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2012 Kia Optima SXL: First Drive

Kia is one of the fastest-growing automakers in the U.S., introducing nine new products in the last three years and marking 17 consecutive years of market share growth in 2011. And although it’s still somewhat plagued by a perception of low-quality vehicles, the manufacturer is discovering access to more consumer segments, including those with more affluence. The 2012 Optima Limited, the most luxurious and expensive Kia model to date, demonstrates the company’s latest progression and targets wealthier shoppers.

The Limited builds on the SX, which is the turbocharged, sporty version of the midsize sedan. It comes in just three colors – black, pearl and metallic – and features LED daytime running lights, red front-brake calipers and a panoramic sunroof. The Limited (a.k.a. SXL) further entices with eye-catching chrome on its 18-inch wheels and rear spoiler. The end result is an attractive vehicle with sleek lines and plenty of space throughout the cabin and trunk.

Kia’s step toward luxury is especially evident in the SXL’s interior. The Napa leather seats make for an extremely comfortable ride, especially after spending a long day at a racetrack, as we did in Orlando. Heated and cooled seats further indulge the driver and front passenger.

The leather, which comes in black or white and also adorns the armrests and door panels, is soft and inviting. It’s complemented by striking wood accents on the steering wheel, interior door trim and shift knob. The interior is also equipped with a bevy of technology and entertainment features, including a large and easy-to-use navigation system with back-up camera; an Infinity sound system and speakers; and satellite radio.

The ride of the Limited is just as pleasant in the back seat, where heated seats and plenty of legroom welcome kids or adults. The Limited would make for a comfortable road-trip car, whether you’re taking the family or a couple friends.

The SXL has plenty of muscle – 274 horsepower – and can use it when it needs to, but the primary focus and success of the vehicle is the ride, not the drive. Two important driving characteristics that are a bit lacking in the SXL are steering response and acceleration on demand.

Paddle shifters come standard if you want to add some excitement and challenge to the drive, but this is a steady, smooth vehicle designed to make you feel more at home (think your favorite recliner) than on the road. As for fuel economy, Kia’s mileage estimates for the SXL are 22-city/34-hwy. On fairly empty highways and freeways – and often using cruise control – we achieved about 33 mpg.

With a starting price of $34,900, the Optima Limited will compete with some high-end models like the well-equipped Nissan Maxima, Toyota Avalon and Volkswagen CC, as well as the Lexus ES 350. Although combatting the low-quality perception might continue to be an issue, especially when going up against such well-established brands, Kia is seeing more demand for luxury from its affluent customers, and the Limited certainly delivers. The sleek body, plush interior and army of extras provide an excellent option for the consumer looking for optimum comfort at a reasonable price. The Limited, which is being produced at Kia’s manufacturing plant in West Point, Ga., will go on sale later this spring.


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