2011 Kia Optima: First Drive Page 2

September 27, 2010
The powertrain in the Optima (the same base engine as in the Sonata) is quite simply sweet, and the base 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter GDI (gasoline direct-injected) four-cylinder engine in this new Optima feels perkier than the optional V-6 of just a few years ago. Even when driving along gently in traffic, shifts aren't lumpy. Full throttle from a standing start is pretty uneventful, and there the Optima doesn't feel any faster than base four-cylinder mid-size sedans with lower power ratings; but hold on a second and it all changes when the engine reaches about 2,000 rpm. From there on up the engine builds power and churns out the torque like the low-pressure 2.0T turbos from Audi and Volkswagen. If you're in sixth gear on the highway, squeeze the gas a bit and the transmission might not even need to downshift; you'll just gather speed much in the way you would with a much larger engine.

A 274-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine will join the lineup in a sportier SX (and EX upgrade) model by the end of the year, and late in the model year a Hybrid model will also make its debut. On the base LX model, there's a six-speed manual (we didn't get the chance to drive it), but all other models come with a six-speed automatic with Sportmatic manual control.

Responsive powertrain; head of the class for MPG

In the meantime, the base engine provides plenty to be delighted with, and the six-speed automatic works well with it. Ratios are a bit tall, but nudge the shift knob over to the left, and you can tip up or down a gear with manual control. It even holds the gear you manually selected if you put your right foot in it. But unlike many newer sedans with sporty pretenses, there's no 'S' mode—with delayed upshifts, earlier downshifts, and less hunting—that you can simply leave it in for curvy roads.

Just as with the Sonata, fuel economy is great; EPA ratings are right up at the top of the class, at 24 mpg city, 34 highway with the automatic, and the manual gets 35 mpg highway. The turbocharged engine will get a surprisingly good 22/34. With the base engine and automatic, on a 160-mile Southern California driving route that included mostly high-speed freeways and mountainous two-laners, we saw our trip-computer average approach 25 mpg. An Eco mode, plus mindful driving, can improve fuel economy by up to seven percent, Kia says.

Underpinnings are pretty ordinary for this class of car—struts in front, a multi-link layout with coil springs in back, and front anti-roll bars. But it's all been tuned in a way that makes the Optima feel as refined and comfortable-riding as the Volkswagen Passat but as responsive, nearly, as the Mazda6. Hit the tightly curved canyon roads, and the Optima doesn't lean and roll overtly; response is crisp, and rough surfaces don't throw you off-course. All the more impressive is that the Optima's cabin stays quiet inside. Weight, at just over 3,200 pounds for the base LX, is at the light end of the mid-size sedan class—perhaps one of the keys to its nimble feel and great fuel economy.

Disappointing seats...but they're cooled!

After just a few minutes in the Optima, it was obvious that my co-driver and I were not going to like the seats. It's the single most disappointing packaging choice in this otherwise stellar sedan. Both of us—me 6'-6" and he about average height—thought that the lower cushions especially felt flat and hard, lacking proper padding and more importantly contouring. On our upscale EX, which comes with a power driver's seat, the passenger-side front seat doesn't adjust for height or tilt, making our complaint about the lack of padding even more dire. But...they're cooled! Heated and cooled front seats, as well as heated rear seats, are optional on both EX and SX models as part of a Premium Package, and we appreciated their effectiveness in the hot sun.

Backseat space is good though, with decent legroom and just enough headroom (provided I was leaning forward slightly as the downward sloping rear roofline gets in the way slightly).

Over the course of the day we grew to appreciate the asymmetry of the dash and how audio and climate controls don't use seemingly identical knobs and buttons. After a quick orientation, we didn't have the same which-is-which moment that we have in, say, Ford products, where the two sets of controls are often lined up perfectly, with identical knobs. And the Optima's interior isn't drowning in matte-metallic grays—instead the matte-black surfaces feel sporty and just fine—while the dash is surrounded by a somewhat soft, synthetic-leather-like trim material.

The 411: A mother lode of features

Front active headrests are standard in the 2011 Optima, along with front seat-mounted side airbags and side-curtain bags. Stability control and anti-lock brakes are of course standard, too; so is Brake Assist, and Hill Assist Control, which helps avoid rolling back when starting uphill.

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