2011 Kia Optima: First Drive Page 3

September 27, 2010
In addition to the Hybrid model set to join the lineup late in the model year, the 2011 Optima will be offered in three models: LX, EX, and SX. All SX models will get the upgraded turbocharged engine, while EX models will be available with either powerplant. But you don't have to step up to one of those top models to get the sporty appearance cues; LX trims come with the chrome-tipped dual exhaust and integrated mirror turn-signal lights, and EX models get extra chrome trip, chrome door handles, fog lamps, heated outside mirrors, and 17-inch alloys. SX models will be easy to pick out though with their unique front grille (shared with EX Turbo), more sculpted side sills, black brake calipers, a rear spoiler, and showy 18-inch wheels. The premium audio system in the Optima includes 12 speakers and has a rear-deck-mounted subwoofer, and is optional on all trims but the base LX.

While many automakers insist on relegating Bluetooth to top trims, the Optima looks like quite the deal for those who want to stay connected. All Optima models include USB audio inputs, Sirius Satellite Radio compatibility, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, voice and steering wheel controls. And with the EX, you get Kia's new Microsoft-powered UVO system, which will bring expanded voice control of audio players and smartphones.

Advanced voice controls, Bluetooth connectivity standard

We had the chance to get a brief tour of UVO features and appreciate—as we do with Ford's Sync—the flattened command structure, which would allow you to, say, quickly request a different song from the iPod while you're in the middle of following navigation directions. However, that leads to one of the significant equipment issues: you can't yet get UVO and the navigation system together. Due to the separate way in which the systems were developed—UVO through Kia and Microsoft, and the nav system by the parent company in South Korea—they simply don't play with each other at this point, though Kia expects to soon have a solution. If you do opt for the nav system (packaged with the upgraded audio system), you get a the same Bluetooth system that base Optimas have—by Parrot instead.

Inside, the Optima LX includes cruise control, tilt/telescopic steering, a cooled glovebox, and 60/40-split folding rear seatbacks. A roomy trunk and low, flat floor completes this very travel-friendly package. Stepping up to the EX gets you push-button start, a smartkey system, dual-zone climate control, leather trim, a power driver's seat, auto up/down windows, a Homelink garage-door opener, and upgrades to illumination and trim. On SX models, there's an upgraded gauge cluster, black leather woven seat trim, French seams, steering-wheel paddle-shifters, and lighted scuff plates.

Just as with other models from Kia, expect to see the Optima price about the same or slightly less than rival base models, yet with more standard features. Our best guess would be that the loaded EX Optima we drove prices in the $26k-$27k range.

All in all, this new, more exciting Optima no longer feels like a stripped down sedan delivered explicitly for those who need low monthly payments. It's a genuine rival to more engaging mid-sizers like the Mazda6, Nissan Altima, and Ford Fusion, and less so to the Hyundai Sonata and the understated Toyota Camry and Chevrolet Malibu.

Kia in recent years has carried the tagline 'power to surprise' and has been building increasingly good products. This time, we were ready for a full-on personality change, but the brand delivered an even better car than we expected. Count us, again, as very pleasantly surprised.

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