2011 Kia Optima Turbo

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Sleek, swift & satisfying Kia’s Optima Turbo.

Coming out of a meeting into the parking lot one night last week, I squint at the keys that were thrust into my hands a moment earlier: K-I-A . . . .

There’s a lovely Jaguar coupe lurking next to a midsize Merc, nope, not them, or the monster Ram pickup.

I don’t see a Kia. And it’s raining. Finally it dawns on me to trigger the keyfob. As I home in on the flashing lights I think, That’s a Kia? That long, sleek thing with the attitude and the fancy wheels? Slipping inside, out of the rain, doesn’t help me either.

Two-tone upholstery, leather wheel, carbon-fiber trim, two sunroofs, dials and buttons and lights everywhere and everything gleaming and solid, like a Bang & Olufsen showroom. Again: This is a Kia?

It’s pitch-black out, but miraculously I can pre-flight and adjust everything—the electric seat and mirrors, my radio stations, the mileage, speed and fuel settings and the satnav—without groping in the dark or puzzling over cryptic computer screens or even turning on the inside lights.

But I could turn on the lights if I wanted to, because absolutely everything is a) right where you expect it to be, and b) as simple as oatmeal. (Just try this in a new German car.)

Two hundred and thirty-two miles later, I pull into my driveway at 1:25 AM and click through the trip computer. Yikes, this thing averaged 71 miles per hour, door to door—at 29.7 miles per gallon! And I feel like I could easily knock off another hundred miles or so.

In fact the computer claims there’s still a couple hundred miles left in the tank! I just used up this month’s allotment of exclamation points on one car!

Right, meet the new Kia, the Optima SX T-GDI. The more letters or numbers on the rear deck, the higher the price (unless it’s a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari or the like, in which case no letters or numbers).

But here’s the final surprise: The Monroney’s in the glove box and it says the MSRP, including options and delivery, is just $30,840. The car feels more like $40,000.

Save for a slightly brittle ride, it’s very comfortable at any speed. Quiet, too, especially for a four-cylinder boosted to 274 horsepower. The throttle comes on with a rush when asked, and the front-wheel drive tugs to one side or the other but then settles down and behaves.

The brakes come on with a rush too, in not quite linear fashion, but better too much than not enough. The SX has an upmarket 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters on the wheel, but I’ve hardly felt the need to use them. And then there’s dual-zone automatic HVAC and a back-up camera. Pushbutton locking and ignition. Mood lighting. Heated rear seats. Tire-pressure monitors. Self-dimming mirror. A braking nanny. Airbags galore. The obligatory Eco mode. All very well and good in a family sedan, but the real payoff is how well this sedan hauls the family around.

Dollar for dollar, new-gen Kias no longer give up anything to any competitor, in style, driving dynamics or equipment. If you still think of Korean vehicles as slightly dreary, low-budget alternatives to the cars you really want, it’s time to reprogram your expectations.

This Optima is every bit as “aspirational” as anything comparable from Japan or Detroit.