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2011 Kia Optima Performance

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The 2011 Optima is comfortable, economical, and responsible overall, yet surprisingly enjoyable to drive. No question, it's more sporty and confident-feeling, compared to the Sonata, because of its nicer suspension tuning and much better steering feel. The Optima uses essentially the same steering gear and electric power steering unit as the 2011 Hyundai Sonata, but oh what a difference tuning makes. The assist feels to be from a good hydraulic system—which is to say, we like it—building weight with a natural feel off center, and not displaying that binding-then-light tendency we noted on curvy roads in the Sonata. Engineers told us that the Optima's speed-dependent steering system has three main levels of boost, but we found the transitions imperceptibly smooth.

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 responsive yet economical powertrain, crisp steering response, and confident handling feel make the 2011 Kia Optima as close to a driver's car you can get without sacrificing comfort.

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.

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.

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