Test Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX videos car test drives reviews kia
2011 Kia Optima SX. Click image to enlarge
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Review and photos by Chris Chase

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2011 Kia Optima

Magentis was a really awful name for an ‘okay’ family car. Kia Canada replaced both in 2011, adopting the Optima badge that has been used in the U.S. for years, and sticking it on a brand-new design that makes it very easy to forget the bland Magentis ever existed.

The 2011 Optima is an improvement across the board, but nowhere is it more obvious than in the top-trim SX model. This car takes the EX Luxury + Navigation model and adds unique bumpers and grille, paddle shifters for the six-speed automatic transmission, sport suspension, sport seats and a rear spoiler. Which is all fine and well, but the real point of the SX model is the engine, a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder that makes 274 horsepower and 269 lb.-ft. of torque.

Test Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX videos car test drives reviews kia
Test Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX videos car test drives reviews kia
2011 Kia Optima SX. Click image to enlarge

Given the close mechanical relationship that exists between the Optima and the Hyundai Sonata, it’s not surprising that this is the same turbo motor that powers the Sonata 2.0T. It’s a terrific motor – smooth, strong and, when you’re not driving with your right foot nailed to the floor (more on that later), efficient.

This version of the Optima is the best example of the divergent marketing philosophies of corporate cousins Hyundai and Kia, with the latter claiming to aim for the sportier end of the market segments that both brands compete in.

When many automakers put the words ‘sport’ and ‘suspension’ next to each other, I wince, particularly when the car in question is a family sedan with sporting pretences. I’m picky about the way a car rides, and I find that most sport suspensions simply sub stiffer springs. It’s an approach that makes a car feel cheap, and makes the company selling it look cheap for not wanting to do a proper suspension upgrade.

It’s emblematic, then, of Kia’s quest for legitimacy that the Optima SX doesn’t take the easy route to a sporty chassis. Yes, the springs are stiffer than in lesser Optima models, but the dampers (often mistakenly referred to as shock absorbers) are tuned to match, and the sway bars, tasked with limiting body lean in turns, feel stronger. The ride is firm, but never punishing, and handling is well-balanced up to about eight-tenths of the car’s abilities, after which point tires begin to wail and understeer becomes apparent. The result is a car that can almost legitimately call itself a sport sedan – or, more appropriately, a proper sporty family sedan – at least when judged by its suspension alone.

Test Drive: 2011 Kia Optima SX videos car test drives reviews kia
2011 Kia Optima SX. Click image to enlarge

The Optima SX’s sport sedan aspirations are let down by its steering and brakes. The steering wheel is numb and tells the driver little about what’s happening under the front wheels. It’s not all bad: the electric power assist provides the right amount of help at the right time. The wheel spins easily in parking lots, but gets satisfyingly heavy at highway speeds. There’s not much to say about the brakes except that while they haul the car down from speed effectively, the spongy pedal doesn’t encourage hard running.

Engine noise is next-to-nil, which could be seen as a negative to an enthusiast. The engine is no sing-song six-cylinder, but it’s not unpleasant to listen to. It’s just that you have to flog the car in order to hear much of anything from under the hood. There’s more road noise in this car than in the EX Luxury model I tested earlier in the year; blame the SX’s bigger tires – 225/45R18s, up from 215/55R17 – for that. The suspension does a good job of keeping those big wheels and tires in touch with the road, even over rough surfaces, and keeps wheel impact noises to a reasonable level; a BMW with the M Sport package is noisier over potholed, pockmarked pavement.