2011 KIA Optima SX Turbo Test Drive

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A few days ago I was given the opportunity to review a 2011 KIA Optima SX Turbo. This is undoubtedly the biggest and most expensive “gadget” that I’ve ever been offered to review and you all know that I didn’t even have to think about it for more than a second before agreeing to a 7 day test drive period. I’ve been having a blast driving this car around for past week and will be sorry to see it go.

Note: Click the images in this review to see a larger view.

Before I get started, I have to tell you that this won’t be a typical car review.  If you’re expecting a highly detailed article about engine performance, gas mileage specs, etc, you won’t get it here. I’m going to approach this review from more of a styling and overall driving experience angle.

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The 2011 KIA Optima is a winner of the Best Red Dot Design Award. The only other vehicle to receive this award in 2011 was the new BMW 5-Series. The Red Dot is an international competition that has been recognizing innovative styling and inspiring design since 1955. More than four thousand products entered the competition in 2011. Among the other winners are Apple’s 13” MacBook Air and HTC’s EVO mobile phone.

I can understand how it won because it’s a nice looking car. I’ll admit that the KIA Optima hasn’t been on my radar though. I never really knew that KIA offered a luxury mid-sized sedan. It’s interesting to note that my family owns 2 KIAs. My partner has a 2007 KIA Sorento that she really likes and my Dad just bought a brand new 2012 KIA Sorento that just happens to be the same color as this KIA Optima that I’m writing about – Snow Pearl White. I’d never considered buying a White car in the past. I always thought White was a really boring choice of car color. I have to say though that the White used on the Optima is really nice. It has sparkles in the paint like an opal, so it shimmers in the light.

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This isn’t your grandma’s 4-door sedan. The Optima has a very sporty design and the 6-speed Turbo Sportmatic transmission had me totally forgetting about my Zoom Zoom 2006  Mazda 3.

This car offered a lot of firsts for me…

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When they drove it down from Chicago last week and dropped it off to me at my workplace, I was excited to see the key fob. Or I guess I should say keyless electronic fob that allows you to open doors and the trunk without a key. My Mazda has a key fob that will do this too, but I still have to use a key to start the car. Not with this Optima, no key is needed…

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Opening the door reveals a roomy interior with leather bucket seats in the front. The driver’s seat can be adjusted electronically and then the settings can be saved in case you have 2 drivers. Just get in the car press the button for setting 1 or 2 to reconfig the driver’s seat to your personal preference, and just like Goldilocks, it will feel just right.

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There’s also a large leather bench in the back.

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The front seats can be individually heated or cooled depending on the temperature needs of your tush.

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The gas and hood latch buttons are located in the driver’s door along with the normal set of window, lock and mirror adjustment switches.

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Being the geek that I am,  the things that make me like the KIA Optima most are all the electronics and connectivity features that are built into this car.

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There’s an iPod, iPhone cable that charges and routes the audio of your iPhone through the KIA’s speakers.

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It also has Bluetooth so that you can make and answer calls by using the car’s LCD touch screen.

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In addition to regular AM/FM radio, Sirius satellite radio is also built into the car and a GPS.

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Another first for me is the back up camera that automatically displays on the LCD when you shift into reverse. It shows zones to help you determine how close objects are to the back of your car.

Other cool features are the rear view mirror with an LCD compass display in the upper corner and built in garage door opener buttons that will learn the codes from your existing opener.

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All the bells and whistles won’t mean much if the driving experience is bad. I’m happy to say that driving the KIA Optima was very enjoyable. This car has a lot of spunk for a 4 door sedan. You’ll notice the – and + paddles on the steering wheel. They let you shift up and down through gears like you might on a manual transmission. My Mazda has a similar feature on the automatic stick shift.

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Driving felt smooth and effortless in this car. It’s definitely a car that I could get in trouble with. The ride is so smooth that you don’t realize you’re driving 80 mph in a 65 mph zone till you look down at your gauges and suddenly notice.

I can’t really comment on gas mileage as I didn’t have the opportunity to drive it long enough to keep track. I’d be happy to test one for an extended period of time if the folks that let me borrow this car would like 😉

I like everything about the car – looks, feel, features, etc. It was hard to find any faults in it, but I do have one small thing that I can’t even call a complaint… It’s that the leather seats feel a little too firm to my buns. Maybe that’s how all leather bucket seats feel though… I guess I’m just too used to the cloth seats in my Mazda.

Other than the seat issue, I’ll be very sorry to see this car go back to the dealer. When I switched cars tonight to put my Mazda back in the garage in anticipation for driving it to work tomorrow, it felt really klunky compared to the KIA. The doors didn’t feel as nice to shut, the stick shift didn’t feel as smooth to move, etc. Sniff… Oh KIA Optima, I hardly knew ye…


Product Information

Price:Depends on options. $30,840.00 as reviewed.
  • Nav, Sirius Radio, Back up camera, Bluetooth features
  • Smooth snappy ride
  • Sporty style
  • Leather seats felt a little hard to me

28 thoughts on “2011 KIA Optima SX Turbo Test Drive”

  1. Gadgeteer Comment Policy - Please read before commenting
  2. Great review! I thought I needed a sportier car with more gadget features so bought a BMW. But it sounds like the KIA has just as many for probably a lot less money. And I don’t have a rear camera 🙁

  3. Hyundai (and Kia–different badge of same company) have made huge strides in quality over the last decade. I believe they’ve replaced every model in their lineup over the last two-three years. Kia is styled and tuned a bit more on the hipper and edgier side, compared to Hyundai . Kia Optima’s sibling is the Hyundai Sonata.

    1000Acres: check these two out:
    Hyundai Genesis sports sedan/coupe
    Hyundai Equus luxury sedan

  4. I just bought a 2012 Optima SX a few weeks ago. The 2012 has all new front seats that are much more comfortable than the 2011s.

  5. I like your review: I don’t care much about all the specs (horsepower, torque, …) but the overall experience. I do care about the gas mileage, however. This car could be one of the most expensive “accessories” for my iPhone 🙂

    1. @Hai Vu I would have liked to have had the opportunity to drive the Optima longer to get a feel for the gas mileage. I know that when they dropped it off to me last Tuesday, they had filled up the tank. I put around 225 miles on the car while I had it and the tank was down to half full according to the gauge when they picked it up yesterday. Half of those miles were interstate driving and the rest was half highway, half city. That really doesn’t tell you anything though…

    1. @Aki Habara I wasn’t paid to write about this car. I was just allowed to test drive it for 7 days and write my experiences good or bad. That’s what we do here on The Gadgeteer, we receive products and write about our experiences. When we do paid articles, it’s disclosed.

  6. Excellent review Julie! While I do tend to look at my car purchases for things like gas mileage, overall responsiveness etc. I am not by any means a “car guy” who wants to know the numbers on torque & the exact measurements on the wheel base blah blah blah.

    I’m much more interested in things now like how my devices will integrate with the car’s systems from the manufacturer without adding 3rd party stereos or setups. For example, I’m in an ’05 Acura TL that has no way to pull audio from an iPod or iPhone or anything really. I did the FM Transmitter and the Tape deck to audio adapter but it was always a pain to have to hook up & manage. (Yes, it shipped with a tape deck! In 2005 no less.)

    And while it was nice when it was new to have the big screen & GPS Nav, it’s not so nice that 3-4 years later I would have had to shell out $200+ for a new DVD to update the maps. Now my phone does a much better job than the in-car GPS ever could and I can choose the type of nav I want form several versions.

    While it’s nice not to have a monthly car payment, I’m getting close to shopping again & hadn’t thought of a Kia honestly. This is an upscale enough model with some pretty decent features I’ll definitely take one out when I get to that stage. Thanks!!

    1. @The Slapster I’m in the same boat with my 2006 Mazda 3. It has a CD player and an AM/FM radio, with no way to connect an external audio device like the iPhone. I tore out the radio myself and installed a special cable, but it isn’t the most elegant solution. After driving the Kia, I’ll admit I’ve been thinking about trading in the Mazda… But I drove my last car (actually a 1991 GMC Sonoma truck) for 15 yrs before getting the Mazda. I’m just not the type to buy a vehicle every few years though.

  7. Julie, for 2012 in addition to the softer seats the Optima SX has power folding mirrors. There are some small cosmetic changes to the interior like a lighter colored dash (charcoal instead of black) and changes to that mesh trim on the seats. They also now offer UVO which is a voice activation feature for many functions. But UVO is not available with the navigation system, so the packaging was changed for 2012 to allow the Infinity stereo to be purchased with UVO. In 2011 the Infinity stereo was only available with Nav. I bought a 2011 Optima SX 6 months ago and I love it. Although I have had a few problems that required visits back to the dealer for warranty work.

  8. Julie,
    Well done! Your review was honest and largely to the point. Kia advertises “The power to surprise.” Done! I could not be considered the “Average car guy” having owned many (performance) cars through the years i.e. Shelby GT350, BMW etc. When my wife and I began to shop for her new car (she owns a BMW 325 convertible), we would have never thought the search would lead to Kia. I mean, come on…I began to learn about their TCO (Total cost of ownership), warranty, performance, reliability (300hrs. WOT durability test on all their engines) as well as some of the behind the scenes stuff such as their designers, engineers etc. (dual scroll turbo? Are you kidding me? Award after award…) and we were surprised to say the least. After a leisurely two months we zeroed in on Kia and then the 2012 Optima SX (turbo). The value equation is crazy. An earlier post from someone spoke about the options verse their BMW. Having owned BMW’s, all I will say is you have to experience this machine!! Not slamming BMW in any way but, I swear to you, while shopping we encountered three folks who traded from BMW and Mercedes. It is a real challenge to find anything that can compare to this car all things considered. Even loaded, It stickers out tens of thousands less than the Europeans. So, purchased the car a few days ago and going over the fit and finish with a fine tooth comb, I am growing more and more impressed. Thanks for the information and more than fair assessment. Now all I have to do is wait for the guys to stop giving me that “What the heck!” look when I say “Yea, we bought a KIA.” A walk around the car starts the transition and drive gets them saying “Oh My God!” every time. I LOVE surprises!!

    1. @Ken Thank you for your comments. Since I only had the car for a week, it would be great if you could come back here in a few months and update us with your thoughts / experience with this car after the honeymoon phase wears off.

  9. Thanks Julie!
    I would consider it an honor. I’ve heard it said before, that the best way to be objective is to always remember, we are by nature subjective. Be back later with my humble opinion and thanks again!

  10. I bought a 2011 Kia Optima 8 months ago. When does the honeymoon phase wear off??? 😉 I still love it! Drives great, amazing gas mileage and still fun to drive. The car is very roomy and even I surprised at how much I can fit it the trunk. The only problem I have had is the brake switch went bad, taking it tomorrow to get fixed (service people were very helpful and polite). I had to drive my husband’s Audi Q5 to work for 3 days. I CAN’T WAIT to get my Kia back. I have had soooo many compliments. Love this car and would recommend to anyone.

  11. One of our sales people hear has an SX and much as I usually try to avoid the them, I asked how he liked it so far. He gives it the highest marks, the only detraction was the paint apparently is *horribly* prone to scratching, even from light contact or brushing up against the body. Any similar complaints from owners here?

  12. Got the Optima SX with premium package. Love the car, BUT I just put 1000 miles on the car and am only getting approx 18MPG and maybe sometimes close to 19MPG. All city driving between 30 and sometimes up to 50 MPH. I did not keep it any one speed for any length of time as the manual states. I really hope it gets better. I am going to take it back to the dealer soon if things don’t get better. Anyone else have this problem?? thanx, Jim……

  13. As promised back in January, I’m checking in with you to share a few thoughts and experiences regarding our 2012 Optima SX (turbo). The car now has 3,400 miles on it. I’ve changed the oil and filter, added fuel (87 per Kia) and installed a factory cargo net in the trunk. Other than that, I’ve vacuumed the carpet, wiped down the interior and washed and it at least once a week. That’s about the extent of any maintenance. How’s it holding up? Flawlessly! Couldn’t ask for anything more. The word clearly hasn’t gotten out here about this car. As with others cars we’ve owned, it gets a lot of looks, comments and questions. But while that’s nice, the real catcher is FOR THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS LESS! I’m fifty-five and retired three weeks ago. Having said that, the value equation associated with this car is first on my mind, at least until I get acclimated to this new life style. My lovely wife (it’s her car) and I have been on several six to eight hour road trips and there is no doubt, the car is at least as comfortable as anything we’ve owned and more comfortable than most. Comparing it to Cadillac, BMW and the like doesn’t seem at all fair, but it is what it is. Not knocking anyone… it’s a personal evaluation. Fuel economy has been disappointing as compared to ratings. Highway has averaged around 27.5 mpg; haven’t really done much city driving. We have been using the ECO mode and are continuing our evaluation. Obviously, this is a little tricky due to driving style and type. One note here, the car is showing 30-31 mpg but, the real number is factually less. This car is LOADED with really nice options and conveniences (FOUR cup holders up front… come on, who does that?) With 274 horsepower, and a top speed reported to be electronically limited to 155 mph, the darn thing is just crazy. It’s a FOUR cylinder!! Allow me to expound… A good buddy of mine, who is well versed on performance cars and trucks just as I am, requested a quick ride around the block and after seeing the large dual exhaust pipes exiting the back and feeling a little taste of the power, insisted that I lift the hood. He would NOT believe that it wasn’t a much larger six cylinder! Don’t you just love those kinds of surprises?? So, anyone interested can visit Kia for an extensive list of options. They just go on and on such as: heated and cooled six way power seats with lumbar support, Bluetooth and a cargo area you could play tennis in (ok, overstated… must remain objective!). The car handles beautifully, not a single rattle or squeak. Significantly less noisy than the convertible BMW we just sold. But then again, it was a convertible so that’s to be expected. If I have overlooked any obvious points of interest, just let me know and I’d be glad to offer up an opinion. Overall, my wife and I agree that this car is far more than anything we had expected when shopping for a roomy four door sedan. The love affair continues… My only hope is that this helps someone make a better choice when shopping for their next car. Thanks Julie!
    Ken 😉

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