2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Seeking the Benchmark
July 26, 2011
One of the best things about this gig is the cognitive dissonance that comes with getting in and out of different cars every day. From baller to hauler to crapcan, the impressions come quick and fleeting. Some stick, and yet others reveal themselves slowly with reflection. They're all tricky to keep straight.
After spending a couple of days in a new E350 Bluetec diesel, then an evening in the Optima, a few things stood out. This isn't a comparison; how could it be? No one expects our $31,000 Optima to match the E350, which costs about $20,000 more. But there are some lessons the next two or more generations of Optima could incorporate from the Stuttgart legacy.
The gauge cluster design in the Benz, for example, is an elegant use of space. So much space in fact they fit an analog clock. The Optima instead leaves a lot of dead space between its speedo and tach, and in the gaps surrounding the nifty info display. There are indicator lights in those gaps, so it's not truly wasted space. But it got me wondering how Kia's designers could rethink this next time around.
This was actually the first time I'd driven the Optima home since it's been here. It's a popular ride and people claim it early. And it's a solid, sporty sedan, no question. It eagerly accelerates, delivers its 274 turbo horsepower with a crack and generally throws itself forward with gusto. It's got plenty of sauce to compete in its class.
But what does $20,000 extra get you? It gets you a sedan that repels road rut like mosquitos from a burning coil, and releases its 400 lb-ft of torque with such narcotic stealth that the space between 60 and 100 mph is almost imperceptible. It gets you more metal and a feeling of driving something carved from a block of billet.
The Optima doesn't play in that league, but I suspect its makers wish it did. The Optima feels a little hurried. Hasn't aged yet, hasn't matured. Doesn't feel totally whole or substantial like its 3,500 pounds would suggest. That doesn't mean it's not fun, and doesn't diminish the evolutionary leaps it has taken for the company.
But getting out of an E-Class and into the Optima, you realize just how high the large sedan benchmark is.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor