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Kia Optima, 2012: upscale look, good performance, tough competition

While gaining ground, Kia still lacks the appeal of more established brands. But cars such as the mid-size Kia Optima are throwing a big spotlight on it.

The Optima is a corporate cousin of the above-average Hyundai Sonata. This Kia looks much like a slick European four-door sports sedan, and its attractive, roomy interior doesn’t disappoint. However, a driver should keep in mind the car has a very low front end for superior aerodynamics and a racier appearance. 

The front-wheel-drive Optima comes in LX, EX, EX Hybrid and SX turbo trim levels. The regular LX and EX have a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower four-cylinder that provides decent performance.

The hot number is the 274-horsepower turbocharged 2-liter direct-injection SX, which I tested. It has a stout 269 pound-feet of torque in an rpm range used for daily driving. And there’s virtually no turbo lag for quick moves. No need for a V-6 here.

Kia Optima, 2012: upscale look, good performance, tough competition 1

The 206-horsepower EX gas/electric Hybrid delivers an estimated 35 in the city and 40 on highways, but isn’t as much fun as the other models—especially the SX turbo.

The SX turbo provides an estimated 34 miles per gallon on the  highway and 22 in the city, although I beat the official city number by a few miles per gallon. Figures for the regular LX and EX are 24 and 35.

List prices go from $19,500 for the LX to $26,500 for the EX Hybrid. My test SX also had a $26,500 base price, although its bottom-line price was $31,745.The final price included a $750 freight charge and options including two packages that cost $1,400 and $2,950.

The $2,950 package contained a panoramic sunroof, upscale audio system, rear camera display, power passenger’s seat and heated and cooled front seats, besides heated outboard rear seats.

All Optima models have a good deal of standard comfort, convenience and safety equipment.

The Optima looks very upscale. A few people said they thought my jet black test Optima with its chromed dual exhaust outlet tips was an Audi or BMW.

Most Optimas come with a smooth, responsive six-speed automatic transmission with an easily used manual-shift feature, but you can get the regular LX with a six-speed manual gearbox.

The two large front seats provide good side support for spirited driving, and the rear one is soft enough in the center to seat three occupants if you don’t lower the center armrest with twin cupholders.

However the backseat is low because of the rakish coupe-like styling, which makes rear doorways rather narrow. The styling also makes it impossible to see anything immediately behind the car out the back window, so drivers best use the outside rearview mirrors a lot—or get the rear camera display. The heated outside mirrors have turn-signal indicators and an optional power/folding feature—handy in crowded parking areas.

The nicely built Optima is rather large, like many mid-size sedans, and has a hefty feel. Its beltline (where the body meets the side windows) is high. A driver wishing to motor along with his elbow out the window thus will find his arm at an uncomfortably high angle.

The Optima SX turbo is easy to drive fast, although the quick electric power steering has an artificial feel. Handling is quite good, thanks partly to electronic stability control and traction control systems. It would be nice if all-wheel-drive was offered. The ride is supple. The brake pedal has a smooth linear action, and the anti-lock brakes stop the car quickly and surely.

Backlit gauges in the quiet, upscale cabin can be quickly read. They keyless pushbutton start is handy, and the steering wheel is loaded with controls for such things as the audio volume, cruise control and trip odometer settings. Climate controls are large. Audio system controls are smaller, but can be easily used. The front console has conveniently placed dual cupholders and a deep covered storage bin. All doors have cargo/bottle holder pockets. And the rear of the front seats have netting to hold items.

The large trunk has a fairly low, wide opening. Rear seatbacks flip forward to expand the cargo area, but they’re too thick to sit perfectly flat. And the pass-through opening between the trunk and backseat area is only moderately large.

The hood has an interior lining for quietness and raises on a single strut. Fluid filler areas can be easily reached, although they’re scattered throughout the engine compartment.

Expect to see more Optimas on the highways and byways. It’s sure to give increasingly popular Kia even more car shopper awareness.

Pros: Sleek. Roomy, Especially fast with turbo engine. Good handling. Supple ride.

Cons: Articial steering feel. Poor rear vision. Narrow rear-door opening.

Bottom Line: An above average, sporty family sedan.

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.

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