2013 Kia Optima SXL Road Test

Can a Kia be prestigious?

What It Is
A family sedan that thinks it's a luxury car.

Best Thing
It has heated and cooled seats. Does your Mercedes?

Worst Thing
That's still a lot of money to digest for a Kia, even if it's a loaded one.

Snap Judgment
If discreet money needs a luxury car, this might be the one to get.

Remember when $35,000 would get you into a mid-level BMW 3 Series with leather seats and some of the premium features? Now, that sort of petty cash won't even land you into a base model with vinyl buckets. Sorry, inflation is a real buzzkill. But it has opened the door for something new.

As entry-level luxury cars creep up the price ladder, midsize sedans have begun replacing them. It's still possible to get any number of family sedans for around $20,000, but the leeway at the top end has given automakers like Kia some means to move up.

Kia was one of the first to jump on the bandwagon, introducing the 2013 Kia Optima Limited during the 2012 Super Bowl way back in February 2012, before displaying it at that month's Chicago Auto Show. Where most midsizers topped out at just over $32,000 just a year ago, more automakers are building four-doors that will take the better part of 40 grand. The Kia Optima SXL, billed as the Optima Limited in much of its advertising, splits the difference at just over $35,000. Some competitors like the 2013 Ford Fusion and Honda Accord have radar-based active cruise control and self-parking functions, the Kia Optima SXL takes a more holistic approach to luxury, swathed in Nappa leather that feels softer and more luxuriant than the hides in most cars costing twice as much, as well as adding wood, LED running lamps, and chrome wheels among other features.

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Kia believes there's a market for it, too, as the automaker says people often cross-shop the Optima with Nissan Maxima and Lexus ES before settling on a car. It's a classless car, catering to the masses as well as the top 10 percent of midsize sedan shoppers. If there's any doubt, when we got our test Optima washed, a Lexus owner asked if it was an Audi.

Certainly the 2013 Kia Optima SXL looks the part. But does it drive and feel the part, too?

What We Drove

It's hard to imagine how much is possible to add to a base $22,175 Kia Optima LX to make it into a $35,275 (including $775 destination and handling) Limited. Turns out, it's quite a bit.

For the Limited, Kia takes the already well-appointed, turbocharged Optima SX ($27,575); adds the Technology package ($1,400) that gives it a navigation system and backup camera; and tops it off with the Premium Touring package ($2,950) that heightens the experience with heated and cooled leather/cloth combination seats, power-folding mirrors, memory seats, and a panoramic sunroof. From there, the Optima Limited package is only another $3,350 stretch. In that, if offers up wood trim, Nappa leather adorning the seats and dashboard, an electronic parking brake, 18-inch chrome wheels, and red brake calipers. Like just about every Kia, there's a long list of other features that we simply don't have the space to run.

As well as having more features than you might ever know what to do with, another benefit to the Kia Optima is that it's safe. As well as scoring a perfect five-star safety rating in NHTSA crash testing, it was also named one of the IIHS's Top Safety Picks. Having stability control, it also has front- and side-mounted airbags and curtain airbags that stretch the cabin's length. Additionally, the Optima Limited has LATCH points for two child seats.

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The Commute

There's a cognitive dissonance that comes with evaluating this car. Kia says it's a luxury sports sedan. We say it's a sporty family sedan that just happens to have a lot of luxury features. So we looked at it as such.

With the sport-tuned suspension that comes in the SX, the ride is stiff but controlled. It's among the best setups in any Kia vehicle, and although the Optima still feels like a family sedan when you turn the wheel, it's hard to complain when your hands are resting on the leather- and wood-covered steering wheel. Likewise, the upgraded seats offer softer padding; coupled with the creamy smooth ventilated Nappa leather, the car felt positively upscale, a place of utter serenity from the passenger's seat.

Where most automakers still use a V-6 as an upgraded engine, the Kia Optima is instead bestowed with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder for its more powerful option. Delivering 274 horsepower, the Optima Limited has plenty of motivation to help it get out of its own way, but V-6s still deliver power more smoothly. With minimal lag in power and a fairly quiet ride, the Kia Optima Limited definitely feels the half-step above the class that it is in most day-to-day driving.

The Grocery Run

The 15.4 cubic feet of cargo space the Kia Optima has doesn't sound like anything remarkable. There are cars in the midsize class with greater capacities. But the Optima's trunk is still looks pretty vast, well finished throughout. It's just a shame that it closes with the tactile quality you'd expect of a $14,000 economy car special. It's perhaps the biggest aesthetic letdown of the entire car.

And it's quite a small quibble when you have a car that looks like this one. Designed by the same guy who spent the better part of last decade putting together Volkswagen and Audi designs, the Optima is one of the best looking sedans on the road. If there are criticisms, it would be with the car's small rear window, made even more useless by a high trunk and thick rear pillars; fortunately this model has an excellent backup camera. Another quibble is the car's unabashedly 1990s-style chrome wheels. Originally, Kia had more overwrought wheels on the preproduction version of the car in addition to only the front brake calipers receiving red paint; both were fixed for the production version. We'd still prefer Kia's flat-plane satin-finish wheels that it has on other versions of the Optima, though. They don't look like Autozone knockoff hubcaps.

As long as Kia spokesman and Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin doesn't take his NBA buddies for a ride, there's decent room in the rear seats for adults. Kids will have an easier time getting in and out though, especially since they don't have to stoop as low as a tall adult to avoid hitting their heads on the sharply sloping roof. If your little ones are still in boosters, the LATCH points are easy to use. But, again, given the car's steeply sloping roof, a little more headroom would have been nice for installation and peace of mind.

The Weekend Fun

It feels like the Kia Optima Limited was designed for weekend duties, traversing the open road with pleasure. Despite being a family sedan, it's actually remarkably fun to drive because of its style and substance. In the summer days, we turned on the cooled seats, and then we turned on the heated function at night. When it came time to find a destination, plugging it into the Optima's navigation system wasn't a problem. It worked incredibly well despite looking dated. We're a little surprised Kia hasn't integrated its UVO infotainment functionality into its navigation system yet.

We found everything convenient and within hand's reach, working with steering wheel- and dash-mounted controls. Only when it became dark outside did we have any problems with it, as most dash-mounted switchgear relies on a small font for relaying information. If you want to turn down the air conditioning, it's best to just do it at a stop, as hunting through the sea of red lights on the dash is more trouble than it's worth.

Touted as a sports sedan, we wanted to see if those claims held true, so we took the Optima to some of our favorite backroads for a workout. With a controlled suspension, a responsive, powerful engine, and a fairly willing transmission, the Optima wanted to play. But when we started smelling overheated brakes and feeling the ABS binding, we cooled it down a bit. This sporty sedan is still a better set of brakes away from being a true sports sedan--perfectly fine for the family; not for winding stretches of two-lane country highway.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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This sedan is Gangnam Style if ever a sedan could be. Its interior feels rich, thanks to premium materials and heaps of features. Its looks won't make you feel ashamed to park it outside a country club, either. It looks like a German sports sedan, and with the exception of the brakes it's even fun to drive.

If you're under the impression that because the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata are basically like picking two different brands of Ibuprofen, this car is a great statement to the contrary. Where the Sonata is plush, riding like a Camry, the Optima rides a lot more stiffly, more European in road feel. It also packs in a few more premium features that the Sonata simply doesn't come available with.

But what about non-Korean competition? The 2013 Honda Accord Touring and Ford Fusion Titanium can both crest $40,000 and feel a little more modern, because they are. This industry moves quickly. But where they rely on all sorts of technology to justify their price, the Kia relies on the appeal of aesthetics, the suppleness of the leather, which is some of the best we've sampled at any price point. Picking between them then comes down to personal preference and appeal.

A Honda Accord will always look like a Honda Accord. The Ford Fusion looks like an Aston Martin now, but the look will homogenize as it dissolves through Ford's lineup. That's going to be soon. But the Kia is the dark horse, still largely unknown. And if you're going to spend a fairly substantial sum of cash on a family hauler and don't want the conspicuousness of a Lexus or a German badge--but you do want all the amenities they used to afford--the Optima may just be the one to get.

What a weird world we live in when a $35,000 Kia doesn't sound all that absurd.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $35,275
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 22 mpg
EPA Highway: 34 mpg
EPA Combined: 26 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 481 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Not yet rated

Notebook Quotes

"Quiet vehicle even at highway speed. Mostly road with some wind noise. Turbo engine sound well controlled." -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor
"There's a lot to like, and you get the feeling that the next-gen Optima will knock it out of the park. But at $35,000, you're way above well-equipped competitors like the Passat, Accord, Camry, and Altima. You're getting a sportier Sonata for the price of a Genesis." -Matthew Askari, Associate Editor
"Fantastic car in every way, except for the steering." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor
"Griping about the price is so passé, but we’re still guilty of indulging in it sometime. But underneath all that froufrou is still a pretty good midsize car, just one that’s not at the top of the pile in terms of comfort and stability." -Blake Rong, Associate Editor