Pros: Sleek styling; impressive fuel economy; generous standard and optional equipment offerings; excellent safety and resale figures
Cons: No V6 engine option; limited number of dealerships; SX trim’s wheels easily scratch; no AWD option
That the Kia Optima can be mentioned in the same company as the mighty Honda Accord and Toyota Camry is praise enough for the once budget-minded brand. But the fact that so many journalists and customers actually opt for the Optima over its Japanese rivals speaks volumes about how far Kia has come.
In the Optima, buyers get a mid-size sedan that looks as if it were designed by an Italian styling studio moonlighting for the masses. The Optima’s interior is both visually stunning and roomy, and Kia offers a variety of trims and engine choices, including a turbocharged model and a super-efficient hybrid. With its very reasonable starting price in the low $20,000 range, the Optima is easy to get into. Buyers willing to plunk down a bit more cash will find features unavailable on most competitors and some features not even offered on more expensive premium sedans.
The Optima doesn’t yet have the Honda Accord’s reputation for long-term resale and reliability, so it’s understandable that some buyers may hesitate to try something new. Kia understands this, which is why every Optima comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a five-year/60,000-mile basic plan.
Comfort & Utility
As family sedans go, this is one of our favorites. The Optima’s interior is a welcome spot for the long-legged, and the seating is both comfortable and supportive. We do wish the passenger’s seat offered adjustable positions and lumbar support, as the driver’s seat does. About the only area that falls short in the 2012 Optima is rear-seat headroom, which is somewhat curtailed by the sharply angled roof.
Visually, we give two thumbs up to the Optima’s Saab-inspired instrument cluster, elegant blend of two-tone colors and overall feel of the levers and switches. Some of the plastics on the dash, steering wheel and door panels don’t quite live up to the standard set by Mazda or Volkswagen, but they are not far off the mark.
The abundance of fabulous interior features is the most impressive thing about the Optima. Mercedes-Benz may not offer a heated rear seat on its C-Class sedan, but you can have one on the Optima. You can also check the boxes for a panoramic glass moonroof, heated and cooled front seats and an eight-speaker Infinity audio system.
Not only is Kia’s voice activated navigation system one of the better units around, Kia makes it available as an option on any Optima with an automatic transmission. The navigation unit is backed up by a rear-view camera and SirusXM’s traffic and weather updates. An eight-speaker Infinity audio system is available across all trims. The EX, EX Turbo and SX offer the UVO voice-activated infotainment system, which allows voice control of your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and portable music storage device.
The Optima Hybrid has its own unique instrument cluster. It includes an EcoMinder LCD display that uses clever graphics to show when you are achieving optimal fuel economy.
Other notable features available in either the Premium or Technology Packages include heated and cooling front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, power folding exterior mirrors and driver’s-seat memory.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The 2012 Kia Optima is offered in five trims: LX, EX, EX Turbo, SX and Hybrid. LX and EX models are powered by a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine equipped with gasoline direct injection technology. Producing 200 horsepower and 186 lb-ft of torque, this engine is nearly as powerful as some V6s and delivers outstanding fuel economy figures of 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway. The LX trim offers a six-speed manual, while some others are equipped with a six-speed Sportmatic automatic transmission with manual shift control.
The EX Turbo and SX employ a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that ups power to 274 hp and torque to 269 lb-ft. The added horsepower gives the Optima a big performance boost, but fuel economy doesn’t suffer much, with an estimated 22 mpg city and 34 mpg highway.
For the ultimate in fuel economy, the Optima Hybrid uses a slightly less powerful version of the 2.4-liter engine teamed to a 40-hp electric motor. The combined engine output of 206 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. With performance figures on par with the standard gasoline engine, the hybrid is rated by the EPA at 34/39 mpg. It is possible to attain such numbers in optimal driving conditions, but in practice we experienced about 5 mpg less overall, making the hybrid’s fuel economy not much better than the gasoline-only models.
Standard safety equipment on all Optimas includes front side-impact airbags, front and rear side-curtain airbags and electronic traction and stability control. Oddly, for all its advanced electronics, Kia fails to offer any side blind spot warning system or parking assist.
If you think a car should be as good at driving as it looks, you’ll feel right at home in the 2012 Kia Optima. In EX and SX trim the larger wheel-and-tire package, along with the sport suspension in the SX, gives this big sedan an athletic demeanor usually reserved for smaller, sportier cars. The Optima corners well; body roll and lean only become noticeable during the most demanding maneuvers. Aided by the nicely weighted steering and electronic stability control, we were able to push the Optima to its limit without getting ourselves into too much trouble.
The 2.4-liter gasoline engine has more than enough power for the average driver, but we fell in love with the rush of power afforded by the turbo. The engine is calibrated to deliver smooth flow from a dead stop, making the turbo feel like a robust V6. There’s even an ECO setting that dials back the turbo and some of the engine’s equipment output to bump up fuel economy when you’re cruising at a steady speed.
Other Cars to Consider
Honda Accord – The Accord may not be as stylish as the Optima and is not as laden with content, but it has a longer history of reliability and a strong resale value.
Chevrolet Malibu – The Optima has a more powerful 4-cylinder engine and a better warranty than the Malibu, but the Chevrolet sedan has more rear-seat legroom and offers the option of a V6.
Toyota Camry – The Camry has a much larger rear seat than the Optima and offers strong resale value; there are also far more Toyota dealerships than Kia outlets nationwide. However, the Optima offers a better warranty, and it out-muscles, out-options, and out-styles the Camry.
While we can’t advise against the thrilling performance provided by the turbocharged Optima EX and SX, we think the best value in the Optima line is the EX with the standard 2.4-liter engine. The 2.4-liter delivers excellent power and fuel economy, and the Optima EX is very well equipped yet undercuts its competitors by thousands of dollars. Better yet, the EX can be loaded with optional features not offered on the Camry, Accord, Malibu or Altima.
In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.