First Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX

Ben Wojdyla
Ben Wojdyla

With two mechanically similar cars, what is Kia's value proposition? A European air in terms of chassis tuning, appearance, and feel. In place of the Sonata's swoopy, highly-styled sheet metal, the Optima's exterior is slab-sided, smooth and sleek. It wears Kia's corporate grille nicely, and the SX trim throws in a lowered front fascia and side skirts. Nineteen-inch machined face aluminum wheels add an upscale look to the car without overwhelming its proportions. There are neat details sprinkled around -- note, for instance, the top of the windshield, which mirrors both the shape of the grille and the slick LED taillights. The result is an honestly handsome sedan some could easily mistake as the latest Saab or Audi offering from afar.

Fittingly, the interior is less flamboyant more strapped down than its platform-mate and presents a refined, European aesthetic. Exceptionally high-quality materials run throughout, with soft touch plastics fitted in all the right places. The interior forms are more geometric in comparison to the Sonata's organic lines, but French-stitched seams around the instrument cluster and center stack, well-designed switchgear, and nicely finished seating surfaces delight. A navigation screen placed at the top of an angled center stack controls multimedia and phone integration, while buttons sorted beneath are tied to audio and climate control systems.

Owners may enjoy having these widgets present in the car, but they'll likely be more surprised by how good the Optima SX is to drive. Power comes on strong with no hint of turbo lag, and the transmission quickly finds the proper gear for rapid acceleration when you goose the throttle. In comparison to some of its V-6-powered competitors, the Optima's turbo-four feels slightly harsh, but that's the price paid for less weight and better fuel economy. Still, it's able to keep pace with six-cylinder cars in terms of acceleration. The Optima SX is downright quick, and we were floated an unofficial 0-60 mph time of roughly 6.5 seconds.

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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