GDI engine gives driving enthusiasts reason to smile

2012, Kia, Optima

The Kia Optima has gone sexy. What began twelve years ago as a mid-packer its segment has moved up front. With Blake Griffin doing slam dunks over the hood and Vince Neil singing the car’s praises, the Optima’s future looks very bright indeed.

The sexiest model in the current Optima stable is undoubtedly the SX, powered by a direct injection, turbocharged two-liter engine rated at 274 horsepower. The model, priced from $26,500, comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch alloy wheels, and high-intensity discharge headlamps.

The test car has two option packages: a technology package which adds navigation with Sirius traffic updates ($1400), and a premium package which includes a panoramic sunroof, upgraded Infinity audio system, HD radio, rearview camera, driver’s seat memory, heated and cooled front seats and heated outboard rear seats ($2950). A cargo mat and net add $95 and $50 respectively. A $750 destination charge brings the price as tested to $31,745.

Turbocharged engine boosts power and fuel economy

I’m glad that Americans have finally warmed up to the idea of turbochargers. Yes, older models had problems with oil coking and turbo lag, but the new generation delivers engine power with no sacrifice in gas mileage.

The turbocharger in the Kia 2.0-liter GDI engine boosts low end torque. The exhaust-driven blower also minimizes power loss at altitude. EPA estimated fuel economy is 34 miles-per-gallon on the highway and 24 around town.

Gasoline direct injection delivers fuel directly into the engine cylinders, as opposed to passing through the valves. It enhances throttle response and reduces the amount of unburned fuel in the exhaust.

Eighteen-inch rims are the largest wheels available on any Optima model. They give the sport sedan an ample footprint at speed. Stabilizer bars on both axles keep the chassis flat in the corners. Large vented disc brakes in front and solid discs in the back provide plenty of stopping power.

Test drive in Phoenix

This week’s test drive was my second experience in the Optima SX. I had originally driven the car through the Malibu canyons on a media program late in 2010.

I put about 150 miles on the test car, including a couple of trips up the 101 freeway which goes through the east valley, surface streets in Scottsdale and Tempe, and an 85 mile loop through the foothills of the Superstition Mountains.

I kept the transmission in fully-automatic mode driving around town, and switched over to the formula-style shift paddles on the two-lane rural road.

As with other Optima models I’ve reviewed on this web site, the SX looks and performs like a much more expensive car than it actually is. Designers in Kia’s Irvine, California studio spiced up the sedan’s profile with the alloy wheels which almost look like custom rims, and a sharply-raked aero roof. Headlamps and tail lamps wrap around the sedan’s corners.

Unique front and rear bumpers and side sills distinguish the SX from other Optima models. A wide track and low center of gravity improve handling at speed.

Its good fuel economy and quiet interior make the Optima a good choice for commuters. UVO, an infotainment system developed in conjunction with Microsoft, is standard on 2012 models. A 35.8-foot turning circle makes it easy to perform the occasional U-turn, or wedge into tight parking spots on the street.

The four-wheel independent suspension system consists of MacPherson struts up front and multi-links in the rear. Under normal driving conditions, it offers up a reasonably compliant ride. The eighteen-inch wheels and low profile tires make the ride a little stiffer and enhance performance at speed.

The transmission does a good job of responding to the driver’s style, even in the fully-automatic mode. While it will tend to shift early if throttle inputs are light, a wide-open throttle pushes the needle close to engine redline. Drivers should have no problems accelerating off the line, or in the 20-to-50 mile-per-hour range used for merging onto the highway.

Visibility around the perimeter is good. I found it easy to monitor traffic in the adjacent lanes. A rearview camera, which comes with the premium option, makes it easier to see obstacles behind the car, and cross-traffic when backing out of vertical parking slots.

Using the steering-wheel mounted shift paddles brings out the Optima SX’s true character. By holding onto the gears longer, the driver can keep the engine in its sweet spot, for even better throttle response. I was able to power through decreasing radius turns on a rural road east of town, with no tendency to understeer.

Braking performance is firm and linear.

Sporty interior

Unique upholstery and carbon fiber trim distinguish the Optima SX interior from other models. Designers emphasized the car’s sporty character by tilting the center stack slightly towards the driver.

The steering wheel includes redundant Bluetooth, audio and cruise control functions to minimize driver distraction. The paddle shifters are easier to use than gear select systems which rely exclusively on the shift lever.

There are an abundance of storage areas around both rows of passengers including map pockets, cup and bottle holders. Twelve-volt power points recharge portable electronic devices while a standard USB port serves as an iPod interface.

There is enough legroom in all of the second-row seating positions. However the middle passenger has very little headroom. The seat is slightly higher than the two outboard ones. When I tried it out, my head was close to touching the overhead reading lamps.

Standard dual-zone climate controls keep both front passengers comfortable, while rear air vents prevent the back of the cabin from becoming stuffy. The optional dual-pane panoramic sunroof brings an abundance of light inside the cabin.

The trunk is spacious enough to hold a weekend’s worth of luggage and the weekly groceries. Second-row seats fold flat to extend the cargo floor for loading in skis, snowboards and other long items. While it might be possible to fit a bicycle inside the trunk with the seats folded flat, Kia’s Sportage and Sorento crossover vehicles would be better choices for cyclists.

Standard safety

The Kia Optima SX comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, active front headrests, tire pressure monitoring, hill start assist, antilock brakes, traction and stability control.

Kia’s 10 year/100,000 mile factory warranty includes five years of roadside assistance. Kia builds the Optima sedan at its West Point, Georgia assembly plant.

Like: A beautifully-styled sedan with excellent performance, and an unusually high level of standard comfort and convenience features.

Dislikes: None

Quick facts:

Make: Kia Model: Optima SX sedan Year: 2012 Base price: $26,500 As tested: $31,745 Horsepower: 274 Hp @ 6000 rpm Torque: 269 lbs.-ft. @ 4500 rpm Zero-to-sixty: 6.5 seconds Antilock brakes: Standard Side curtain airbags: Standard First aid kit: N/A Bicycle friendly: No Towing: No Off-road: No Fuel economy: 22/34 mpg city/highway

By Nina Russin

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Images of the 2012, Kia Optima

2012 Kia Optima
2012 Kia Optima
Sporty Interior
Sporty Interior
2012 Kia Optima GDI
2012 Kia Optima GDI
2012 Kia Optima Front Left Quarter
2012 Kia Optima Front Left Quarter