That old proverb about having your cake and eating it too might have been created to describe the very cool-looking new Kia Optima EX mid-size sedan. It serves up a tasty 274-hp portion of performance while delivering frugal fuel economy numbers once the preserve of cars powered by itty-bitty four-cylinder engines.
But hang on a minute, that’s exactly what the Optima EX has in its engine bay, a “tiny” 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. So, how do we reconcile this seeming power versus economy dichotomy?
Welcome to the new world of forced-induction, small-displacement automotive powerplants that are now supplanting the downsized sixes that weaned North Americans off the big-bore V-8s once standard fare for those who could afford to indulge in a little cake-eating performance in their family-sized-sedans.
Force-feeding the fuel/air mixture to four-cylinder engines isn’t anything new. Saab kicked off a four-banger-turbo-movement in the late 1970s with its 2.0-litre, 135-hp four and Volvo followed in the early 1980s with 2.1-litre, 127-hp turbos. Even the Ford Mustang was offered with a 2.3-litre, 140-hp turbo-four for a while.
But turbocharged fours were never seriously envisaged as mainstream prime movers until recently; car makers increasingly see in them the solution to meeting new fuel economy regulations while still satisfying the performance expectations of customers.
The Optima Turbo meets both demands well enough to have (in somewhat more sportily equipped SX form than the mid-range Turbo EX+ we’re looking at here), finished third in the Sports Performance under $50,000 category in the 2012 Canadian Car of The Year competition run by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. The non-turbo version was named the Best Family Car under $30,000.
That the Optima is a more than decent automobile should come as no surprise as it is very much based on the well-received Sonata produced by Hyundai, sharing its structure and engines but in a Kia-unique package that is eye-catchingly dramatic, if perhaps just a little overdone up front.
Indicative of how our engine world-view is changing is that the base Optima ($21,995) comes with a 2.4-litre, 200-hp four, while the $28,995 EX Turbo’s engine is just a 2.0-litre. Both have direct gasoline injection, but the smaller engine becomes an over-achiever thanks to the twin-scroll turbo that boosts it to 274hp – twice what the old Mustang turbo made – and helps it produce 269 lb-ft of torque from 1,750 rpm to 4,500 rpm. Transmitting the power to the front wheels is a six-speed automatic transmission you can shift yourself with steering-wheel paddles or the gear lever.
The 2.0-litre feels a little smoother than the 2.4-litre, and engine and transmission combine to produce a near-seamless flow of power, plus all that always-available torque, to deal with in-town or highway driving demands.
Despite its high output, the Optima’s four doesn’t use fuel profligately (unless you flog it, of course), earning ratings of 9.2 litres/100 km city and 5.8 highway. Kia’s previous mid-sizer, the Magentis, had a 2.7-litre V-6 that was rated at 10.5 city/7.0 highway. After a week with the Optima, fuel usage was showing an average of 9.2 litres/100 km, while at highway cruising speed in hilly country it was getting a very good 6.6 litres/100 km.
During Car of the Year testing last fall, I drove a Turbo SX on the track and later wrote that while it was willing and competent, it wasn’t really a “sports sedan” according to my lights. I didn’t track test the Turbo EX, but on my favorite back-road drive, without sports suspension and with smaller tires, it too proved pleasantly capable, easily as good as mid-range offerings from rival firms.
Manual shifts are deliberate, but prompt enough, steering feel and response are good and it has a firm-ish and well-damped suspension and brakes that work positively and progressively.
And it might surprise you just how quickly you can end up going really quickly. Launch it hard and the Optima will get to 100 km/h in less than seven seconds, and hit the pedal to pass and it covers the 80 km/h to 120 km/h segment on the speedometer in about 4-1/2 seconds.
Which begs the question, who really needs a bigger, heavier V-6? And also the question of who needs to spend much more than the $28,995 being asked for the Turbo EX , which comes with leather, dual zone climate control, power driver’s seat, rear-view camera, Smart Key, cruise control, steering wheel controls, Bluetooth 17-inch alloy wheels, bigger brakes, paddle shifters, rear lip spoiler and that sporty front grille. The test car was a $30,395 EX+, which adds a full-length panoramic sunroof.
The tester’s interior was attractively done in grey leather with white stitching and, with a few chrome highlights scattered about, looks quite classy. And it works well too with bright instruments and finger-friendly controls located where you expect them.
Front seats are shaped properly for support, the steering wheel rim feels good, the audio and climate control systems work well and it is nice and quiet at speed. Rear-seat head, leg and elbow room is fine and there’s a 437-litre trunk out back. The large sunroof makes the rear area feel open and airy.
The Optima Turbo EX is a powerful car with enough suspension, brakes and tires to make it competent combined with the ability to produce good real world fuel economy, while providing a pleasant and well equipped interior at a price that makes it a good value.
2012 Kia Optima Turbo EX+
Type: Mid-size sedan.
Base Price: $30,395; as tested, $32,100
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, turbocharged, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 274 hp/269 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/ 5.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda Mazda6, Honda Accord, Buick Regal