When I first saw the Kia Optima at the 2011 Canadian International Auto Show, my feelings were mixed to say the least.
For one, it’s very difficult to tell what a car actually looks like when it’s bathed in all manner of coloured lights, surrounded by flash bulbs and so forth. I remember seeing the last gen Honda Civic at the Vancouver International Auto Show, then seeing one on the streets of that same city and being like “that’s not what I saw. No way.” So that left me weary about the Optima.
Then there’s the fact that Kia’s former full(ish)-sized car for the Canadian market, the Magentis, was about as exciting to drive as cold pizza is to eat. Would the new Optima (I qualify “new” here because the Magentis was, in fact, called the “Optima” south of the border) suffer this same fate?
With that in mind, I picked up the Optima SX (finished in sharp “Santorini Blue”) from Kia Canada, and realized that they could have had it under disco lights the likes of which could only be seen at New York City’s Studio 54, at the height of its popularity in the late ‘70s, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Hyperbole is reserved for very special circumstances in journalism, but as far as I’m concerned, the Optima has earned it. Never before have I actually been pulled over by a random motorist and asked “that car looks awesome. How much does it cost?” but I was with the Optima, by a man in a Dodge Caliber, on the very same day I picked it up. Not since I spent a week with an “Inferno Orange” Pontiac Solstice roadster have more people come up to me wondering about the car I was driving. I’m serious when I say this.
Kia design boss Peter Schreyer had the opportunity to touch up Kia’s full-size with a facelift in 2010, and with the all-new 2011 model, it’s clear that he was chomping at the bit to get the chance to start from scratch.
The overall stance is one of long, flowing grace; at 4,845 millimetres, the Optima is shorter than both the Honda Accord (4,935 mm) and Mazda6 (4,940 mm) but thanks to a sloping roofline and upsweeping belt-line, it looks much longer and streamlined. I especially like the rear quarter panel treatment, whose almost hatchback-like angles and short trunk remind of the gorgeous Jaguar XJ sedan. What this also does is give the Optima what Kia calls “cab-backwards proportions” which lends an almost coupe-like air to the proceedings.
Then there’s the details: a “Side Garnish” (Kia’s words) the likes of which BMW M5s and M3s wear, denoting the engineering superiority over their 535i and 328i brothers found within; the SX-only chrome and black 18-inch 10-spoke alloys; the twin-oval tailpipes; the jeweled head lights (although these don’t feature the daytime-running LED strains found on other Kias, which I would have liked to see on the Optima)—all well thought out details that serve to show that Kia is very serious, at least from a stylistic standpoint, about taking a run at the full-sized establishment. The SX adds to the effect by featuring a subtle lip spoiler on the trunk’s edge.
Inside it doesn’t quite have the same punch; of course, as is often the case with cars that look so good on the outside, the interior has a lot to stand up to and may fall short because of it.
Don’t get me wrong; the fit and finish is very good; nice leatherette adorns the seats, stitched leather surrounds the centre console, soft-touch materials abound and there’s a cooled glove box. The EX even features a heated steering wheel and both models have an engine start/stop button.
The digital component, meanwhile, is well integrated. The car quite literally sings a little tune as soon as you open the door and again when you put it in park at the end of the day. The gauges are clear (if not all that exciting) and the TFT screen at the centre of the gauge cluster is home to all sorts of messages—messages that range from warning you to “align steering wheel” to all your trip info, such as average fuel mileage, distance to empty and the like. And in a cheeky allusion to how proud Kia is of the design, a small graphic of the Optima graces the screen in almost every mode. The SatNav screen is also one of the clearest I’ve seen and the Infinity audio system in controls is a potent one. However, it should be noted that the only way you’re going to be able to adjust sound settings like bass, treble and the like, is through the touch screen–no button or dials. For some this may be OK, but I’m not so sure it’s the best when it comes to “on-the-fly” adjustments.
Trim in both our SX and EX-Luxury test cars was finished in carbon fiber; I only wish that there was more of it. As it stands right now, the centre console (angled, in its entirety, towards the driver) is finished almost entirely in black plastic. A touch of carbon fibre here or piano black there (like we saw in the Sportage we tested) would make a world of difference.
And once you do depress the aforementioned start button, you will be treated to, well, a real treat of an engine, especially in the case of the SX.
The 2.0 Litre Turbo-Gasoline Direct Injection (T-GDI) engine is boosted by a twin-scroll turbocharger, meaning a quicker response and flatter torque curve, reaching peak torque—that is to say, all 269 pound-feet of it—at 1,740 RPM and holding it there until the tach needle sweeps past the 4,500 mark. If you want an even more involved accelerative rush, slap the stick left from drive to either engage the wheel-mounted paddles (SX only) or use the shifter itself to shift up and down. Power, meanwhile, is rated at 274 horsepower, which was plenty when it came to in-gear acceleration for passing manoeuvres and the like.
With the EX-Luxury, you lose the turbocharging but the GDI unit still makes a healthy 200 hp, and while you have to rev the car higher to reach peak power (which comes it at 6,300 RPM while the SX takes 300 RPM less), I felt the EX’s power delivery to actually be almost more instantaneous. Kia can say what they want about twin-scroll turbocharging but they can’t eliminate lag completely and you can feel when you drive the two cars side-by-side.
All Optima models feature high performance dampers and fully independent suspension at all four corners. If that’s not enough for you, then the SX gives you sport-tuned suspension–bigger anti-roll bars, different springs and different shock absorbers–that stiffens everything up. This is great for taking it to the twisties, as is the nice, communicative steering through the chunky steering wheel but I feel that the overall ride quality in the EX was actually better.
These are both great cars—which is saying something because these days, truly “bad” cars are tough to come by. For the Optima to stand out from the crowd, then, speaks volumes and should be a big selling point for Kia. The question becomes which one to choose; at $32,095, the EX we tested undercuts the SX we tested by $1,600 flat. For your grand-and-a-half, you get the feistier engine that loses out in fuel mileage only in the city, and only by about one Litre per 100 kilometers. So that should be the obvious choice, right? Well, if you decide to save the money, you’ll get a better ride with the EX plus added luxuries like the heated steering wheel.
Then you factor in that there will soon be a hybrid model available (keep your eyes on these pages for the upcoming test) and the decision becomes a little tougher. I say just be happy that you have the choice of two well-equipped and well-styled cars for less than 35 grand.
2011 Kia Optima SX / Optima EX-Luxury Specifications
Price as tested: $33,695 / 32,095
Body Type: four-door, five-passenger sedan
Powertrain Layout: Front engine/front-wheel drive
Engine: 2.0-litre inline-4, DOHC, w/turbo and dual variable valve timing / 2.4L inline-4, DOHC w/dual variable valve timing
Horsepower: 274 @ 6,000 rpm / 200 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque (ft.-lb.): 269 from 1,750-4,500 rpm / 186 @ 4,250 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Curb weight: 1,535 kg (3,384 lbs.) / 1,462 kg (3,223 lbs.)
Fuel consumption (claimed–SX)–City: 9.2 L/100 km (25.6 MPG)
Fuel consumption (claimed–SX)–Highway: 5.8 L/100 km (40.6 MPG)
Fuel consumption (claimed–EX-Luxury)–City: 8.7L/100 km (27 MPG)
Fuel consuption (claimed–EX-Luxury)–Highway: 5.8L/100km (40.6 MPG)