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Old 04-02-2011, 09:54 PM   #1
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Post Test Drive: The 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo - A Step in the Right Direction?

For those of you out there interested in the prospect of a turbocharged Kia and the value you might find there, Edmunds' Inside Line has a trip on the open road with the new 274-horsepower sedan. The question is, is the souped up interior and engine worth the price tag?

Originally Posted by Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor - 3/17/11

These are good times for Kia Motor America. It finished off 2010 with the company's best-ever sales year and its 16th consecutive year of market share growth. And the 2011 Sorento, the first U.S.-built Kia, became the first of its products to break the 100,000 sales mark in one year.

Kia credits its success with a "design-led transformation." We hear that a lot, but in Kia's case you can actually see what it's referring to when you look at vehicles like the Sorento and Sportage SUVs, not to mention the Forte coupe and the Soul utility box.

Its latest attempt to draw some attention through design is the 2011 Kia Optima, a midsize family sedan that offers Kia's first turbocharged engine in the U.S. In addition to the forced-induction engine, the Optima SX also features flashy 18-inch "pie-plate" wheels and chiseled bodywork that suggest it's more than your average family sedan.

Four Cylinders and a Turbocharger
And the Optima SX Turbo delivers indeed. With 274 horsepower available at 6,000 rpm and 269 pound-feet of torque at 1,750, its 2.0-liter direct-injection four-cylinder has slap-you-out-of-your-midsize-sedan-doldrums capability. If the drivetrain and its power output sound eerily familiar to the 2011 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T we previously tested, call yourself a genius. It is, of course, but Kia officials are quick to point out that the Optima SX uses "different engine and transmission tuning."

You'll be hard-pressed to feel exactly what that difference is as you poke around town, although we can report that the 2011 Kia Optima SX was far thirstier in our hands than was the Sonata 2.0T, averaging 20.3 mpg versus the Sonata 2.0T's 26.7 (of course, the conditions were not identical). The EPA says the Optima SX should get 22 city/34 highway/26 combined mpg.

Despite carrying an extra 147 pounds over its close cousin Sonata, the Optima SX proved quick in a straight line, scurrying to 60 mph in just 6.5 seconds (6.1 with 1 foot of rollout like at a drag strip) and finishing the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds at 98.4 mph. That puts the Optima SX a tenth quicker to 60 than the Sonata 2.0T. It also moves down the road with the same or better oomph than the old guards of the midsize class, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry V6s, despite two fewer cylinders.

The turbocharged four-cylinder has some lag off the line, but keep your right foot planted and the front tires will rip loose at around 3,500 rpm when the twin-scroll turbo reaches its full 17.4 psi of boost. Midrange torque is meaty so not surprisingly torque steer is evident, especially when booting it hard while turning from a stop. Overall, though, Kia's engineers did a solid job of keeping it under control, as the wheel never feels like it wants to jerk away from your hands.

One Minor Blip
As with the Sonata 2.0T, the 2011 Kia Optima SX uses a six-speed automatic transmission. In day-to-day driving it's a nicely tuned setup that delivers smooth, predictable shifts. Steering wheel paddle shifters come standard, but throttle blips during manual downshifts are not part of the equation.

So although it's nice to be able to quickly engage a lower gear via the paddles to get a little engine braking, the downshifts can be abrupt since there's no rev-matching. A Kia official explained, "While throttle blipping is appealing to enthusiasts, the decision was made to create an experience most consumers would expect..."

And in general, the Optima SX does create an experience most consumers would expect from a slightly sporty midsize family sedan. It's quiet and easy to drive around town and on the highway, with a smooth-shifting automatic transmission and good throttle response that's thankfully not overly touchy. Nothing segment-shattering, but a step above the norm.

Where's the Grip?
Since the Optima SX's MacPherson strut front suspension and multilink rear are tuned on the stiffer side of cush for this class of car, it's natural for one to expect better-than-average handling when you bend the Optima into a turn. The heftier-than-standard-Optima effort from the electric-assist steering adds to this notion, although its feel is oddly rubbery.

The firmed-up suspension and quicker steering become a moot point once you get aggressive with the Optima SX. You've heard of tires sticking like Velcro? Well, the Nexen Classe Premiere CP 662 all-season tires, size 225/45R18 fitted to all four corners, are the opposite. These Korean-made tires do more sliding than gripping, as evidenced by the Optima SX Turbo's 0.80g skid pad performance, highlighted by considerable understeer.

The Optima's taut suspension worked better through the slalom, the chassis showing a good ability to rotate the rear via changes in throttle. Its stability control system can't be turned off completely, so you can only get so aggressive before it cuts in to save you from yourself.

Lest you think Hyundai and Kia think identically, the Sonata 2.0T allowed us to completely disable its stability system. And Kia's response? "The Optima was designed to be a family sedan, so Kia engineers wanted to ensure some level of security was available in any condition."

Knowing owners will have more speed and power at their disposal than with the standard Optima, Kia fits the EX and SX turbo models with larger front vented brakes, 12.6 inches versus the standard 11.8 with single-piston sliding calipers. The Optima exhibited a firm pedal both at the track, where it showed zero fade, and out on the street. Its 5-feet-longer stopping distance from 60 mph than the Sonata 2.0T (125 feet vs. 120) can be attributed to the Optima's extra heft and those slippy tires.

High Style
While there might be big similarities between the Optima SX and the Sonata 2.0T under their hoods, the Optima's design — inside and out — is 100 percent Kia. The fresh and youthful look was a joint effort between Kia's studios in Frankfurt, Germany, and Irvine, California.

The 2011 Kia Optima SX's cabin is flavorful, despite its almost all-black color scheme. The center stack/navigation screen is canted at a perfect angle toward the driver, and even the faux carbon-fiber trim doesn't look too tacky. The buttons on the center stack are large and easy to use, and the soft-touch materials in abundance throughout the cabin give the Optima SX a quality feel. The one downside is the nav screen's tendency to wash out in direct sunlight.

As usual, Kia fits the Optima with plenty of standard features, such as leather seats, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, an eight-way power driver seat and HID headlights. In order to take the value equation one step further, the Optima SX offers heated and cooled front seats as well as heated outboard rear seats. It's all part of the $2,150 SX Premium package, which also includes a sunroof.

The front seats are firm and nicely trimmed, but they look far better than they feel. The cushions, in particular, offer next to zero lateral support. Oddly, it's the rear outboard seats — which look like they've been pre-pressed with a 300-pound guy's butt indentation — that are the choice seats in the Optima.

More Car for the Money
Big-time value. That's been the mantra of Kia since the beginning. Now that it's trying to infuse a little style into the equation there's always the fear that the value equation will change.

It has, to some degree, in the 2011 Kia Optima SX. With a base price of $26,690 (including $695 destination), it's hardly the most affordable family sedan around. In this case, however, the value is delivered by the turbocharged engine, slick interior and eye-catching style. Hardly the kind of attributes you expect in this segment.

Our biggest issue with the Optima is the fact that it doesn't always deliver the level of sportiness that its exterior suggests. The power is there, no doubt. In a straight line the Optima never leaves you wishing for a V6.

It's the handling that needs some work. Improved steering and better tires would go a long way toward making the Optima turbo a legitimate sport sedan. As it is now, the Optima SX turbo is still a stylish addition to the family sedan segment and as we know all too well, looking good is more than half the battle.

The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
So, what do you all think? Is the price tag too much for a Kia with a turbo added or do the changes they have implemented and the power they have added make it worth the extra coin?
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