First Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX

Ben Wojdyla
Ben Wojdyla

In an alternate universe, we're tearing through the blissfully serpentine asphalt twisting through Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles; a pull of the steering wheel paddle shifter drops the transmission into second before we enter a sweeping corner. Hard on the brakes, and then back into throttle to power out; we're now three-up in the new turbocharged 2011 Kia Optima SX, and quickly bearing down upon a BMW 5 Series. Sound like a dream? Hardly: the Optima SX hungrily devours challenging corners, and its turbocharged engine backs up its good looks with plenty of bite.

The 2011 Optima SX is part of an ongoing paradigm shift for Kia. Until very recently, the Korean automaker was content in building the blandest of transportation devices, designed neither to offend nor excite, and priced at bargain-basement levels. Now they're done with that. Over the past year, Kia has introduced disturbingly appealing vehicles at market-beating prices, and doing its best to shake its previously dodgy image. With the Optima SX, Kia has built a car that can legitimately vie for the title of best midsize family sedan on the market.

Let's not pretend about what we're looking at here. Since Hyundai and Kia are corporate bosom buddies, nearly all the hard parts and mechanical bits beneath the skin are shared with the also-new Hyundai Sonata Turbo. As is the case with the base Optima, the chassis features a McPherson strut front suspension, a multi-link setup in back, and a complete alphabet soup of stability aids. The top-of-the-line SX model receives upgraded 12.6-inch front discs, more aggressive damper tuning, and -- most importantly -- the all-new Theta Turbo GDI.

The 2.0-liter direct-injection, DOHC four-cylinder is blessed with both a 9.5:1 compression ratio and and forced induction, the latter provided by a clever new turbocharger package. The design integrates the exhaust manifold and turbo housing into one cast stainless steel piece, which feeds a ducted intercooler, and helps bring power up to 274 horsepower at 6000 rpm, and 269 lb-ft of torque starting at 1750 rpm. That's 74 horsepower and a hulking 86 lb-ft of torque over the base engine, but it's also the kind of power that justifies Hyundai/Kia's decision to ditch a V6 option. Paired only with a six-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles mounted on the steering wheel, the turbocharged Optima SX is expected to peg the 22/34 mpg (city/highway) mark, giving buyers the best of both worlds in terms of fuel economy and power.

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Really impressive in person. The price is a bit more than the sonata but it comes with more equipment. Overall a good value. 
Did Kia put different tires on the SX version of the Optima? Many reviews I've read of the EX version complain of horrible Nexen tires. I've only driven the EX in dry conditions, and didn't come close to pushing its limits during my test drive, but if I were to buy the EX, I'd seriously consider swapping out the tires for something better. If you can tell us what tires Kia is using on the SX, that'd be helpful. Thanks!
Kia's recent designs are quite a change from before. If the reviews keep coming like this, there will be no stopping them.
I'm Korean, but even I never thought I'd actually find myself lusting over a Kia.

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