Review: 2011 Kia Optima EX; Korea’s Acura TL

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This test drive review of the 2011 Kia Optima is sponsored by Compare the Market; a website dedicated to helping you find the best insurance quotes appropriate to your needs for car, motorcycle, van, home and life insurance. They search all of the world’s largest insurance providers allowing you to compare the best prices for your wants and needs.

Remember in the late ’90s and early 2000s when the Acura TL was the lesser expensive sporty sedan to buy? Do you recall how, even for front-wheel drive, it was still rather well balanced? Not saying it isn’t still to this day. It is, and it’s only gotten better. But the problem is that it’s gotten expensive. And I don’t mean it’s gotten pricey in terms of it not being worth the $40,000+ price tag. I mean that it’s become a car that moved on up to the East Side with George and Weezie, and there wasn’t really anything to take its place. The TL tries to directly compete against German saloon cars that are good at what they do.

But now, though, there’s one car that can finally claim the title of the next Acura TL for the average buyer: The 2011 Kia Optima. The old Optima was, well, let’s not get into that. It’ll only taint the damn near perfection of this car. From some angles it appears to be a look-alike for a Jaguar XJ, and from other angles it has some Honda Accord features to it. Either way, it’s beautiful.

The as-tested price for the 2011 Kia Optima EX that I had was $27,440. Now right about now you’re thinking, “Almost $30-grand for a Kia sedan?! What are you crazy?” Why yes, yes I am. Let me just read you some of the rap sheet, Mr. ‘I’ll never move out of my Acura/Infiniti/Lexus realm of thinking.’

Let’s start with gas mileage: The 2011 Optima has a base 2.4-liter inline-4 with just 200 hp and 186 lb-ft of torque. And while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it helps make this car go just right, especially only weighing around 3,300-3,400 pounds, depending on your model and specs. But that’s also good enough for 24 mpg city and 35 on the highway with a manual transmission, or 34 on the highway with the autobox. I was getting around 38-40 mpg on cruise control set at 60 in a 55 mph zone. On the highway I was able to grab about 36-38 mpg at 70-75 mph.


Gas mileage isn’t even the great part of the Optima, just the good part. The kit you get for just over $27K is rather rather long. So hang on, let me take a deep breath first. You get, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, navigation, SiriusXm satellite radio, iPod adapter with auxiliary input jack, bluetooth, 6-speaker Infinity surround sound, heated mirrors, smart key with push button start (key stays in your pocket), 8 cup holders front and rear, 2 power outlets front, 6 standard airbags with full-side curtains and front seat side airbags, panoramic roof with power 100% UV blocking sunshade and sunroof, plenty of leg room for Lady Gaga and her entourage, as well as enough trunk space for her incubation egg.

Now that we’ve got that over and done with, what’s the 2011 Kia Optima like on the road… Well, it’s simple to explain: Damn near brilliant. The Kia Optima of old was just not worth much. Buying one used is a waste of time. In fact, the only thing the old Optima does is dilute the great image of this current model car. Amazingly, I was having lunch with my brother who buys nothing but Acura TLs, and he’s actually pondering trading in his TL for the Kia Optima, his words being, “How could I not love it? It has everything I want and more for less than my Acura.” You see, my brother is El Cheapo. While some wonder if certain persons were raised by wolves, I still contend that my brother was brought up by blue-haired Florida yentas. Ironically he loves the state of Florida, because he hates the cold. Global Warming is his best friend, and so, too, is the Kia Optima.

Driving the Kia Optima is pretty great, though. When you first get in it you’re greeted with a nice, new car smell, but upon touching the start/stop button, wonderfully, unannoying chimes bring the car to life. The gauge cluster lighting up a nice ‘Welcome’ sign. If you’ve left a door open or once you close it, you’ll notice a neat little feature on the gauges where it has a picture of your car and whatever door is open. Each time you open and close a door, it doesn’t just pop up and show a door is ajar. No, it actually has a little animation of any one of the doors opening and closing. It may seem dumb to you, but it’s the little things and the attention to detail that make the Optima a warm experience for people of all ages. The first day I got the car, I took my 78 year old grandfather out in it, letting him have a ride in the back seat; which he acknowledged as roomy and spacious like a 7-Series BMW. Now if you’re taller than 6-feet, you may have some issues with head room in any one of the seats, but since no one in my family is, we’ll move on.

My first time putting the Kia Optima EX in D didn’t make me think anything less than a 240+ horsepower 4-cylinder lay beneath the hood, that is, until I checked the specs of the car. It’s 2.4-liter 200 hp I4 with 186 lb-ft of torque was a shocker to me, especially since I had just spun the front wheels with traction control on and only applying a small amount of brake torque from a stop sign. So to say this car is peppy is an understatement. Brisk would be a better word. Getting all 3,300 lbs to move is rather simple. So while it seems to lack power on paper, it is filled with good verve in the gas pedal. Which shows that Kia really put some extra TLC into the way this engine, accelerator pedal and steering wheel go together. And speaking of wheels, the steering is nice and communicative. Not sports car-like, but the size and weight of the wheel is perfect for a car of this caliber. Sporty, but not overdoing it. The Infinity sound system in the Optima is by far the best I’ve heard in any car at this price range, and even up into the 30,000 dollar range, too. There’s no doubt that it could best the Bose system in Cadillac, or any other GM vehicle. The level of sound quality and control is very, very good. One thing I hated about Kia’s Sportage and Sorento that I’ve tested recently is that the stereo sound was awful when turning the dial higher. And I’m not talking concert levels, even at just medium volume they sound bad. The Kia Optima, though, is marvelous. Never once did I not feel encouraged to turn it up and feel the music.

The interior fit and finish is wonderful and very warm, especially at night. The Kia Optima is easily more enjoyable at night than any other time of day, simply for the interior lighting. It’s so refreshing and relaxing. It keeps you at ease without putting you to sleep. But if I may be allotted a complaint or two, I’d have to ask Kia to do something about the center stack situation. All of the buttons are great to touch and use, but the plastic that surrounds the HVAC area is very annoying to look at. With all of the nicely laid out and well put together materials in the car, that one giant area of flat black plastic is just unpleasant. And also, the passenger seat does not have any up or down control to it, which leaves some front passengers having to lean their seat back a bit more to not touch their heads on the ceiling. Other than that, everything else in the interior is just great. But the last complaint I have is that the c-pillar of the car is a little too big to see cars when turning your head to look past your blind spots. So I recommend that Kia add some smallish windows in the wide pillars. That would aid nicely without taking away from the style.

I mentioned earlier in this review that gas mileage was rather fantastic for the 2011 Kia Optima EX. Again, the 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway can easily be beaten, as I was doing, at one point, about 40.2 mpg with the cruise control set between 50-60 mph for the local roads and highways I was driving. The first time I filled the car up was after it had been brought to me and I made a trek down to the beach. Before filling it up I still had about 150 miles left to go after 390.8 miles, according to the trip computer. Once I filled up, it was showing 514 miles left until empty for the next time. I’d say that’s quite good for any car, but a family sedan with lots of space is great.

Now there’s no doubt that almost anyone could get in and enjoy the Kia Optima, even in EX trim with the 200 hp 4-cylinder. But if you’re looking for a car with a bit more spunk in the long skinny pedal on the right, then look no further than the EX or SX trims of the Optima with a 2-liter turbocharged and intercooled inline-4 making 274 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. You can also option it with paddle shifters, which takes away the heated steering wheel, but leaves the rest of the options alone. The price of the turbo models? Still under 30-grand. In fact, it was such a good deal, my grandfather went out and bought one… More on that another day. Oh, and my brother has decided that he’s buying one, too.

So what’s not to love about the 2011 Kia Optima? Nothing, really. It’s turned my Acura TL-loving brother into a soon to be Kia Optima owner and lover, as well as took my grandfather from his Lincoln Town Cars, Ford Taurses, GMC Sierra Denali, Ford F-150, etc. and has turned him into a newly loving Kia Optima SX turbo owner. Where’s my paycheck, Kia? I’m about to sell a whole lot more of these puppies. Funny, I think I’ve sold more Kias since I started writing about them then when I was actually selling them for a living.

At the end of the day, is the new for 2011 Kia Optima going to steal buyers away from Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz? No, not quite. Not yet, at least. But it will make the people going to buy an Acura at $30,000+, or the Hyundai Sonata within the $20-35,000 price areas think twice. But the most likely hurt is the pile-driver it may put on the Honda Accord. The Honda Accord is, and should be, the direct competition to this car. I have no doubts that the Kia Optima will only move up the ladder from there to become the best that Asia has to offer for less than $30,000 worth of elegant sportiness.

[Photos by Josh Lewis and Corey Privette]