2013 Kia Optima SXL - Seeking Rarefied Air - Review

You can always count on some real cold in the atmosphere here at Drive...He Said's" Chicago abode. Not that it would stop the 2013 Kia Optima SXL, glass roof and all, from seeking it's own rarefied air.

For the Birdwatchers Among Us:

Observe and ponder the differences between the robin (not the  boy wonder) and oriole in the Optima SXL mid-size family sedan. Driver and front passenger get a power sliding moonroof. Two six footers and junior comfortably share a fixed glass panoramic roof with powered shade aft. Birds should especially notice how well the dark roof contrasts with the Snow White Pearl exterior of our Optima test vehicle.

Nowadays the Optima mid-size family car is built in West Point Georgia. Our tester was in top-tier SXL trim. Meaning that at $35,000 it wanted for little. Not counting lane departure warning/correction, guided park assist, or intelligent cruise control. Power and motion are provided by SX model donations: a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder gas engine, with direct injection,  and a 6-speed manumatic slushbox. Additional comfort and convenience includes heated and cooled front seats and audible park warning. A baby could probably be taught to use the 6.5" touch screen controlling UVO handsfree communication/media and hard drive navigation unit.

The "L-for-Limited" treatment pitches Nappa over normal seating steer-hides. The side mirrors do a power fold-up act second only to the Lamborghini Aventador's "scissor" doors.  There are the functional bonuses: steering wheel mounted paddle shifters, more aggressive 245/45 series rubber and stiffer damping. Visual benefits include the four-wheel disc brake calipers painted in "look at me red" poking through mirror-finished 18" alloy wheels. There are splashes of chrome whether inside on the pedals, or out on the tasteful trunk spoiler or the door sills. From the "theater marquis" are the illuminated red "KIA" emblems on driver's and front pax rocker panels.

Second Time at Bat:

Since we last fielded a normally breathing Optima EX , Kia has gone to work on matters previously deemed three-fourth's-baked. Right off the bat, you notice this sporty front-drive sedan actually has the stop to complement the go of the engine's 274-horsepower. Improvements in braking are "night and day" different over previous Optimas.  Tap the pedal and hold on. There is actually some serious bite with these pads, at least until the limit of pedal travel. And those limits may be more owing to the tuned-for-placid Kumho Optimo all-season rubber. The stiffened Mac strut / rear multi-link setup has further tamed body roll and dive. Any semblance of torque steer is eliminated by an aggressive traction / stability control algorithm.

More a work-in-progress is an electric power steering assist which is heavy enough at low speeds to produce sore flexors and which fights jerking motions. A suspension which isolates your morning latte over railroad tracks manages to crash over larger road divots. Uneven pavement yields modest pitching. That's gotta' be the low-profile tires. The six-speed transmission, despite the nimble paddle shifters, is remiss to upshift smoothly when cold. Still a paradigm of smoothness under all but the most aggressive throttling is the powerplant. Off the line, the Kia Optima SXL commands respect completing the null-60 mph run in a tick over 6 seconds.  Fuel economy stands in the not-too-shabby 24 mile-per-gallon range.

Despite its major "hits" the Optima still has some "misses" to address. The buttery leather which trims the well-proportioned, fully-adjustable steering wheel is too slippery when the pace picks up, and some road impacts transmit through. Legible and logically placed redundant controls on the spokes are too dimly lit at night to be of much use. Successful voice command dialing from a downloaded phonebook will be limited to single syllable contacts. Such an intuitive media selection screen interface is worthy of  a sound system which offers spacial accuracy. Infinity's dash-top mounted center channel "5.1" speaker doesn't cut it.  At freeway speeds, a cabin unmolested from unpleasant powerplant and drivetrain noise, is mobbed by wind noise. Could it be the twin rubber door seals, down by one layer to the triple seals found in the Volkswagen Passat and  Toyota Camry?  In areas of fit, a creak emanating from the driver's seat each time we exited our Optima SXL was auspicious for a car with with less than 10K miles on the clock.

Reaching for Rarified Air?

So the suggested price may elicit some "That's base  BMW 3-series territory" moans. In its defense the Kia Optima SXL's  responsiveness to inputs and predictability in handling, in a front-drive family sedan with a 15 cubic foot trunk, tugs at our enthusiast heart strings. The exterior styling most closely approaches a "4-door coupe" in the segment without being too "swoopy-trendy." Getting a rear-view camera on a Volkswagen CC VR6 requires forking over $3K more. Contrasting stitching schemes on seating and interior trim, with subdued dark simulated wood grains evoke a professional place to conduct business. A driver's throne, though finicky to adjust,  is suited to spirited track time. There is the decadence of heated rear seating. And a center console canted slightly towards the driver as in Bavarian sport sedans of yore.

Quite simply put there is nothing boring about the 2013 Kia Optima SXL. For Audubon Society and Ducks Unlimited members alike.

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