Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Kia Optima SX GDI

It's hard for a lot of people to think of Kia as a real contender in the automotive world. But if you've been paying attention, Kia and its corporate sister, Hyundai, have the competition running scared.

I credit Peter Schreyer for much of Kia's success. Schreyer, who was on the design team for the Audi TT, A3, and A6, went to work for Kia in 2006. But it was only a few years ago when we started seeing the real fruits of his labor in the Kia line. Kia's entire lineup is now a family of beautifully designed, feature-rich vehicles with outstanding warranties. I couldn't wait to get an Optima SX on the road. And we just got that opportunity.

Beside the beautiful exterior, Kia's value proposition is all about content for the dollar. There is a stunning amount of equipment in the SX. Dual sunroofs (coolest ever power sunshades moving in opposite directions from the center of the roof); ventilated front seats and heated seats for all four outboard occupants; navigation; power folding outside mirrors - it comes with a powerful 275 hp turbocharged four cylinder engine that returns 34 mpg highway. And all this for about $32,000. Yikes.

Sitting in the Kia, the cool factor hits you immediately. The all black interior was trimmed nicely with touches of carbon fiber (ish) and chrome. Controls are logically placed, though there is a dizzying array of buttons and knobs to control the infotainment and climate. A few fingernail taps around the cabin reveal some of the cost cutting measures Kia has taken. There is some cheap plastic here and there. For some reason, there is no carbon fiber surrounding nav panel, which is of course front and center on the dash. Instead, it's embedded in a sea of dead, textured black plastic. And the paddle shifters feel like model airplane parts. Still, so much is done right in this car that you find yourself constantly wondering if the cheap bits would really affect your ownership experience.

On the road the SX was pure smoothness. There is no adjustable ride control, so in comparison to the Buick Regal GS on "GS" setting, the ride is always suave and compliant, yet tight in cornering. The car feels long. Power was very good, though the four cylinder doesn't sound nice in the process. Even with three guys in the car, I was still able to stomp the gas and chirp the tires from a stop. Brakes were very good and brought us down from 60 mph quickly and smoothly.

I did some time in the front passenger seat which left me with concerns about taking long cruises in the Optima. First, the too-low, too-soft passenger seat is only 4-way adjustable. No up/down; no lumbar support. The arm rest on the door includes an angled panel on which the window control resides. The placement of this panel makes it impossible for me to rest my arm without a 45 degree vertical bend at the wrist. And the wheel hump intrudes far enough into the foot well that I felt I was having to sit slightly askew with my feet toward the console.

There really is a lot to love about this car. I'm still a sucker for the way it looks. The competition, however, is stiff - but is it stiff enough to beat the content and price? Don't know yet. There's still more driving to do.

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