COAL: 2011 Kia Optima EX-T – Branching Out

2011 Kia Optima EXT Rear

The Mazda6 that we acquired in late 2008 represented a bit of a departure for us, since it was not a Toyota and was a bit more interesting than the somewhat bland sedans we’d been purchasing. When the Mazda’s time with us was up, our choice of a replacement followed that line of thinking. It also represented a more significant departure away from the comfortable confines of the Toyota dealership.

We certainly liked the Mazda and ran it all the way to the end of its lease, but by 2011 the Mazda6 was still the same body style and had not changed significantly from our current car in anything other than price. We then decided to look at other options for replacing the Mazda and considered several sedans. The first was the Acura TSX, with which I already had a bit of experience. I had assisted my mother in deciding on the TSX in 2009 to replace her 2006 TL and had spent some time driving it. As a fancier European Accord (basically), the TSX was enjoyable to drive and reasonably well-appointed, but was fairly expensive (over $30k as I recall) and required a pricey option package for features like navigation. The wagon version that has been reviewed here on CC was very tempting (if only they had it in brown…)

The other car that caught our eye was the new Kia Optima. Previous generations of the Optima were not particularly compelling: they were nice enough but in appearance were even more bland and unexciting than a Camry (for the most part – the quad headlight E-Class Mercedes knockoffs from around 2005 certainly weren’t bland, but were – well, interesting, I guess). The new 2011 model was a different story, however. Styled by Peter Schreyer, arriving at Kia from the Volkswagen Group (and still well-known for his styling contributions to the Audi TT), the 2011 Optima was a much more interesting and coherent design. It was recognizable and different (to my eyes) and the prices were reasonable for the content and features provided. At this point, Kia was working to overcome its less-than-stellar reliability record with improved build quality and very long warranties (a 5-year 60,000 mile overall warranty and a 10-year 100,000 mile powertrain warranty). I felt like this car was worth at least a look.

Alternate rear view of 2011 Kia Optima

We visited the local Kia dealership and drove two of the Optima offerings: the “sporty” SX with a 274-hp direct-injection 2 liter turbo engine, and a “luxury” EX with the standard 2.4 liter naturally-aspirated engine with a mere 200 hp (recalling a time in the late ‘80s when a Mustang GT required 5 liters of V8 to get 200 hp, albeit with more torque, and the contemporary Corvette made roughly 245 hp). Both engines drove the front wheels through 6-speed automatics, and both were more than capable of moving this 3200 pound sedan around. As we were leaving we were exploring the inventory on the lot and came across an interesting version, the EX with the 274 hp turbo engine. We didn’t drive that one, but ultimately decided that this one was the car to buy as it was very well equipped with navigation and a host of other features and was less expensive than the top-line SX.

Because Kia was offering some extremely favorable financing options we decided to buy this car rather than lease it. Negotiations went well and off we went in the EX turbo. (I have heard of other Kia buyers who have had quite negative experiences with their dealerships but our local dealer was fine – no worse than any other car buying experience we have had.)

2011 Kia Optima EX front view

The EX-T we purchased came with several option packages that added quite a few features, some of which I’d not had in any car previously (even expensive Lexus vehicles). There were the usual features like automatic climate control, two-setting memory seats, navigation system (with a very clear and attractive map layout, I thought), pushbutton start and proximity key entry, high-end Infinity stereo with iPod connectivity, and Bluetooth phone connectivity. Other features were a bit more unique: the EX-T had heated front seats like other cars I’d had, but also had heated rear seats and a heated steering wheel. The heated wheel was something that I initially thought was a goofy gimmick but I was convinced on the first cold day when I drove the car home from work and didn’t freeze my fingers on the wheel. Another feature was a panoramic sunroof. The entire roof was glass with a set of sunshades that telescoped from a cross-car support beam in the middle of the roof, and the front half opened as a sunroof. This feature made the interior of the car very airy and seem larger than it was. In the “titanium” color the tinted glass roof panels stood out as the entire roof was essentially black from the outside – it probably would have looked a bit better in a darker color.

Dash of 2011 Kia Optima for driver

The 274-hp turbo engine was, to me, the real star of this car’s equipment. This was enough power to light the front tires fairly easily, but I didn’t have much trouble with torque steer. If you kept your foot out of the turbo the fuel economy was very good, too (around 34 on the highway). The engine was responsive and the 6-speed automatic was pretty good at choosing the right gear. Because we’d chosen the EX and not the SX, the handling was acceptable and safe but not exactly razor sharp.

Annoyances? There were a couple, to be sure. The iPod connectivity wouldn’t fully work with the in-dash entertainment unit unless you bought a special connector cord from Kia (at the bargain price of $35, as I recall). The entertainment system did lock up my iPod on several occasions to the point where I had to perform a hard reset on the device. The interior was very nicely styled overall and represented a quantum leap over previous Kias I had experienced, but there were still some hard plastics in several spots (some with visible, although faint, mold lines) and the leather seats weren’t exactly posh. My wife found the gearshift knob shape to be a bit odd – we realized it looked very much like a stress doll whose eyes and nose popped out when you squeezed his body (some readers will know exactly what I’m talking about – on Amazon he’s called Panic Pete, I think). This was an early direct-injection gasoline engine, so it was quite noisy when it was cold, but that went away as the engine warmed up. Overall the styling was very good, and I liked the way the windshield header echoed the shape of the grill with a dip in the middle (not quite a Darrin dip, but close), but I could have done without the fake fender vents.

2011 Kia Optima dash

So, overall we liked this car quite a bit – styling was very attractive and didn’t look like other cars on the road, the engine was among the most powerful I’d ever owned, and the car was reliable and well-backed by the manufacturer (we didn’t have any visits to the dealer other than for regular maintenance). But I only kept it for a year or so, more because (as you would expect from me) I found another car I really wanted, and it was easy for me to sell this one on. More on that replacement in the coming weeks.