ahead of the curve without getting to the cutting edge. The engine, with direct injection and a turbo, is an excellent piece of work with plenty of power. But the mundane suspension and general platform keep the Optima SX from exhibiting much in the way of sporting characteristics.
Likewise, the cabin electronics are all very good without getting beyond current offerings. The navigation system in particular has a basic feature set, although we do like its responsiveness. The high point of the cabin is the Infinity audio system.
Ultimately, it is a very good-looking car with solid performance and comfortable cabin appointments. As a family sedan and commuter car, it is a great value.
|Model||2011 Kia Optima|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||22 mpg city/34 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||21.6 mpg|
|Navigation||Flash-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Bluetooth streaming audio, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Infinity 8-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$30,840|