First Drive: 2012 Kia Optima Limited

2012 Kia Optima Limited

The Kia brand's bold design language, under styling chief -- and Automobile Magazine Man of the Year -- Peter Schreyer, is perhaps most impressive on the Optima mid-size sedan, which was unveiled at the 2010 New York auto show. Consumers took note, snapping up 84,590 Optimas in 2011, nearly doubling the nameplate's previous best year. (That number, however, still puts the model far behind class leaders such as the Toyota Camry, the Nissan Altima, and the Honda Accord, all of which sold more than 250,000 copies last year.) Kia officials expect to move even more Optimas in 2012, as production at the company's two-year-old factory in West Point, Georgia, ramps up fully.

The Optima is currently the largest and most expensive sedan in Kia's U.S. lineup. That will remain the case for at least the next several months, as Kia won't yet confirm whether the larger Cadenza (a.k.a. the K7) will be sold here. Expect an announcement on this front sometime this summer, when we will likely also learn if we'll get the rear-wheel-drive Kia K9, which is just making its debut at the Geneva show.

In the meantime, Kia has added the top-of-the-line Limited to the Optima lineup. The "Drive the Dream" Super Bowl commercial with Adriana Lima, Motley Crue, and Chuck Liddell actually marked the debut of the Limited, although you might have missed that nuance while watching the overstimulating ninety-second ad.

The Limited itself is a bit of a nuance, too, since it's not a trim level but merely a $3300 option package for the top-of-the-line SX models equipped with the $4350 "SX Technology & Premium Package." Making your Optima a Limited adds only cosmetic touches: softer leather upholstery, LED daytime running lights, chrome wheels, red-painted front brake calipers, chrome-accented side sills and a similarly finished rear spoiler, subtle wood interior trim, nicer material for the headliner, and, yes, a first-aid kit. Also, a blue "L" badge is installed next to the "SX" lettering on the trunk lid, so you could actually call it the Optima SXL.

The $34,900 Limited is as fancy as you can build an Optima; the required technology/premium package means that it also includes navigation, a cool panoramic sunroof, an upgraded stereo, heated and ventilated front seats, and heated rear seat cushions. Kia's head product planner, Ralph Tjoa, says that the Limited is designed to appeal to buyers who previously owned luxury cars such as the Lexus ES, the Nissan Maxima, the Toyota Avalon, and the Volkswagen CC. "These buyers expect more," Tjoa says, pointing out that they're able to pay for more, as 27 percent of Optima buyers have an annual household income of more than $100,000.

A base Optima -- still a very nice car -- starts at $21,750. About half of Optima buyers so far have sprung for the upper EX, EX Turbo, or SX trim levels, so Kia figures that about ten percent will opt for the Optima Limited.

Those customers should be quite happy with their purchase, as the feature-filled car drives exactly like any other turbocharged Optima. It rides smoothly (more smoothly, in fact, than pretty much every other Korean car on the market), it handles better than most mid-size-car buyers will ever require, it steers pretty well, and it accelerates quickly and unobtrusively. We drove the Optima mostly on Florida interstates, and we considered driving it all the way north to Michigan rather than catch our flight early the next morning. Snowbirds who often make the I-75 trek would adore this car, as would style-conscious people who seek moderate driving satisfaction.

Our only complaints about the Limited trim level are that the chrome wheels and the red brake calipers look decidedly aftermarket (and not in a good way) and that the tack-on rear spoiler looks like it was pulled off another car.

Optimas with the Limited package will reach dealers in the next few weeks bearing, as previously noted, an MSRP of $34,900. In other Optima sales news, the hybrid model, which went on sale last summer on the coasts, will be rolled out in the rest of the country by early May, but won't get the Limited package.

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