Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Motoring Evolution: Review of the Kia Optima SX Turbo

Mention the name Kia to people, and you will probably hear a response related to the company's current campaign ads with the dancing hamsters and the Soul.  Cute, but what if you're not into the trendy, boxy look and you want something a bit more sporty?  Yes, you can opt for a vehicle with 2 doors and a cramped rear seat, but for practicality's sake you want to keep to something with 4 doors.  Maybe an entry level basic sport luxury sedan, or fire breathing all wheel drive rally car for the street?  No on either accounts?   

Well, good news.  You do not have to travel any further than down the lot of your Kia dealer.  Kia introduced the revised Optima last year, and with the optional 2.0 liter turbocharged engine, a viable competitor to the mid-sized car segment.  The Optima received a redesigned exterior, with the rear taking some cues from Audi's latest offerings.  On the EX and SX Turbo models, attractive taillights have LEDs instead of regular filament bulbs to inform people behind you that you are coming to a stop.  There are also dual oval tipped exhaust tips finished in stainless steel to fill out the rear bumper.

Rear looks very Audi-like.
The front features a wraparound headlight/grill combo with a small front lip spoiler integrated into the bumper.  The front fenders have small vents ala the E46 BMW M3, and there is a chrome strip which begins its ascent from the A-pillar back to the C-pillar.  Viewing the Optima from the front makes it seem as if it the vehicle has a slightly mischievous grin, as if it knows something the driver does not.  More on that later.

The side profile gives the car a decidedly coupe-like style with a sloping rear roof line finishing off with a small spoiler on the trunk lid.  This design is much improved over the previous version of the Optima, with the new model looking contemporary and modern rather than mild vanilla.

The same can be said of the interior where the quality of the plastics has improved.  The dash has a soft touch, and no longer feels as if it were made from recycled Fisher-Price toys.  The Kia's leather wrapped steering wheel has a meaty feel with just the right amount of thickness.  The control panel is also driver oriented in which the buttons and knobs are angled to face the driver rather than straightforward. The design is also handsome and very modern. 

Driver oriented center stack and controls.  Photo courtesy of Kia

The interior design is much improved over the previous Optima.  Photo courtesy of Kia

Remember that sly grin?  The engine is a 4 cylinder unlike many of the Optima's competitors who opt to use a V6, but due to the turbo, insufficient power is not a concern.  The Optima will not give up anything in a stoplight war with its V6 competition.  The turbo crams a maximum of 17.4 psi into the engine, 274 hp is achieved and 269 lb-ft. of torque is available from a low 1750 rpm all the way to 4500 rpm.  The midrange torque is most evident while cruising at city speeds.  Passing is effortless in the Kia, and a slight prod of the throttle spools up the turbo nearly instantly.  The only downside is the power tends to fall off quite rapidly after 5300 rpm.  However, most drivers will not be probing the upper range of the tachometer too frequently.  For those that do however, hopefully a quick reflash of the computer's fuel and ignition maps will cure the tapering of power. 

The turbo seems to be electronically controlled, and since the Kia Optima does not have a boost gauge, we can only guess that the boost pressure is reduced by the time engine reaches redline.  If it is true, this can also be cured by the aftermarket to increase the power, but heed this warning:  use premium fuel if modifying this vehicle since the original specifications lists 87 octane as the recommended fuel. 

The power comes on without any of the violent torque steer that powerful front drivers are known for.  If any slip is detected, a slight feathering of the throttle is all that is required to quell the Optima's tugging.  It is not known if the traction control is able to be completely turned off.  For drivers familiar with turbo cars, the Optima's turbo is nearly silent.  Only a slight whoosh is audible when at wide open throttle, but otherwise one would hard pressed to know the Optima was turbocharged. 

Turbocharged 274 horsepower 2.0 Liter engine.  Photo courtesy of Kia

For individuals who plan to seek more power out of the Optima, i.e. the boostaholics like us, the engine is a solid foundation to build upon.  The engine is similar in design to Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution motor.  This means the motor will take well to an increase in boost pressure, and with some help of a more efficient exhaust and air intake system, the engine should provide a decent gain in power.  The turbo is a TD04-19T which Volvo has used with great success, and many Subaru WRX owners have also used with similar success.  The turbo's exhaust housing is partially integrated into the exhaust manifold, so upgrading the turbo will not be an easy bolt on affair as a new manifold may be required. 

The Kia Optima SX only comes with a 6 speed automatic transmission and steering wheel mounted paddle shifters.  The gear lever in the center console does allow for manual shifting as well.  The transmission does shift smoothly during regular driving, and will hold a gear to close to redline under acceleration.  The transmission is not a dual clutch automatic though, and the DSG units from other automakers do feel a bit more precise during spirited driving.  We sincerely hope that a manual transmission will at least be offered for those like us who get enjoyment out of heel-toe driving on the back roads.  

The suspension tuning on the SX trim of the Optima does lean towards the sporty side of segment, with the dampers feeling stiffer than those on the Kia's sibling the Hyundai Sonata.  Cracks in the pavement are absorbed nicely without upsetting the chassis thanks in part to the multi-link rear suspension.  We are glad Kia did not cut costs by using a cheaper torsion beam out back.  Body roll is handled better in the Kia than the Hyundai, although heavy understeer is present towards the limit.  Left foot braking is not an option to adjust the attitude of the car mid corner, as it feels as though the electronic throttle becomes limited by the computer.  A thicker rear sway bar will do wonders to push the handling a little closer to neutral while making the Optima a more willing dance partner through tight corners and hairpins. 

Road noise is not intrusive in the Optima, and conversations can be held without needing to raise voices.  The tall overdrive gear keeps the engine relaxed, which rewards the driver with superb gas mileage (claimed 34 mpg highway).  Even though the SX is the sport trim, going over speed bumps in parking lots was not uncomfortable, and dips in the road were handled nicely without the car crashing off of the bumpstops. 

The electrically assisted steering feels nicely weighted with parking maneuvers never being a chore.  The feel is much more natural than other manufacturers with over boosted steering assistance.  However, as the speeds increase or the driving intensity increases, there is a noticeable lack of feedback from the steering wheel.  It is difficult to get a complete sense of what the tires are doing during hard cornering.  This resulted in a little sawing at the wheel to correct inputs, but the good news is that outward visibility is great.  The A-pillar is not very intrusive during left turns, and looking for the next apex was easy. 

Front seats could use more bolstering.  Photo courtesy  of Kia
Rear seat passengers have plenty of leg room.  Photo Courtesy of Kia

The seats in the Optima SX are a mix of perforated leather and cloth inserts.  Our test car had the optional package with heated and cooled front seats with the rear seats only having a heater function.  Both heating and cooling worked well.  We hoped for a little more lateral and thigh support from the bolsters, but the seats are comfortable.  The driver has an 8 way adjustable power seat, and the passenger has the option of receiving a 4 way power seat.  Seating in the rear is roomy for 2 adults, however headroom does suffer a bit for taller people due to the sloping rear roofline.  The EX and SX Turbo have an optional dual pane glass roof similar to the Mini Cooper or Scion tC.  The front is retractable while the rear is solid.  A neat feature of the the power shades is that they have sensor to stop in case any curious fingers get in the way while the shades are closing.

The trunk is generously sized and the rear seats do fold forward to allow for additional room.  Please note that they will not fold flat enough to create a level loading zone, but we believe there will be more than enough space to fit most items. 

The Optima is a safe vehicle for its occupants, having received a 5 star rating in every category safety test performed by the U.S. government.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also selected the 2011 and 2012 Optima as one of its top safety picks.  This bodes well if the Optima is used as daily transportation for the family. 

Kia has really improved the Optima, and instead of languishing in the background, they have produced a front runner within the midsized car segment.  A reasonable starting price of approximately $25K makes the Optima a performance bargain to boot.  The bold design stands out, and we applaud Kia for taking the risk of leaning towards the sporting end of the spectrum.  The turbocharged Optima is the perfect counterpart to the driver who wishes to have a sporty car while still handling the responsibilities of everyday tasks.  It is a 4 door sedan with the heart of a 2 door sports coupe.  This is indeed  motoring evolution.  Happy motoring and keep on driving! 


Pros (+):  Great midrange power, outstanding fuel economy, taut chassis, good highway ride manners, handsome styling, excellent base platform to increase performance from.

Cons (-):  Power tapers off, seats need a little more bolstering, no manual transmission option, stubborn understeer.

Overall Opinion:  Great car with the chance to take the top spot of the midsized car segment.  A solid performer for those who need a compromise between sports car and family sedan. 

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