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Review: 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo

Kia lives up to its "power to surprise" tagline with its 274-horsepower turbocharged Optima SX.

There's a stirring in the South, and we're not talking about any tornadic activity, either. Kia is nearing the final stage of a complete redesign of their product line and the new 2011 Optima SX Turbo is taking center stage for the brand's resurgence.

From the boardrooms in Seoul, South Korea, to the factories in the Deep South of the United States, this brand is on a tear.

Utilizing the expertise of a design department headed by Peter Schreyer, of Audi TT and Volkswagen New Beetle fame, the firm has tossed away all remnants of the past like a series of unfortunate bad habits. We are always in the mood to try out new bad habits. Hop in as we test the new Optima Turbo.

What is it?
A five-passenger sedan, this one using three box design, this Optima SX is the boosted version of the car that had us gushing when we drove it last year.

The first turbocharged-anything that Kia has ever produced (now joined by the Sportage Turbo), it is available in a well-equipped EX model with a good amount of gadgets and goo-gahs. Our SX model had even more.

Closely related to the Hyundai Sonata, the Optima feels ever-so-slightly more polished, as we discussed a few months ago.

What's it up against?
One immediate competitor comes to mind: The Hyundai Sonata Turbo. Beyond that, domestically, there's the Ford Fusion, the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima, among others.

All worthy opponents, the only determining factor is whether you like your food mild, medium or spicy. Although its corporate stable mate, the Sonata, is more fluid-like in design, the Optima tends toward the understated, quiet look.

Any breakthroughs?
Start with 2.0T. That's two-point-oh as in turbo. A four-banger with the power of a six, it's an impressive engine that produces when you step on this cat's tail.

Continue with a well-equipped SX model that throws in virtually everything else that comes with the base Optima. Oh, heck, let's just cut to the chase and say that this car is loaded with value. And all that can be had for a base price that starts below $26-large.

How does it look?
We still think the Optima was handsome from the get-go. Long (190.1 inches), low (5.3 inches of ground clearance) and wide (72.1 inches), with the SX package, it looks absolutely Teutonic. That Schreyer's design team that penned it adds gravitas to its street cred or mojo or what have you. But go ahead and tick the box for the SX model and you get ground effects, high-performance Hot Wheel-style alloys and more.

A studied view of the car reveals many design cues from the (German) Fatherland, Asia, and Scandinavia, by way of Seoul. Start with front fenders and side gills that appear as though lifted from the last-gen BMW 5-Series. Add in a dose of LED lighting from Audi. A rear lip-spoiler that was inspired by Lexus's IS, and a C-pillar that reminds us of a Saab 9-3. You can't accuse Kia of outright theft, as opposed to inspiration from the aforementioned vehicles, but their choice of influences is certainly impressive, as well as highly aspirational.

And for you sun-worshipers, there's an optional panoramic (actually two-panel) sunroof, which just happened to be on our tester.

And on the inside?
Clearly designed for an auto enthusiast, the Optima SX Turbo borrows cues from the big boys including a dashboard canted towards the driver. Paddle shift levers are standard on our SX, as is two-toned fabric and leather faced seating. Faux carbon fiber trim and aluminum pedals take up interior decorating efforts to slutty up the insides.

Class-above accouterments including an auto-up/down driver's window, a smart key system, and an available Technology package. That gets you an audio system by Infinity with Sirius Satellite radio and Sirius Nav-Traffic, as well as an in-dash review camera.

Kia uses the motto "the power to surprise." So we were extremely surprised to find a standard cooling glove box to cool a couple of bottles of water or sodas, while at the base of the centerstack is an included iPod and USB connectivity port.

Materials are a step above the Sonata, an interesting move given that Kia was once considered Hyundai's kid brother. What's the relationship now? We're still not sure.

But does it go?
Kia and sister brand Hyundai are on a new kick to say enough with the past, this is now. To that end, they incorporate a new 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine with gas direct injection and a turbine compressor to boost horsepower from 200, as found in the base 2.4-liter naturally aspirated engine, to 274 ponies and 269 lb-ft. of torque. EPA figures are listed as 22/34 - great considering the power underfoot. We averaged about 29 mpg, which considering the weight of our right foot on the skinny pedal, is a figure we can live with.

About that inline four: Kia incorporated the use of a twin-scroll turbocharger that provides boost up to 17.4 psi. The best part of this equation is the twin bladed turbine that helps to minimize turbo lag and torque steer. Kia has added a front-loaded intercooler with new Airguide system that manages to lower the outlet temperature by 10-degrees.

For simplicity sake, the company has whittled the transmission choices down to one: A six-speed automatic, with Sportmatic (manumatic) functions, including steering wheel-mounted paddle shift levers. Similar to those found in the Sonata, they allowed us to play boy-racer while at the stoplights.

Sport-tuned suspension and South Korean cars are usually mutually exclusive terms. But not here. Our Optima is equipped with a pair of MacPherson struts in front and a Multi-link kit in the rear. Sway bars and coilovers finish up the details, and provided a ride that was true and offered inspired handling for a segment that hasn't seen much inspiration lately. Our week in the Optima had us impressed with the overall ride that was less floaty than the standard model. We found the steering spot on, unlike the overly boosted version that we saw in the cousin Sonata.

Road noise on smooth roads offered a surprisingly quiet driving experience, even with the performance-tuned exhaust of our SX model. Rougher, composite surfaces tended to up the sound db level a bit. We just wish that Kia offered a tire that did a better job of noise suppression than the Nexen (Korean) brand radials our car was equipped with.

A well-priced corner cutter, the Optima surprised us at nearly every turn. Our test vehicle's handling made for an exciting ride that could bring out the Walter Mitty in anyone. Ventilated 12.6-inch discs in front and 11.2-inch platters out back quickly brought us back to reality.

During the Turbo Optim's launch, we spent a day at Leftlane's test track partner, Palm Beach International Raceway. At that time, we tested the car on their 2.034-mile road course. As much fun as the Optima is to drive, we also came to the realization that it is not a track car. Sure, it has all the fun bits that make up a fun-to-drive vehicle, but in its current iteration, don't go entering this sled in the 12-hours of Sebring.

But that should be just fine for most of us.

Why you would buy it:
Because you like to start new bad habits of your own.

Why you wouldn't:
Because you have your eyes on the Frigidaire Limited Edition Camry that you saw last weekend at the neighborhood Autoplex.

Leftlane's bottom line
With the mantra "the power to surprise," Kia leaves themselves open for lots of ridicule and scorn. Or not. With the Optima SX Turbo GDI, they have a contender that surpasses many others in the segment and offers plenty of goodies that inspire the boy and girl racer in all of us.

Add in that 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, and you have a package that is both satisfying and less filling.

2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo base price, $25,995. As tested, $30,840.
Technology package, $2,000; SX Premium Package, $2,150; Destination, $695.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.