I have to admit that I wasn't exactly salivating to get behind the wheel of what I initially considered a plain-vanilla sedan that wouldn't be my first -- or even second -- choice at the airport rental-car counter. But by the time I finished the audio evaluation of the optional Infinity system in the redesigned 2011 Kia Optima EX, the car made me think of the proverbial girl from high school that nobody asked out but later transforms into a hottie.
Everywhere I went, people asked about the car, and most seemed surprised to find out that it was a Kia. I also have to admit that after a week behind the wheel, I was reluctant to give it back. The audio system -- and car -- was that good.
The Optima's Infinity audio system is part of the $2,000 Technology Package option that also includes a back-up camera, navigation and Sirius Traffic. The Infinity setup consists of eight speakers powered by 550 watts. The speakers include a 4-inch midrange in the center of the dash, a two-way with a 1/2-inch tweeter and 4-inch midrange in each corner of the dash, a 6-inch woofer in each front door, a two-way that includes a 1/2-inch tweeter and 6-inch woofer in each rear door and a 8-inch dual-voice-coil subwoofer in the center of the rear deck. The 11-channel amplifier features digital signal processing that provides equalization, spectral management and time alignment specifically tuned to the Optima's interior.
After evaluating a couple thousand car audio systems over the years as a reviewer and car sound competition judge, I have a trusty collection of well-recorded CDs I rely on to gauge clarity/lack of distortion, tonal balance, timbre, tonal accuracy, soundstaging, imaging and dynamics. These include a wide array of music styles and a few non-musical technical tracks to test sound placement, linearity and absence of noise. For more details on the testing process, click on the Edmunds.com article Sound Advice.
I can't recall any OEM audio system that I felt I could live with unchanged, but the Optima's Infinity system is pretty darn close. In fact, I spent more time listening to this system, with more CDs than usual, trying to find deficiencies. While there are several things about the sound that could be better, small tweaks of the system's tone controls could help in this regard. But this evaluation was done, per usual, with bass, treble, fader and balance controls at the center/flat settings.
While listening to the system, the first thing that struck me was the clarity and tonal accuracy of vocals and midrange. High frequencies were impressively reproduced, although a little soft for my taste. A bit more snap from the tweeters -- which a slight treble boost could likely deliver -- would really bring the sound to life. Low frequencies were punchy and tight when listening to well-recorded bass-intensive tracks, but transition between midbass and low bass was muddy and boomy with some of my tracks from artists like Pink, Evanescence and Collective Soul.
The soundstage was impressive for an OEM system, with good depth. But since it was clearly confined within the A pillars, there wasn't the illusion of the sound coming from a wider space. Image placement, however, was precise with both music and technical test tracks. Linearity, which measures how well a system maintains sound quality as volume level changes, is where many low-quality systems go from mediocre to bad. But the Infinity system's sound went from good at low volume to really good at mid volume.
The Optima EX has a single-CD head unit with AM, FM and Sirius satellite radio, and it has Bluetooth audio for playing music from a compatible mobile phone. A standard aux-in jack and USB port are at the bottom of the center stack, but an optional cable that plugs into both is required to connect most iPods. Unfortunately, the cable wasn't supplied with our press-loaner car, and an iPod doesn't work using the USB cable that comes with the device (although I tried it). So I hooked up an Eclipse MP3 player with its USB cable and had it playing in seconds via the audio system controls, including the touch-screen and voice-command system. Even easier was plugging in a USB flash drive with several albums of music and operating it through the system as if it was a pricey portable media player.
What We Say
The all-new Optima EX is a game changer for Kia. Its sleek exterior design, well-appointed interior and surprising performance are changing people's minds about the Korean manufacturer -- including the editors of Inside Line, who named it an Editors' Most Wanted Award winner for 2011.
When a car gets an extreme makeover, the audio system can often be an afterthought. But together with its partnership with Infinity, Kia has given the Optima EX an entertainment system as impressive as the vehicle. I'll definitely be looking for it the next time I'm at the rental car counter.
iPod Integration: B