By: Rory Carroll on 3/13/2013
SENIOR ONLINE EDITOR RORY CARROLL After a weekend of freeway driving in the mighty Subaru BRZ long-termer, I was ready to make my commute in something really comfortable. It's not that the BRZ is uncomfortable, but it isn't a long-distance highway cruiser.
I was a little disappointed to find that I'd been assigned to the 2013 Kia Optima SXL. I hadn't driven one, but I assumed that comfort was out of the question. I should have known better.The Kia Optima is among the very best in its class. It's better than the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Volkswagen Passat. It's reasonably quick, totally comfortable and it's even a bit of a looker.
Let's start there. While VW seems to be following Toyota and Honda deep into the land of the bland, Kia and parent Hyundai have brought sharp, innovative design to the masses. The Optima's bodywork is unique but conservative. If you're thinking that it looks OK in pictures, but it will look cheap in person, you're wrong.
Now, of course our Optima is a press-fleet special, meaning that few option-sheet boxes were left unchecked. But even at $35,275, the interior is very well designed and even better executed. It exudes quality like a high-spec Volkswagen without the Teutonic minimalism. Fit and finish is world-class and the majority of the materials would not be out of place in a car costing far more.
I didn't have the opportunity to wring the Kia out much, but here's what I can tell you about its performance: The 2.0-liter turbo engine is quiet, refined and at 274 hp, it's more than capable of getting up and sprinting. The brakes were more than adequate and the steering feel was incredibly pleasing. I commuted in the Optima and our long-term Passat TDI back-to-back, and in places where the Passat bounced and wallowed, the Optima was smooth and planted. Incredible.
EDITOR WES RAYNAL: Overall, I'm impressed with this car. The sticker price makes me “lol” as the kids say, but it's a solid entry in the ultra-competitive midsize wars, and arguably the best looking one of the bunch.
I like 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder. I think it strikes the right balance between performance and economy. For many cars, a 2.0-liter turbo is just right. This is one of them. This is a nice powertrain with good power, little to no lag and is smooth enough. The handling is tight and the steering responsive -- entertaining for the most part. The Optima corners well with some understeer of course.
I'm impressed with the interior -- really impressed. Build quality is way better than I thought it would be with soft-touch materials and nice assembly. Seats are good, though one thing that drove me batty was that the easy-exit front seat was turned on, and I couldn't figure out how to turn it off. And I did look in the owner's manual and everything. A small gripe, but there you go.
All that said I would not pay $35k for this Kia, or any Kia for that matter. When I think about our long-term Passat TDI being $5k less, that cements it. Whether or not they still deserve the reputation, to me Kia still means cheap wheels, and this ain't that. If this car is any indication, Kia has no doubt moved up its game, and eventually I'll probably have to adjust my attitude accordingly. I'll work on that.
NEWS EDITOR GREG MIGLIORE: The Optima might be the best-looking car in this class, right up there with the new Ford Fusion, in my opinion. The Kia stands out, attracts positive attention and has a bit of attitude. The styling conveys a presence, and these blinged-out wheels punctuate it all nicely, fronted by an imposing, dark signature “Tiger” grille.
I was impressed with the drive quality. The turbo is powerful; put your foot to the floor and this thing has some getup. It's a smart engine for a machine this size. Pop in a few a shifts via the paddles, and it's a pretty sporty experience. The steering is light on-center, though there's more feel during turn-in. It has the same dynamic as our former long-term Hyundai Sonata (no surprise, they're platform mates), which some of our staff found to be a bit artificial. The Optima does feel that way at times, but most enthusiasts will like the weight of the steering. The chassis is comfortable yet not overly soft. It remains sporty at times, and can handle expressway curves and turns with appropriate guile.
The cabin is sharp, and this execution in black and light gray presents well. The only nits I found were the annoying location of the switch for the seat heaters/coolers. Placed diagonally behind the PRNDL, it was hard to find and remember while at speed.
The real question is: Do you want to drop this much cash for a Kia? I'd argue everything is here that makes it worthwhile, from the looks, to the performance to the options. It just comes down to brand image. Do you want to drive a Kia? What does that mean to you?
ROAD TEST EDITOR JONATHAN WONG: I know the price of this 2013 Kia Optima SXL is alarming at $35,275. That's a lot of coin for a car in this segment. Then there is the reputation that the Korean automaker is still carrying in a lot of consumers' eyes as a budget brand. Altering people's perceptions is going to take good product and a lot of time. With the Optima, the Rio, Sportage and Sorento, I would argue that the Kia does indeed have good product. Now they need to just wait and let the masses eventually learn about the drastically improved product.
Personally, I really like the Optima and have actually recommended it a few people over the past couple of years. As others have mentioned, it's a handsome looking midsize sedan. The lines are simple yet expressive enough for my tastes and the tiger grille up front still looks really good. However, I don't like the chrome wheels or the red-painted front brake calipers.
The interior is a far cry from the uninspired and cheap cabins of the past. The layout is intuitive with large buttons on the center stack, and the curvature of the dash gives it some personality. In some ways, the design reminds me of Saab, which may or may not be a good thing. Materials are very nice and soft-touch all over, including tricot fabric for the headliner.
We're familiar with the guts of this car since we had a long-term Hyundai Sonata 2.0T a couple of years back. It's potent with 274-hp and six-speed automatic cracks off shifts reasonably quick to make merging on the expressway or passing a snap.
The SX's stiffer suspension does come at the expense of how well it damps out bumps, but there is still some give tuned in. As Greg notes, the electric power steering is numb on center to tighten up well with more angle tuned in and possess decent weight, too. Corners can be taken with a decent amount of aggression with the Optima feeling well planted with not much body roll.
In my list of the most entertaining midsize sedans to drive on the market, the Optima is near the top behind the new Mazda 6, but ahead of the new Honda Accord, which many people often write off as a dull driving car when it's surprisingly nimble. If you want dull in this class, look no further than the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima.
If it's a beauty contest, the 6 and the Optima would again be the top two. Which one do I like better? I'm going to have to think about that one.
Getting back to this fully loaded $35,275 Optima SXL. Most driving off dealer lots I would guess aren't going to be optioned out like this. Kia says that there were customers who asked for a more premium model and they responded with this Limited package. There are a lot of options and the interior is flat out nice with the napa leather-trimmed seats and tasteful wood trim. But even with all that, the as-tested price still seems a little steep. Maybe like Raynal, I still need to adjust my attitude towards Kia some.
·Base Price: $27,575
·As-Tested Price: $35,275
·Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged I4; FWD, six-speed automatic
·Output: 274 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 269 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
·Curb Weight: 3,385 lb
·Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 22/34/26 mpg
·AW Observed Fuel Economy: 29.3 mpg
Options: SX limited package includes LED daytime running lights, 18-inch chrome wheels, red brake calipers, chrome accent lower door side sills, nappa leather seat and interior trim, black cloth headliner and pillar trim, electronic parking brake, unique interior accents, chrome accent rear spoiler, first aid kit ($3,350); SX premium touring package with panoramic sunroof, power folding outside mirrors, Infinity audio system, UVO powered by Microsoft, HD radio technology, rear camera display, power front passenger's seat, driver's seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated outboard rear seats, 18-inch luxury design alloy wheels ($2,950); EX/SX technology package includes navigation system with SIRIUS traffic (replaces UVO system and HD radio technology) ($1,400)