Road Test

2012 Kia Optima surprises

New mid-size Kia wraps performance and fuel economy in a very stylish package

2012 Kia Optima - Front - White
AT A GLANCE
PRICE
$23,700 base. $35,400 as tested.

Every once in a while a vehicle comes along that surprises me. That was the case with the 2012 Kia Optima SX. 

The new Optima is a visual treat; that was not the surprise. And with 276 turbocharged-horsepower on tap, impressive performance was expected.

The shock occurred when reading the average fuel consumption readout – later confirmed when filling the tank – twice. After almost 1,000 km of driving, the average was just under 7.0-litres per 100-km!

This came during a summer filled with a raft of hybrids and small new fuel-efficient test vehicles. The large and powerful Kia equaled or bettered them all – none of which could hold a candle to the Optima when it came time to passing or climbing a long hill.

This fuel economy was such a surprise I conferred with a number of my colleagues in other parts of the country who had driven a similar model and they all reported the same impression/results. Why bother with a hybrid or a smaller car when you can have this relatively large family car and get that kind of economy and performance?

The downside is price. As this is a relatively low volume model, Kia has chosen to position it at the very top of its line – at $35,400. Mind you that brings with it every conceivable comfort and luxury feature and technology, ranging from a navigation system and back-up camera to dual sunroofs and heated rear seats – yes, rear. But range-topping Accords and Camrys are similarly priced.

The 2011 Optima is the latest in Kia's relentless onslaught of world-class new product. A replacement for the slow-selling Magentis, it is a virtual mate to the Hyundai Sonata beneath the skin.

Showcasing the styling of Peter Schreyer who also had a hand in the new VW Beetle and Audi TT, the Optima is bristling with neat little styling touches that break away from the low-cost look. For example, the top of the windshield echoes the shape of the new corporate grill. A straight line would have been much less expensive and easier to fit, but Kia is no longer all about price – value, what you get for your dollar is now the goal. It can do that, having developed new engines, transmissions, platforms and more recently style.

While the exterior is a standout the interior is just as impressive for its style. Fit, finish and materials used are all first class, a step above what you'd expect in this category. The seats are a delightful two-tone combination of leather and woven fabric.

Clever use of soft lighting and visuals like stainless scuff plates, carbon-fibre-look trim and LCD displays add an impression of high-tech meets luxury. And there are little touches like a light indent on the turn signal stalk so it fits your finger.

The positioning of the Optima SX atop the company's car line allows it to load it to the roof with not only add-on features and technologies, but also features that show off its engineering prowess.

Thus the dual impression of performance and fuel economy. The company's new 2.0-litre, direct-injection Theta turbocharged engine is a beauty. Burning regular gasoline and using a turbocharger integrated with the exhaust manifold it has terrific low-end punch. Producing 74 more hp than the larger 2.4-litre engine in other Optimas, adds a mighty 83 lb-ft of torque. At 274 hp, it compares well with the more thirsty sixes of the competition – 271 hp for Accord, 272 hp for Mazda6 and 268 hp for Camry.

The six-speed automatic transmission ensures the engine performs at its best, keeping it in the heart of the power band with seamless shifts. There are paddle shifters behind the steering wheel, but response to inputs are delayed and you are better off using your hands to steer and leaving the shifting to the computer programming.

The chassis is stiff and the suspension – sportier than the rest of the Optimas – keeps the big 18-inch tires stuck to the road. It could use a little more development on the ride quality front but this is a vast improvement on the Magentis and other earlier Kias. To cope with the potential performance the brakes have been enlarged with 12.6-inch discs.

Optima pricing starts at $23,700 and that gets you air conditioning, automatic headlights, 16-in alloy wheels, six-speaker audio system with aux and USB input ports, wireless connectivity, power windows and lock and remote keyless entry.

A "plus" package bumps the price to $27,300 and adds panoramic sunroof, auto-dimming mirror with Homelink, and a power driver?fs seat.

The $28,400 EX trim levels brings 17-in alloy wheels, an automatic defogging system, leather interior, keyless start and rearview camera.

Move up to the $32,150 EX luxury version and you gain yet another inch in wheel size, seat memory, upgraded instrument panel, heated steering wheel, 530-watt premium audio system, bigger brakes, power passenger seat, heated rear seats, heated and cooled front seats, HID headlights.

My tester was the top-of-the-range SX that, at $35,400, came with unique "sport" wheels, a navigation system, paddle shifters (at the cost of the heated steering wheel – boo!); two-tone cloth and leather seats, a sport suspension and unique bumpers.

While the concept of a $35,000 Kia sedan may be difficult to grasp for some, for current Kia owners – among the most satisfied and loyal in the industry – and for those who take time to compare, this is a significant new player in the family car class.

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