2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo

April 12, 2011
Another Kia Optima, another car crippled by wretched tires. As with the less powerful Kia Optima EX that we tested in late 2010, this Optima Turbo was shod with Nexen Class Premiere tires. Just as you'd expect, delivering an extra 74 hp to the front wheels does little good when the tires have all the grip of a greased pan. It's a shame that Kia pinched pennies when choosing the tires, because they take away so much from an otherwise excellent car.
2011 Kia Optima Sx Front Left View
The Kia Optima improves on the highly regarded Hyundai Sonata with sportier styling and a significant improvement in the steering effort. The price of the sleek, chopped roofline is slightly cramped headroom, though. It seems that Kia could have addressed this simply by allowing the power-adjustable driver's seat to drop lower. The passenger's seat, which is at a fixed height, is substantially lower. The interior is otherwise comfortable and tasteful, and the Optima rides nicely. It's all gravy until you enter a slow corner with a touch of aggression.
You can blame a lot of the furious spinning on the tires, but Kia also needs to work on its traction-control software. A car this powerful needs a more active, predictive intervention like that in the Volkswagen GTI. In its current form, the Kia's traction control cuts in too late and too hard, and so power suddenly disappears. The Optima Turbo would also benefit from programming that brakes the inside front wheel in corners.
Buyers should budget some money for a new set of tires -- or two. The Optima is a car worthy of performance-oriented rubber, so a pair of quality summer tires (along with winter tires, if necessary) is a smart investment.
Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
As much as we rightfully celebrate cars that offer a good value, it's arguably more impressive to drive something that succeeds purely on its own merits, with no help from the window sticker. That's why I was somewhat glad to see that this attractive car from Kia -- long America's bargain king -- has a big-boy price of $30,840. For that money, you get tons of goodies, including heated and cooled front seats, passive keyless entry, navigation, a backup camera, and a sunroof wide enough to toss a basketball through. Beyond the options list, though, the Optima has evolved into a car that can charge full price.
2011 Kia Optima Sx Left Side Rear View
The key to this success, aside from the very daring styling, is the equally pleasing interior. Kia designers wisely took a step back from the wacky materials and colors they've uses in their cheaper offerings, like the Soul, and instead opted for a traditional, but still very interesting, aesthetic. Even the faux-carbon-fiber trim inserts -- something that trips up some premium brands -- are realistic and tasteful. The technology also works quite well and synched seamlessly with my iPhone (for music playback). My only suggestion would be to add a knob for tuning, as it can become tedious to search through more than a hundred satellite channels by tapping buttons. Tall people might take issue with both the short seat cushions and the raked roofline, but average or smaller-than-average folks will have plenty of room. Center rear-seat passengers will appreciate the fact that there's almost no hump in the floor.
The Optima also drives quite well overall for a mid-size sedan, with strong acceleration, good body control, and steering with actual weight. There are, however, a few subtle flaws. The steering, for instance, has a nice heft to it but feels strangely vague just off center, and large bumps and potholes jar the passenger compartment more than one expects in a car this size. Given Joe's observation about the off-brand tires, I'd be very curious to see if more reputable rubber addresses some of these issues. Still, these are rather minor complaints. The Optima has elbowed its way into the ranks of the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and Ford Fusion by offering all the right content along with a welcome dose of panache.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
The new Optima is a very good car. Its exterior styling is starting to grow on me, and I think I'm the only person in our office who did not love its looks from the get-go. And that interior -- wow. It's very attractive and it impressed me from the moment I first sat in a new Optima a couple months ago. Like Joe, I could definitely do without the car's greeting messages, though. It's reminiscent of AOL's famous "you've got mail" greeting from a hundred years ago.
2011 Kia Optima Sx Rear View
I prefer the turbo Optima to the turbocharged Sonata. It just seems more in the character of this car than its Hyundai platform mate. On the road, the Optima feels stable, solid, and tossable. It's not overpoweringly quick, and the transmission won't hold gears even when you shift with the paddles, but this is still a fun car.
However, I must admit that I was pretty shocked to see its $31K price. It's not that this Kia doesn't have the features to command that kind of money; it's just a lot of money for a m
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
What a pleasant surprise the Optima Turbo is! It's a huge improvement over the previous Optima and is evidence that the Koreans are on a major upswing. We all loved the Hyundai Sonata Turbo, even naming it an All-Star this year, but I'd argue that the Optima Turbo is better. I was impressed by everything from the stylish exterior to the well-laid-out interior and quality materials, to the powerful turbocharged four-cylinder engine. My only complaint is the poor tires. These Nexen all-seasons do not compliment the car's character at all; and if there's any trace of snow on the ground, forget it.
Maybe this is the Kia that finally will get America's attention. Clearly, Kia is trying to reach out. This year Kia took out a Superbowl ad featuring the Optima, and the Forte coupe is racing in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series.
Mike Ofiara, Road Test Coordinator
I was blown away by a few things about this Optima Turbo.
2011 Kia Optima Sx Left Side View
First, it really looks great. I preferred it to the Sonata based just on photos, but it's even better looking in person. Kia managed to take the exact same profile as the Sonata and slice all the curves and lines off, and made an aggressively styled car that isn't derivative.
Second, this car is fun to drive, and seems better planted and more solid than the Sonata. It drives like a bigger, heavier car -- in a good way.
Third, this car is really nice inside as well. The angled-toward-the-driver console is very well laid out, and reminds me of BMWs of yore. I prefer the on-screen graphics of the Optima to the Sonata, but the Hyundai does a better job of pulling together the total package with better integrated door panels and a dash that all flow together beautifully, versus the more cobbled together Optima.
But the most surprising thing of all with the Optima Turbo was the $31,000 price tag. I was expecting $27K at most -- which is the Sonata Turbo's base price. I'm not saying this car isn't worth the money -- I think it is -- but I suspect this will be a shock to many buyers, and might be hard to overcome. And to pile on regarding the tires, the choice of such poor quality on such a critical component is disappointing, and inexcusable if Kia is going to demand top dollar for this car.
Matt Tierney, Art Director
Impressive off-the-line acceleration, even if it's pretty easy to spin the front wheels. Nice powertrain, though. The steering-wheel-mounted paddles are plastic but are firm in their mountings and have a good crisp action in a way that Ford, for example, should duplicate. They are logical to use, also: the left paddle is for downshifting, the right one for upshifting.
I took the Optima up to 105 mph and did some hard braking, and the pedal felt good underfoot and didn't turn to mush. Excellent seat heaters; they really fry your butt. The Bluetooth interface is fast and easy, as is the radio interface. Nice Infinity stereo.
I like the black perforated leather with a banding around the perimeter of silver-colored mesh materials. Could do without the start-up ding-dong sounds; when you turn off the car it says "Thank you, see you again." Mmmm-hmmm.
A surprise late-winter snowfall of five inches was more than the Optima and its all-season tires could handle. The tires are Korean Nexen OP662 Class Premiere, 225/45VR-18, and they certainly did not perform well in the snow.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Nearly a full year has passed since I first saw the 2011 Kia Optima at the 2010 New York auto show and I am still pleasantly surprised by how good it looks inside and out. Perhaps there wasn't more praise piled onto the Optima when it debuted because everyone had already seen the new 2011 Hyundai Sonata and realized the Korean automakers had finally hit their stride, but it's a shame so few people seemed to notice Kia's incredible new sedan.
2011 Kia Optima Sx Front Left View
Hyundai appears poised to move upmarket with the Genesis sub-brand, and the Equus hitting the streets (in limited numbers). It almost seems trite to recount Hyundai's success story now. But Kia's success story is just beginning. Yes, the funky Soul and quite good Forte set the tone for Kia's product portfolio, but neither has the level of polish the Optima does. It seems Kia will finally fulfill the sporty niche it was always supposed to play in, with products like the Optima Turbo.
My colleagues have mentioned the Optima's few flaws (poor tire choice and suspension that could use a touch more refinement) but nobody has pointed out the lack of torque steer. Kia has found a way to deliver 274 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque through the front wheels with very minimal torque steer, which is something that the engineers at Mazda couldn't figure out in the 263-hp Mazdaspeed3.
I find the value of the Optima Turbo to be pretty incredible given how good it looks and how well it drives for a starting price under $27,000. None of the options featured on our test car are really necessary to make the Optima a good car, so the base price is all buyers really need to shell out. Many other mid-size cars feel pretty stripped down without optional equipment but Kia is able to deliver good looks, great performance, and a pleasant interior without sacrificing the reasonable price we've come to expect from the brand.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo
2011 Kia Optima Sx Front View
Base price (with destination): $26,690
Price as tested: $30,840
Standard Equipment:
2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine
6-speed automatic transmission
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Electronic stability control
Hill start assist
Tire pressure monitoring system
Dual-zone automatic climate control
AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with 6 speakers
Sirius satellite radio
USB and auxiliary audio input jacks
Bluetooth connectivity
Leather and woven seat trim
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Power windows/locks/mirrors
Steering wheel paddle shifters
Push button start
Auto-dimming rearview mirror
Cruise control
HID headlights
LED taillights
Options on this vehicle:
SX premium touring package -- $2150
Panoramic sunroof
Heated and cooled front seats
18-inch luxury alloy wheels
Navigation system -- $2000
Backup camera
Sirius satellite radio
Key options not on vehicle:
Fuel economy:
22 / 34 / 26 mpg
Size: 2.0L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Horsepower: 274 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 269 lb-ft @ 1750-4500 rpm
6-speed automatic
Curb weight: 3385 lb
Wheels/tires: 18 x 7.5-inch aluminum wheels
225/45R18 Nexen OP662 Class Premiere all-season tires
Competitors: Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion


Photo Gallery

2011 Kia Optima

LX FWD 4-Dr Sedan I4
starting at (MSRP)
2.4L I4
Fuel Economy
24 City 35 Hwy
2011 Kia Optima