A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing That Still Makes the Best-Dressed List
Rick Charles, Contributor
This year's launch of the 2011 Kia Optima is the biggest in the company's history. The all-new sedan has the most ambitious package of styling, quality and features the company has ever offered and it's expecting big things.
The Optima's packaging is the result of lessons learned over Kia's 15-plus years in the U.S. market. But Kia's research also came up with one more necessary ingredient to a successful midsize sedan in the U.S. market — a V6 engine option.
After doing some cost/benefit analysis, however, Kia figured out that midsize buyers don't necessarily have a case of multi-cylinder envy; they just want the extra power. In other words, a turbocharged four-cylinder with enough guts would work just fine.
That's where the 2011 Kia Optima Turbo comes in. It's powered by a 2.0-liter inline-4 that uses gas direct injection (GDI) and a twin-scroll turbocharger system to pump out 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque. That's nearly 50 percent more power than the normally aspirated 2.4-liter base inline-4 unit, while delivering an identical 34 mpg highway rating and only 2 mpg less (22 mpg) in the city. That ought to do the trick.
Kia pulled out all the technology it had to deliver its goals of increasing power without hurting fuel efficiency. There's direct injection, a special lightweight aluminum engine block and even a special duct to channel air over the intercooler.
The twin-scroll turbocharger employs a turbine housing that is integrated with the exhaust manifold. Two independent exhaust paths in the turbine housing (one combining the exhaust flow from cylinders one and four, the other from cylinders two and three) help to better transmit the exhaust pulse energy to the turbine wheel. This technology contributes to a significant reduction in turbo lag and the availability of a broad peak torque range that begins at 1,750 rpm and stretches all the way to 4,500 rpm.
Unlike higher-strung turbo engines, the Kia is designed to run on regular unleaded 87-octane fuel thanks to a 9.5:1 compression ratio. Durability testing for the new engine included a continuous 300 hours of running at wide-open throttle followed by 20 hours at 6,800-rpm, 300 revs past redline. The Optima has a 100,000-mile warranty, after all.
Other Exclusive Turbo SX Menu Items
Although the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine is an option on EX trim level Optimas, the chart-topping SX features standard turbo power along with a number of exclusive features including rich-looking black leather seats with woven trim, alloy pedals, HID headlamps, LED rear combination lamps, a rear lip spoiler, side skirts, and aero-enhancing front and rear lower bumpers.
The six-speed automatic transmission in the SX also includes steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles for manually selecting gears. Other performance enhancements include 18-inch alloy wheels with P225/45R18 tires, 1-inch larger (12.6-inch) front brake rotors with black-painted calipers and a "sport tuned" suspension. The latter consists of stiffer dampers and recalibrated steering.
There's nothing particularly unique about the interior in the turbocharged models and that's OK. The 2011 Kia Optima already has enough going on and would only look more cluttered with too much additional trim and/or badging. Top-of-the-line SX models get special black leather seats, additional soft-touch trim, and metallic pedals and sill plates.
Taking It to the Streets
Our test-drive of an Optima SX included a mix of freeway running, straight stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway and a good bit of tight and twisting canyon driving. The latter proved that despite the turbo and the other sporty accouterments, the Optima SX Turbo is definitely aimed at the Camry/Accord buyer rather than the BMW/Audi ranks.
The steering was imprecise and required constant correction entering and during hard cornering maneuvers. This problem was only exacerbated by the transmission's unwillingness to acknowledge, let alone respond to, downshifts via the paddles. Driven hard, the Optima was clearly out of its element.
Power delivery, on the other hand, was smooth, with little noticeable turbo lag. Quick, but not neck-snapping fast. Also absent was the rush of power one expects from a turbocharged vehicle when it gets on the boost. Blame it on the extended range of the peak torque curve and a transmission geared for smooth cruising.
By day's end, we felt as if Kia had hit its mark, at least in terms of power. The 2011 Kia Optima Turbo responds more like a normally aspirated V6. It's smooth and quiet enough to fool most drivers in this class, and they'll be pleasantly surprised when they see how far a tank of gas will take them.
Who Will Buy This Optima?
Although it lacks, as they say on Sports Center, the "physicality" of a sport sedan, the Optima SX is a slicker alternative to some of its more mundane-looking competition. The feel, fit and finish of its interior are impressive, especially at its base price of $26,690.
No, it's not really a sport sedan, though, even if those wheels make it look like one. Kia's research didn't point to any pressing need for the company to get too hard-core just yet. There could be something a little more aggressive down the line, but Kia needs to hit the mainstream folks first.
For that focus group, the turbocharged 2011 Kia Optima should do well. It not only offers that little extra punch, it doesn't make you pay much for the privilege. Not everyone will like its styling, but no one will confuse it for a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry either. Add in the reasonable price and long list of standard features and that missing V6 won't hurt it a bit.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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