First Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX

Ben Wojdyla
Ben Wojdyla

You'd expect a chassis in this segment to protest the least bit of spirited driving, but that isn't the case. The Optima is quite composed, even when its suspension is unloaded in a tight corner. Ride quality is typical of the new Kia -- tuned for a more sporting feel and borderline stiff -- but aside from harsh impacts on nasty potholes, the car is quite comfortable. On-center feel is commendable and the electric power steering is tuned for just the right amount of feedback. Understeer only pops up at the limit of adhesion, but it appears in a predictable manner that inspires confidence.

As is often the case with front-wheel-drive cars packing big portions of power, putting all that grunt to the ground can be an issue. Kia has tuned the traction control software to carefully modulate torque during wheelslip, allowing the car to launch gracefully without the stereotypical wild wheel spin and awkward ignition cuts. Turn it off, however, and tire smoke and mild torque steer are entirely possible.

Perhaps most telling is our mindset after driving the Optima SX for an entire day. This is a 3,385-pound, four-door, five-passenger family sedan that stickers at $25,950, not a compact hot hatch designed to witness endless autocross abuse. Even so, it's as much fun to toss about as a smaller offering, and it's easy to forget just what Kia's true intentions are. We often found ourselves mulling quicker gearchanges or slightly more aggressive exhaust notes and suspension tuning, but this is by far one of the most engaging midsize sedans presently on the market.

The Optima SX isn't born from the Kia oft placed at the butt of automotive jokes for the last decade or so. Its mixture of speed, style, and sophistication is a quantum leap for the brand. If Kia covered this car's emblems, owners of upscale brands wouldn't hesitate to take a second look. If cars like this become the norm for the automaker, however, they won't have to hide that badge for much longer.

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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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