The Kia Optima SX: The Twenty-Something’s Ideal Sports Sedan

The new, third generation Kia Optima.

I really thought I had my mind made up. In fact, I wrote an entire article about the Scion FR-S and how it would be my next car. Taking into consideration what the Scion FR-S IS and ISN’T, however, presented me with some things to think about, and what kind of compromises I was willing to make. The Kia Optima had been in my mind for quite some time, along with a few other contenders. I just hadn’t give them all as much of a look as I had the FR-S.

While it would have been a great car, the Midwest experiences ALL four seasons, each and every year — therefore, rear-wheel drive would not have been ideal. Additionally, even though 90% of my driving never involves more than two people in the car at a time, I know I’d regret the inability to do a four person road trip — comfortably mind you — and carry all their luggage too. That, along with several other FR-S updates and changes on the way — a new stereo system, a convertible to tempt me, a force-inducted engine — I decided to look elsewhere.

For myself, and I think most other young males, there are several criteria we all look for in a car. Efficiency, good looks, and enough on-demand power to offer an exciting driving experience. And for each one of us, those all three come in varying order of importance.

I featured the Scion FR-S because I felt that, when you take all things into consideration, it’s the best compromise for a sports car for the young male looking for a fun, well-balanced, practical touring coupe. I still feel that way about it, too. If I had a second car, that’s probably what it would be.

The car I have now also falls into that category of the perfect automotive compromise for the young male looking for something über-realistic. It’s the ideal car for someone who has need for a more practical, business / family / friends oriented car, yet still expects efficiency and a fun driving experience. The new car in question is a 2012 Kia Optima SX. In many ways it’s not what the FR-S was, and in many ways it’s much more than it was. Let’s take a look at it in this short review.

A Short History of the Kia Optima

If you judged the car based on its past mistakes, I’m certain you, much as I, would be having nothing to do with it. Kia made their launch in the United States in 1994, when they introduced the Kia Sephia to four Portland-area dealers for a slim $8,495. While initially outselling the Mazda Protege and Dodge Neon in eight cities, their success would not continue to be quite so thrilling.

Top: First Generation Optima (2000-2005)
Bottom: Second Generation Optima (2005-2010)

The Optima was introduced in 2000 as a rebadged version of the Hyundai Sonata with not a whole lot of visual differences between them. While we’re on that whole visual thing, I might mention that, had they incorporated any minor visual differences between them, that it wouldn’t have really mattered because it was one tremendously unattractive car. Not ugly in any way, but nothing that would turn heads. Some minor revisions were made, and the car was redesigned into its second-generation form in 2005, a slightly more attractive but still incredibly “safe” face.

But something happened, something radical. Kia is a member (or should I say “was”) of the mainstream auto manufacturers of the world, who have routinely had in-house designers / design teams who do all of their work. These designers are the behind the scenes people and never really get the light of day, not in the way that Gorden Wagener (current Mercedes-Benz), Chris Bangle (formerly BMW), or Ian Callum (Aston Martin and now Jaguar) do. But Kia decided to be a little different and shake things up a bit, by hiring Peter Schreyer, former designer for Audi since the 1980′s.

All Because of Peter Schreyer

It’s an extremely impressive car, one you might not think to be all that remarkable at first. Many have called it the “Korean Audi”, so to speak, because of its design roots in the mind of Peter Schreyer, head designer of Audi. You can really see it, especially when you look at the Audi A5 Coupe, and the Q5 Sport Utility. Obviously, he had to go to certain lengths to keep it from looking near identical to it, but it is extremely close — as you can see below.

Top: Audi A5 Coupe, Center: Kia Optima Sedan, Bottom: Audi Q5 Sports Utility

Additionally, it’s received the “Korean Audi” moniker not just because of its exterior design, but also the impressively high build quality and the assortment of interior appointments. I’m continuing to read more and more appraisals of Kia’s new work, especially the new 2014 Cadenza, and they curiously enough even out-do their sister cars from Hyundai; the Kia’s are beginning to compete somewhat side-by-side with many Lexus models, minus their ugly new grilles.

Previous to the unveiling of this car, the Kia brand had become a generally reliable, yet very lackluster brand in the mind of most Americans. They produced cars that got you from Point A to Point B in an efficient manner, and were lauded for the industry leading warranty (10 year, 100,000 mile powertrain). Schreyer indicated in a 2007 interview  that he felt Kia had a “neutral image” prior to his arrival.

In the past, the Kia cars were very neutral. When you saw one on the road, you didn’t really know if it was Korean or Japanese…I think it’s very important that you are able to recognise a Kia at first sight.

Kia really shook the family sedan market up in 2011 when they introduced the third generation Optima. I remember glancing at the car when it first came out, and I was in awe at the design. I wondered for a while what the joke might be. “Is it a fluke, a limited run concept, or just pure dumb luck that Kia finally has a great looking car?”

The design of the sedan goes so far above and beyond the previous design, as well as so many of the competition from Toyota, Honda, Ford and others that I have a hard time considering it to still be a member of that “snooze-mobile” family sedan segment. As far as the trim levels go, the Optima is offered in a base level LX trim, which, for what it is, is very nice. Upgrading to the EX brings it on and somewhat above par with the Camry, Accord, Fusion et al, because there are a lot of features included in what I call the “mid-level model” that the others just aren’t up on. The SX trim is the one that really shines, though, and pushes this car out of the full-size family sedan market into the sport sedan segment. It’s not just the trim level that does that though, it’s what you find under the hood, and what makes the Kia Optima SX my favorite full-size sport sedan.

Setting 3382lbs Into Motion

Let’s start with the power plant. The car comes either with the 2.4L 200 hp, 186 lbs-ft torque Theta II GDI engine in the LX and EX trim, or with the 2.0L turbocharged 274 hp, 269 lbs-ft torque (from 1,750rpm, mind you!) Theta II TGDI engine in the SX trim. While the 2.4L engine is perfectly adequate for everyday driving, the 2.0L turbo 4-cylinder outshines it (understandably so) and prompts me to recommend anyone considering this car to opt for a previous-year SX with a few miles on it instead of a new current-year LX / EX.

The practical nuts and bolts explanation for all of that is this… if you go out looking for a new car, pay attention to the torque the engine produces, not the horsepower. That is, unless you’re racing. Because, in general terms, the horsepower an engine produces relates to how fast it can go, period. The torque relates to how quickly / effortlessly the engine can get the car going, from a standstill. In normal everyday driving, torque is what matters the most. A nice torque-y engine makes me happy, because the car never seems like it’s being stressed or overworked; it has plenty of force to get going from a standstill.

theta ii tgdi engine kia optima sx

Theta II TGDI 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, producing 274hp and 269lbs-ft of torque.

The nice thing about the 2.0L turbocharged engine, or any turbocharged engine for that matter is that the turbocharger ensures the maximum amount of torque is present from a very low RPM. The minute you step on the gas, the car starts delivering a huge thrust of power — in the case of the Optima, it’s available at 1,750rpm, just a couple hundred RPM above the 850rpm-or-so idle. A non-turbocharged engine (like in the V6 Camry / Accord) will produce a comparable amount of torque, but it’s coming from a larger engine that has to rev higher to reach it.

The transmission, also, contributes to the smooth silky ride, with almost imperceptible shifts, especially the higher you keep the RPMs. There is no jerk evident between shifts, with very minimal lag, which I feel is quite a feat for it not being a dual-clutch transmission like so many upper level cars are becoming these days. On the SX trim level, the transmission is a 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters on the steering wheel as well as the ability to use the leather boot shift lever to shift up and down. The fit and finish on the controls for the car are impressive, and much more than what you’d be set to expect in many of the other mainstream brands. This is a car where the interior is just as impressive as the powertrain and the exterior.

An Interior Fit to Impress

Audi got it… I mean, Kia got it right with the new Optima on the inside. Mr. Schreyer’s influences are very evident on the interior, as the cockpit is very driver-focused and oriented toward that side. For the purpose of the review I’m going to touch on the SX trim and what it offers inside. Since its introduction, Kia has tweaked the interior a little bit each year. For the 2012 year as in mine, it comes with a supple black leather interior with sport-inspired nylon fabric accents on the seats. The dash is trimmed in stitched leather, which is a nice added touch that I didn’t really expect to see in this level of car.

kia optima sx interior leather panorama sunroof

The extremely spacious and open interior of the Optima, with the full panorama sunroof, providing light to front and back passengers.

In the SX trim, in addition to navigation, bluetooth phone connection (with bluetooth music streaming), Kia also included a panoramic moonroof (front AND back) as well as heated and cooled front seats, AND heated back seats. I can’t tell you how many expensive luxury cars I’ve come across that don’t have this on their base model, let alone some of the option packages. These features, along with so many other little niceties that have been included have really set this car and several of Kia’s other new cars far apart from the mainstream pack.

Having Some Fun with Personalization

The Kia Optima SX is without a doubt the absolute best sports sedan for the twenty / thirty something male, because it’s the perfect car to start out with, possessing a list of features we thought we’d only be able to afford by the time we’re 40 or 50. Additionally the car is the perfect platform for customization.

Let’s be honest, it’s something we love doing, having things uniquely set up our way. One of my favorite things about foreign cars from Japan / Korea is the veritable goldmine of aftermarket add-ons and modifications available to the end user. They’re things that while, not entirely necessary, can add immensely to the pride you have for the car, and the uniqueness of your individual automobile. They’re things that also assist even further in bringing the car up to the same prestige and convenience level of cars twice or three times the price. For example, the side mirrors have a button on the SX’s driver-side window panel that when pressed causes them to fold up, presumably for tight spaces.

On many luxury cars, these mirrors automatically fold up when you lock the car to prevent them from getting knocked. On this Kia, you can get a small plug-and-play module that goes inside the door, senses when the doors are locked from the keyless fob, and folds the mirrors in — for about $50. Additionally, you can get a similar module for about the same price that allows you to open and close the panoramic sunroof with two or three clicks of the lock / unlock buttons on your factory key fob. For some of you out there, none of that matters — for a DIY handyman like myself, it’s an awesome opportunity to take an impressive car and make it even better.

Wrapping It Up

All in all, Kia is really getting their act together, and it’s kinda scary just how quickly it’s happening, especially if you’re one of the other mainstream competition. See, the thing is, Honda has nice interiors and great ride quality, but they only JUST introduced direct injection engines, and they are still using big V6′s instead of the much more fun to throw around turbo I4′s. Toyota almost can’t even compete because their styling and appointments have taken a backseat to, well… I’m not sure what stellar point their cars sell on anymore. Hyundai is doing a nice job with the Sonata, however the interior appointments are quite as modern luxe as Kia, and their styling is more suited toward an older generation. Ford is doing some nice things with the new Fusion, like the very fierce front end, however things like a panorama sunroof, heated and cooled seats, push button start, navigation and other things are going to cost you a fortune if they even offer them.

The Kia Optima represents a well-rounded, well-appointed, reliable, attractive, invigorating sports sedan with the power, space, and amenities to serve the young professional very well. If you only have one car, this is the one I’m recommending. You can also feel good about buying it, because it was built entirely in America. The engine and the transmission were both built here, as well as the car itself — 59% of the parts came from Korea, with the other 41% coming from the USA / Canada. For a foreign car brand, that’s an extremely impressive attribute to note, especially considering makes like Lincoln and Dodge (both American brands) are assembling cars and trucks in Mexico!

Yep, that’s right. It’s a Kia.

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  • Nahiyan Khan

    I am in a similar situation as you. Young male, wanting a new sporty car. Thought about the FR-S/BRZ a lot but it wasn’t working out. I’m in the midwest as well. Now I am heavily considering the KIA Optima.

    I enjoyed reading your post! Definitely helpful.

    • http://www.thedowntowndweller.com/ Alexander Hendrickson

      I have no buyer’s remorse, luckily. While the FR-S/BRZ are both nice cars, the bang for the buck on a new one of those versus that of a year-or-two-old Optima SX does not even compare. The great looks, the power, and all the features inside it more than make up for the subtle loss in driving dynamics.

      I recently took mine out on a vacation through the Ozarks in Missouri, and a certain section of US-160 has some very sharp, hilly, but excellent driving, and the car stayed firmly planted on the road around all the curves.

      Thanks for reading! Be sure to share it with your friends on your social media outlets!

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