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2014 Kia Optima SX Turbo First Drive

Happily messing with success

What It Is
Kia's best-selling sedan that's undergone a mid-cycle refresh.
Best Thing
Its engine pulls like crazy, and the rest of the car is pretty good, too.
Worst Thing
Steering feel is neither Mazda-precise nor Honda-accurate.
Snap Judgment
Many subtle upgrades add up to a much better car.


The first thing anyone remembers about the current-generation Kia Optima is a widely prospected NBA rookie slam-dunking over the hood of one. No one's completely sure whether it was a spur-of-the-moment idea or carefully crafted PR stunt, but it did the trick. Everyone was talking about it, and the Korean hamster brand had suddenly gained some relevancy in pop culture with one of its cars at the forefront. It also gained a spokesperson in Blake Griffin.

Fast forward nearly three years later, and the 2014 Kia Optima has finally undergone its first major refresh as it faces stiffer competition and a slight wane in demand. That is, of course, after Kia sold more than 152,000 units in the U.S. last year. Still, we had driven the car twice before--a 2012 hybrid and a 2013 SX Limited--and while we liked both, we figured they could both stand some improvement. So for this 2014 upgrade, did Kia fix what needed it? We drove a 2014 Kia Optima SX Turbo--it's important to note that SX and SX Turbo are now two separate models, with the more powerful engine we tested being optional now--to find out.

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Walkaround

Not drastically altered when compared to the outgoing Optima, the 2014 model keeps things fresh with revised front and rear styling, complemented with new LED running light clusters that are evocative of the upcoming Kia K900's LED headlights. Additionally, new split five-spoke wheels and a "Turbo" badge on each front flank show that this SX ought to stand apart from the rest of the pack. Our car also came with HID projector headlights and LED taillights that come standard on SX models.

The net effect is one more of refinement than redefining the Optima. When the current design was released for the 2011 model year, it made a huge splash for Kia. At the NBA All-Star game a few years back--the 2012 game, not the 2011 edition where Blake Griffin made his mark--I remember seeing a few couples surrounding the sponsoring Kia Optima on display to get pictures with it. If you don't think it's one of the best-looking cars in its class, you're blind. If you doubt that assessment, you're stupid. And if you think I've lost all credibility at this point, stop reading. Aging as it may be, the Optima is still a great-looking car and arguably among the best-looking in its class.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Sitting Down

There's not a huge amount changed with the 2014 Kia Optima's interior, but they changes that were made are quite significant. Take the steering wheel, for instance. A while back, someone in Germany thought flat-bottomed steering wheels looked cool and were sporty. Seeing as though Kia wants emulate German style at Korean prices, the idea of this high-quality-feeling leather-wrapped steering wheel was adopted. Good call, Kia. The infotainment display has also been upgraded, with a new 8-inch screen displaying UVO with eServices and navigation, which works quite well, and a 4.2-inch TFT screen replaces last year's smaller display between the gauges. Other changes include a new push-button starter and full leather on the seats of the SX instead of a cloth/leather combination. But other than some upgraded materials here and there, which now include brushed metal, piano black, and chrome interior accents, it's largely the same as it ever was.

The center stack is still tilted 10 degrees towards the driver, and everything works seamlessly as you'd expect it might. There's nothing too daring inside the Optima besides its swoopy styling and high trunk lid that takes away some visibility in the name of giving off the perception of sitting lower to the ground. Fortunately, Kia added backup sensors to the Optima's list of available features, which all work in a straightforward, no-frills manner. That's fine by us.

Driving

Kia made the biggest changes to the 2014 Optima not with its looks or technology, but instead with something it'll never mention: The way it drives. The last time we sampled a 2013 Kia Optima SX Limited, we took it to the daunting canyons of Mulholland Drive to see how this supposed sporty sedan would do. What we found out was that its steering was artificially heavy and its suspension kept the car buttoned down but took a toll in meandering freeway drives, stiffer than maybe it ought to have been.

Both issues have been rectified for 2014, almost too much so in the case of the former. The new Optima SX has the company's Flex Steer, which has been improved upon from where it was early prototypes of this car that we drove a few months back, but it could still use a little more pizzazz when it comes to steering feel. It's light and easy to use, and it's definitely on par for the class. But with cars like the Honda Accord and Mazda6 out there, Kia should target them and keep refining its system.

The suspension, however, soaks up bumps like a charm and is a capable companion in corners. The Kia Optima has a stiff chassis, and its revised suspension has only aided its handling, yet it rides more comfortably when cruising along. Kia also instilled the 2014 Optima with Sport and Eco drive modes, of which we'd prefer the former. The car's turbocharged, 2.0-liter engine is quick to play and provides plenty of punch with 274 horsepower readily available. Putting it in Sport mode with the Sport steering setting and letting 'er rip demonstrates that this car's capabilities are plenty fine for showing off with kids sitting in back. Be warned, however, that showing off with kids in the car often leads to the phrase "I don't feel so good" being uttered shortly thereafter, and possible stops alongside the road.

Summary

With some better interior materials, new technology, an improved driving experience, and freshened styling, the 2014 Kia Optima SX Turbo comes in exactly as it should for a midlife refresh and should continue to garner praise. It's important to remember that this isn't a sports sedan; it's a family sedan with some sporting flair. As such, there should be no expectation that you'll be laying down record Nurburgring times in Germany with it. That doesn't mean it can't tackle a winding mountain road with some vigor, however.

We didn't have a non-turbo Optima SX on-hand, but we've driven the 2012 Hyundai Sonata with the same engine--the Sonata made eight more horsepower than the 192-horsepower, 2.4-liter base SX that's available--and found it plenty sufficient.

But, still, in our estimation, the turbo engine is the one to get. It doesn't do anything poorly. In fact, given what all it offers relative to the competition, it's one of the stronger cars in its class and a definite must-consider for anyone shopping for a new midsizer who doesn't want to give up having both style and substance in the same package. Add to the fact that it's in a stylish wrapper ought to make a strong case for this revised midsizer, at least until the next generation comes out in a few years.

Basic Specs

Turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 274-hp, $22,300-$37,100 ($33,150 as-tested), 20 mpg city/31 mpg hwy

3 comments
Jacob Brown
Jacob Brown

New suspension, steering, and technology. Most of the changes are under the sheetmetal.

Jason Davis
Jason Davis

How is it thoroughly refreshed? It looks the same.

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