DRIVING NORTHWEST: 2011 Kia Optima SX

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Car specialist

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KING5.com

Posted on March 17, 2011 at 10:57 AM

Five years ago, if an automotive writer was asked for advice on which car to buy it was pretty simple to look like a genius.  Arguably, a handful of manufacturers made the highest quality cars back then and, after a couple questions, a vehicle from Brand T or Brand H could be recommended.   Besides, nearly every writer knows the vast majority of questions come from people who are brand loyal, and they are looking for validation, not information.

For so many reasons, offering advice is not a good idea.  BUT, if I can offer up only one tidbit it is this- The automotive world is changing rapidly.  Don’t be a lazy shopper.  Don’t assume anything.

You’re probably here to figure out if the Optima SX is worth a test drive.  The short answer is absolutely.  Loaded with features, value, and style, it offers bang for the buck that’s hard to match.  Starting at $26,690 with shipping (and under 31 grand fully loaded), Optima SX is a steal.  It and cousin Hyundai Sonata are serious competition for Camry, Accord, Fusion, Altima, and Malibu.  The ascension of the Korean brands is part of the change that’s happening.  Another is efficiency.  And that’s where the SX comes in.

Not Just For Supercars Anymore

While there’s lots of chatter about hybrids, electric cars and fuel cell vehicles, another established technology is quietly growing- turbocharging.  High performance cars have been using it for years.  Suddenly mainstream vehicles from Ford, GM and VW are using it for better performance and fuel economy.  Add Kia (and Hyundai) to the list.  The last time I looked at an Optima it was rolling with a 2.4-liter 200 horsepower direct injected four-cylinder.  The SX gets a smaller Theta II 2.0-liter direct injected four but turbocharing boosts the output to 274 horsepower.  Torque is rated at 269 lb-ft @ 1750-4500 RPMs. 

What is a turbocharger?  Very simply put, they are small turbines that are driven by the exhaust gases, boosting power by forcing more air into the combustion chamber.  It’s not without it’s problems though.  Historically, the added stress and heat turbochargers create have required more maintenance. 

Every manufacturer I’ve talked to say the new units are much more robust.  If I could bend space and time I’d let you know if that’s true.  Kia says they torture tested theirs and offers up the assurance that it’s backed by the same 10 year, 100,000 mile warrantee as their other engines.  Perhaps to keep people from worrying, Kia is not exactly bragging about the turbo.  The only hint is a T-GDI badge on the trunk (Turbo-Gas Direct Injected).  

Why Turbochargers Are Your Friends

Weight is the enemy of all cars.  Replacing a V6 with an equally powerful turbo four-cylinder eliminates a few hundred pounds which provides better acceleration and fuel economy.  Since the turbo engine has less mass, engineers can design a lighter chassis structure for it.  Many of Optima’s competitors have a V6 model and their four-cylinder models have to lug around the extra reinforcement designed to hold the six-cylinder securely when bounding down steep grades.  

At the Los Angeles press event, the Kia folks send us out on a long twisty route to show off the dynamics of the SX.  I’ll estimate the 0-60 time at around 6.5 seconds, pretty darn brisk.  The wide torque band is evident as we cut through two-lane canyon roads and pass tourists admiring the Pacific Ocean views.  My drive partner is a Honda owner and more than once he expresses his delight that the light front-end plows less in hard cornering than his personal car.  The crisp six-speed automatic can be manually shifted on the console or with steering wheel mounted paddles. The turbo engine is not offered with a manual gearbox.

Optima is front-wheel drive, there is no AWD option.  Surprisingly torque steer is very subdued.  It doesn’t have the road feel of a BMW but this front-wheel drive Kia takes turns very nicely.  Low profile tires and the stiffer suspension of the SX means sharp bumps will be felt (an optional wheel and tire package is available).  Road noise is on the higher side though somehow seems lower than the EX model I’ve driven in the past.  Optima’s narrow windows reduce visibility a little. 

Back in Black

The SX cabin is available in any color as long as it’s black with faux carbon fiber accents.  That makes it a dark space, worth paying extra for the panoramic glass roof.  Material quality is good, just don’t expect an Audi-like cabin at this price.  Nice detailing includes lighted sill plates, aluminum pedals, and stitched panels on the instrument panel.  If the wheels are turned sharply on start up a high-resolution color display between the speedo and tach gives a driver notice.

Heated and ventilated seats may feel hard at first.  Personally, my backside finds them firm in a comfortable way, supportive for long travel times.  SX chairs are leather trimmed with a mesh fabric, I’d prefer solid cowhide but considering it’s not seen when driving, the point is moot.  Shut down the engine and they glide back for easy exit.

On the electronics side, phones get Bluetooth, a USB port is ready and waiting for your iPod.  The touch screen nav system is responsive and easy to program, Kia promises to have Uvo in Optimas soon, their answer to the Ford SYNC system.  SX comes standard with keyless ignition. 

Warning chimes often sound like afterthoughts (or worse) even in expensive cars.  They are high fidelity samples on SX models, rivaling the pleasant tones found in a BMW 7-Series.  Speaking of sound the premium Infinity system is very good.

The back seat is comfortably sculpted and the outboard positions have heated cushions.  Three average adults should be perfectly fine back here. A folding armrest and pockets on both seatbacks are good to see.  Fold the split seats down to expand the trunk.  My only gripe is no 12v power port to charge the kids electronics in back.

The trunk is large, holding 7 bundles of bath tissue in the infamous TP trunk test.  It would hold more but the hinge arms will crush anything put below them.

Paying Less to Look Good

Like all Optimas, SX is a handsome car.  Parked at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons hotel amid Jaguars, Bentleys, and more Rolls Royces than I’ve seen collectively in my life, the Kia drew admiring glances from both the help (that might be able to afford it) and the clientele (who will have trouble with the brand).  The Corsa Blue paint shown in the video is unique to SX.  So are 18” sport wheels, HID headlamps, LED tailamps, lower facias all around, trunk lip spoiler and a different grille pattern.  

The turbo engine is also available in the more comfortable riding Optima EX and there’s a hybrid model waiting in the wings.  In the meantime, get used to seeing turbocharged engines in mainstream cars, its all part of the change that’s happening to modern vehicles.  Tucked into the Kia Optima SX, it’s a powerful argument for an open mind and a test drive.


 

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