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