2011 Kia Optima Long-Term Road Test

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Well, It's No Camry SE

February 22, 2012

Through circumstance and misadventure, I found myself on a tour of California in the Kia Optima SX Turbo last weekend. Up to Santa Clara from L.A., then across to Sacramento, back to L.A. and then a short hop to San Clemente and back.

The Optima isn't my favorite sedan, but it worked out fine.

And then right after I returned, I found myself in the 2012 Toyota Camry SE. And within minutes, I was amazed to discover just how good the Kia had become.

The Kia's turbo four-cylinder engine is weak at low rpm and sounds bad besides, but it cruises the freeway effortlessly and quietly. The Camry's four-cylinder always seems to be two gears away from where it needs to be, so you wonder where the power went.

The Optima SX Turbo's suspension is snubbed down a little too firmly and there's a lot of noise from the tires. But the Camry SE's sport suspension is all spring and no damping, and so every bump from the highway makes it weave down the road.

The effort level for the Kia's steering is very heavy, more evidence that carmakers have been listening too closely to all the chest-beating journalists who believe tractor-style steering is a key indicator of a fast car. There's some stiction in the action of its electric-assist steering, but it only makes you crazy part of the time. Meanwhile, the Camry SE's electric-assist steering has so much stiction that it makes you crazy all the time, especially when you can't get the steering in phase with the chassis.

The Optima's interior is a bit glitzy, and the driver seat doesn't look like much although it works well once you dial in the adjustable lumbar support. The maps of the navigation system aren't quite detailed enough when the scale gets close up. The Camry's interior has a grab-bag of unpleasant elements that makes me think of a 1980s Chrysler K-car, and I started squirming in the driver seat within 20 minutes. The navigation system's maps might be better than those on a cell phone, but not by much.

So over the course of a couple days, I've been reminded just how far Kia has come.

When I first drove a Kia in Japan in the in he early 1980s, the company had a relationship with Ford and the cars were cast-off old-tech Mazdas made in Korea. Later, Kia came under the Hyundai umbrella, apparently because a scion of Hyundai's family-related executive board needed something to do, and the cars were old-tech Mitsubishis with names that no one could remember.

And now the Kia Optima SX Turbo is a car that attracted notice at every hotel, gas station and stop-and-rob snack mart that I visited in California. So far, no one has asked me anything about the Toyota Camry SE except for directions to the nearest Starbucks.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 19,062 miles

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: A Day of Driving

December 14, 2011

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A few weeks ago I felt like driving. It was Saturday. Wife and kids were off doing wife and kids stuff. The sun was shining. And I had the keys to our long-term Kia Optima SX Turbo. Destination Malibu.

If you live on the westside of L.A. and you want to drive, you head for Malibu. The famed Pacific Coast Highway makes for great starters. But the real destinations are the less traveled canyon roads that snake their way endlessly through the Santa Monica Mountains. Roads named Stunt, Piuma and Latigo. You can be up there flogging for hours without seeing another car. Days without driving the same route twice.

Sure, I would have rather been in our long-term 5.0 Mustang or NSX, but the Optima turned out to be a pretty good dance partner. I still think it needs better tires and a bit more front end grip (maybe better rubber will fix that), but I was smiling most of the time and the car was enjoying it. I discovered the Optima's need for a little trailbraking and its ability to spin a tire on corner exit if you jump on the accelerater harder than you really should. I also was impressed with its brakes. Sure, I could have cooked them if I really wanted to, but at 8-10th they were happy and heat resistent. And its steering feels better in the hills than it does in the city.

At the end of the run, back on PCH southbound toward the sprawl, I had a new found respect for the Kia sedan with the pretty face. It had earned it the old fashioned way.

Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Morning Adjustments

December 07, 2011

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Did you know that you're taller in the morning? I've known that for a while, because when I get in a car that I drove the night before, I'm just a bit closer to the headliner and the mirrors are just a fraction too low. This morning, our long-term Optima made that fact much, much clearer.

The first indication was that my hair was brushing the sunroof rail headliner. All the way into the office, it was in constant contact with the ceiling. I generally adjust the seat to have the lowest possible height, and the Optima is no different. But I already had it as low as possible.
What does this mean? Well, if you're taller than 5'10" and you're considering a Kia Optima, don't get the sunroof.

Oh, and by the way, the reason you're taller in the morning has been attributed to your disks in your back and joints compressing during the day. When you sleep (unless you sleep standing up, in which case, you're weird), all that stuff re-hydrates and expands. That's your fun fact for the day, you're welcome.

Mark Takahashi, Automotive Editor

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: I Would Buy One

November 24, 2011

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I've been driving our long-term Kia Optima SX turbo quite a bit. Last week I lived in the thing, driving it back and forth to the LA Auto Show and to dinners and functions all over the city. During those 600 miles I drove the Optima in every condition imaginable short of a snow storm. Ok, I never took it off-road either.

But at the end of the week I realized how well the Optima had served me. It wasn't just transportation. It was enjoyable. I liked it. Not because it got me there and back. Any car can do that. I liked it because it got me there with a smile.

Some cars go beyond Point A to Point B, and the Optima SX Turbo is one of those cars. And when I would find it waiting for me in an empty parking garage late at night after a 17 hour day I was glad it was there. I would climb behind the wheel, loosen my tie, and truly enjoy the drive home.

I could own this car.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Scott Oldham, Editor in Chief

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Feature Rich

October 20, 2011

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Maybe Magrath isn't enamored by some of our 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo's features, but here's one that I appreciate every time I drive the blue sedan -- the crotch cooler. I slap that sucker on within seconds of pressing the 'engine start' button.

The seats themselves tend toward the flat and unyielding side, though. I'm not saying they need a massaging function, just a little more attention paid to the shape and density of their foam bits.

Anyway, DeRosa's right that the coolers are fairly subtle, but that's like complaining that your fifty-dollar bills are too big for your wallet. I mean, the level of content in a car of the Optima's class was unheard of just a few years ago.

--Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Dear Seat, STOP MOVING

October 17, 2011

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I drove our Long Term Kia Optima SX Turbo over the weekend. The first time I'd done so in quite a while. When I saw the SX wasn't taken, all I could think about was the cool blue paint, the touch screen nav/iPod interface I like and the cool dual-material seats. I sort of forgot about the gummy steering and I completely forgot about the comfort-access seating.

Kia calls this process of moving your seat needlessly backwards and then automatically forward "easy access" and it appears to be absolutely mandatory. (*Edit: Ottowasx looks to know the fix. Will check in the AM and report back. -mm)

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Transparency

October 03, 2011

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I drove the Kia Optima for a couple of days recently and as I turned in the keys, I realized that I don't have much to say about it. Nothing jumps out at me as being quirky or glitchy. There are no grounds for carping about the power or transmission, unlike some other cars in the fleet (and yes, I'm looking at you, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport). The Optima is comfortable, technologically friendly and responsive.

It serves as a good example of transparent transportation: You get in, you start it, you drive, you arrive. Some days, you want to have a commute that's all about the car and the driving experience, and I'm pretty sure the Optima can deliver that, too. This time, I wasn't in the mood. The Optima was happy to accommodate me.

Carroll Lachnit, Features Editor @ ~12,682

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Subtle Climate

September 22, 2011

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Here's how Kia does the climate mode display in the 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo. I can appreciate its subtlety but is it too subtle for a quick glance while driving?

This is on the nav screen in the center dash. Bonus is that as part of the screen interface it doesn't take up any extra space. The "Mode" button is located here with the rest of the climate controls.

Which do you prefer: this or the Directional Man in the Hyundai Sonata?

Caroline Pardilla, Deputy Managing Editor @ 11,899 miles

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Carries Party of Five

September 19, 2011

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Dodger Stadium had derrieres in maybe half its seats yesterday, which was a darn shame as the boys in blue exploded for 23 hits and 15 runs against the Pirates, returning to the .500 mark (76-76) for the first time in a very long time. (Apparently, I parked on the least photogenic side of the stadium, but at least Billingsley was the starter yesterday.) Ah, I know, this isn't a baseball blog, so let's talk about our long-term 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo, which I was delighted to have for the trip to the game if for no other reason than Santorini Blue might as well be Dodger Blue.

I filled every seat in the Optima on this adventure. In back, we had two adults and one 6-year-old in a bulky booster seat. The main thing everyone noticed was the surplus of rear legroom in the Optima. It's absolutely not a problem to have adults seated behind adults.

Rear shoulder room was tighter -- tight enough that I couldn't see taking a long trip with this grouping -- but it was fine for 30 minutes at a time. Also, the adults were coming out of a 2002 Accord sedan (a much smaller car, as you'll recall), so the Kia's passenger quarters felt like an upgrade all the way around. The lateral bolstering on the rear seats added to comfort, they said, as it held them in place around entrance ramps. The 15.4-cubic-foot trunk also impressed them.

In general, I'm an Optima SX fan, mainly because the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine offers a lot of usable torque. I think the ride quality is better than our Sonata GLS -- it's more buttoned down (less float) and small bumps and ruts don't feel like as much of an event. Still, with those flashy 18s, the Kia's ride can be stiff over L.A. freeways.

I expected my passengers might not be thrilled about this, but instead they offered perspective: Compared to their '02 Accord, they said, the Optima rode a lot more comfortably. That might sound like faint praise, but honestly, this is the first Optima I've driven that really is better than a Honda Accord of one to two generations ago. When I drove earlier Optimas, I could think of all sorts of used midsize sedans I'd rather have. But not this time.

My passengers also commented on the Optima's strong and sure braking response whenever traffic ground to a halt, as well as its strong acceleration... I think they were surprised to learn it didn't have a V6.

I enjoyed my weekend in the Optima, too. Good driver seat, good acceleration, good brake pedal feel, with plenty of room for four and just enough for five.

Erin Riches, Senior Editor @ 11,780 miles

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Not-So-Restful Armrest

August 29, 2011

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Some might say there's no place in a car for fake carbon fiber. I'll leave that point for you guys to argue out among yourselves.

But the Kia Optima Turbo's door armrest is definitely NOT the place for a piece of plastic, carbon-fiber-look or otherwise. For me anyway, my left elbow touches down right where the padded leather and non-padded plastic trim come together, at least when I'm holding onto the steering wheel with my left hand.

And that's just plain silly, not to mention uncomfortable.

Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor @ 11,008 miles.

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2011 Kia Optima SX: Hauls The Mail, Among Other Qualities

August 15, 2011

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Last week I mentioned that I'd seriously consider buying an Optima if I needed a family sedan. Well, today I've listed ten attributes about our Optima that I find most appealing.

  1. Engine power. It "hauls the mail," as editor Josh Jaquot would say. Of course, this is relative statement. But the Optima Turbo is quick for a family sedan.
  2. Good fuel economy. We're only getting a combined 21.7 mpg so far. But that could be related to people enjoying item number one. The EPA combined estimate is 26 mpg.
  3. Styling. Aggressive and distinctive, I love the way it looks.
  4. The Corsa Blue paint. This paint color just pops. And its availability is limited to the SX trim only.
  5. Sporty handling. There's room for improvement, but at least Kia makes a sport-tuned suspension available.
  6. Paddle shifters. Ditto.
  7. Logical control layout. Everything falls readily to hand.
  8. Lots of interior storage. There's plenty of space to put your stuff.
  9. Extra convenience features. By this I mean things like xenon headlights, keyless ignition/entry and the hated/ventilated seats.
  10. Price: Even though our car has just about everything on it, it still rings up at just $30,840.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor @ 10,192 miles

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2011 Kia Optima SX: Ride Quality

August 12, 2011

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Considering that the Optima SX has firmer suspension tuning than the regular Optima, I'd say it still has a pretty agreeable ride quality. The ride quality isn't as soft as some other cars, but it's still comfortable and controlled on the freeway. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the SX for daily driver duty. Road noise does seem to be a bit more pronounced than the norm, however.

Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Two Benefits of the Cooled Seat

July 11, 2011

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The seats in our long-term 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo are not only heated, but feature 2-level cooling too. That's remarkable in a car that costs $31K loaded. Those heated/cooled seats are part of the $2150 Premium package which include pano sunroof, power front passenger seat, driver seat memory, and heated outboard rear seats(!!).

That package is well-worth it, as both the bottom cushions and the seat backs are cooled, preventing what my buddy calls "Swamp Back."

They're also good for the complement to the seat heater prank, the cooled seat trick. Of course, you must do this during the dead of winter, as I did once to my Michigan co-worker.

He thought he had a bladder accident.

Albert Austria, Senior VE Engineer @ 8,650 miles

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: What a Passenger Thinks

July 06, 2011

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As I mentioned in a previous post, we took the 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo up to San Luis Obispo for the holiday weekend. That's about eight hours of seat time total, not including the time it took to explore the area. In any case, here are some passenger seat impressions:

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo Keeps Its Cool in the Heat

July 06, 2011

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This weekend the 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo was my holiday/birthday conveyance to San Luis Obispo. One of my favorite long-termers to take on a road trip for being fun, roomy and comfortable. Plus satellite radio and seat heaters/coolers are always nice.

But as we were heading up Saturday afternoon, a quick look at Google Maps showed the highway to SLO was red, all the way from the 405 to Santa Barbara! 80 miles of stop and slowwww-going traffic. No thanks! So instead we opted to take the much clearer I-5 up to the fun roads and cut across to Santa Maria via 166 West. More on that later.

However on the way up the Grapevine we encountered an abnormally high number of cars -- old and new ones (even saw a Mini, sad) -- on the shoulder with their hoods open. Turns out a lot of cars don't like that combination of 100-plus-degree temps, A/C and climbing a long and serious grade. But in our Kia the air blew cold as ever while charging up the Grapevine at, um, slightly over the speed limit with nary a flick of the coolant temperature gauge. Er, pixels. That, and it felt as powerful as ever despite the heat and the altitude.

Felt bad for those poor folks stranded in the heat but took great comfort that our Kia was able to keep its cool for the four-hour trek to the Central Coast.

Caroline Pardilla, Deputy Managing Editor @ 8,283 miles

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: It's Got My Back (and Side)

June 09, 2011

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Coming up with blog posts on long-term cars doesn't always go as planned. Case in point: this morning I fully intended on griping about how the Bluetooth audio doesn't recognize my phone on startup. Last night, every time I'd get in I'd have to go through the phone menus to get it to pair with my iPhone. Of course, once I got in it this morning, camera in hand, the system immediately paired with my phone. I was hit with an odd mix of relief and frustration. Out of the corner of my eye, however, my blog subject presented itself.

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2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Climate Control Seats

May 26, 2011

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As I mentioned in an earlier post I tried out the cool setting on the driver seat in the Kia Optima. I'm not a fan of cooled seats. They give a weird sensation.

I used to have a sweater that had crocheted sleeves in a wide stitch. You could feel that you were wearing something but the wide apart stitching allowed air to hit my arms. It gave the weird feeling of being wet. Sounds gross, right? It was a cute sweater. It looked similar to this:

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2011 Kia Optima: Psych! Drove It To Vegas Instead

April 18, 2011

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As I need to be in New York tomorrow for the auto show, I was informed that I could not take off the estimated 15 days need to travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back using the Nissan Leaf. What a bloody shame.

Since I didn't feel like stealing Ron Montoya's birthday present (a weekend in the Mustang GT), my choice fell to the No. 3 car on the "What should Riswick drive to Vegas Poll." For those of you nice people who voted for the Kia Optima Turbo, thank you.

For those of you who aren't following me oh-so-diligently on the Twitter @jriswick, I went to Las Vegas this weekend for the Mumford and Sons concert at the Cosmopolitan (front row ... amazing) and the Las Vegas 51s baseball game (AAA team of my Blue Jays). Because of horrible LA-LV traffic, we got to the Cosmo just in the nick of time. Thankfully, the Optima never once added to my traffic-related frustration/fury, and in fact, was greatly helpful during my off-highway detours to get around desert gridlock. The Nissan GT-R, for comparison, nearly chattered our teeth apart on the barely there pavement of Yermo Road.

This was my first extended drive in the Optima, so I have plenty of thoughts to share. As I told the Mrs. at some point while in hour 3 of our Sunday drive home, "You know, I think I'd take this car over my old TSX. The interior isn't of the same quality and the steering's nowhere near as good, but it has all the toys, it's a bit cheaper, it looks awesome and the engine is fantastic. I love the turbo power delivery and given that power, the fuel economy is excellent. It's even the same color as my TSX."

Then I realized she was asleep, so I kept listening to my baseball game. Here's some more thoughts, albeit in bullet form.

Engine: Torque-rich, responsive, perfect for the hilly drive to Vegas. I was most impressed when on the drive home, I accidentally left the car in manual mode. It took me a good half hour to realize the car was stuck in sixth gear despite numerous grades in that time -- it was only because of the "6" in the trip computer that I noticed.

I ended up getting 28.46 mpg for most of the trip, though it's probably about 1 mpg higher because my calculation doesn't include the portion from Rancho Cucamonga to L.A. where the car said I was getting 31.5 mpg. Sure, neither of those numbers are the EPA's 34 mpg estimate, but then I wasn't exactly driving for the Fuel Sipper Smackdown.

Steering: The Optima's steering has an elastic band quality to it, with an artificial amount of weighting added to make it feel sporty around corners. Only it doesn't, really. It feels like a V6-powered Chevy Malibu's, only electric. But it's firm on center, which is what you're looking for on a road trip I guess.

Seats: I'm not in love with the Optima's driving position. The seat's mounted just a bit too low and the front of the seat could rise a little more, but it's not so objectionable that I wouldn't buy the car. In terms of seat comfort, not a problem after 10-some hours of mostly continuous driving over the weekend.

Ride: Since that GT-R drive, my bar for ride comfort is pretty low on the Vegas drive. Having said that, though, the Optima is perfectly comfortable over the long haul. Sure, you feel the low-profile tires over nasty bumps, but I never had one of those "enough already!" moments you can have when driving on California's concrete highways in a car with a firm ride. There is a fair amount of road noise, however.

Road trip intangibles: Big mirrors make lane changes easy. The cupholders are huge and well positioned. No complaints about the iPod interface, which for me is rare. Sound quality from the stereo is strong, but as I was listening to iTunes downloads, quality obviously differed between different tracks.

All in all, big fan of the Optima. Definitely better than the Leaf, and given traffic, I'm also happy I had it's automatic transmission rather than the Mustang's manual.

See you in New York.

James Riswick, Automotive Editor

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Edmunds Insurance Estimator

The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2011 Kia Optima in VA is:

$140 per month*
* Explanation
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