For 2012, the Kia Optima receives the optional Uvo voice command system on all but the base models and a minor shuffling of features between trim levels and option packages. The front seats have also been slightly reshaped for improved comfort.
There was a time, not long ago, when the term "family sedan" was associated with sensible -- but dull -- vehicles. While these volume-selling cars occupied a large chunk of sales, they likely weren't the object of desire. Once in a while, though, a sedan like the 2012 Kia Optima comes along that makes you want it for more reasons than just how sensibly it transports your family.
The 2012 Kia Optima sees few changes from last year, and that suits us just fine. Compared to other family sedans, the Optima is a styling standout, with a level of aggression and modernity inside and out that we're accustomed to seeing in much more expensive cars. Thankfully, this beauty is also more than skin deep, as the Optima also benefits from a better-than-average ride quality and driving dynamics.
Buyers can choose among a mild 200-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, a more potent, 274-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter or the efficient Optima Hybrid model that averages better than 30 mpg in combined driving. And as with other Kias, there's also a lot of value here, with plenty of standard and optional features (including Kia's new Uvo voice command system), an attractive price, long warranty coverage and top safety scores.
The Optima isn't perfect. Headroom may be an issue for some and it's not quite the sport sedan its styling would indicate. We've also found that the hybrid doesn't match its lofty EPA estimates and its advanced components do not operate as smoothly as competing hybrids. But overall this is still a great sedan. Along with the related Hyundai Sonata and new Volkswagen Passat, the regular Optima stacks up very favorably against the venerated Honda Accord and greatly improved new Toyota Camry. To put it simply, the 2012 Kia Optima may be an object of desire, but it's still a sensible family sedan as well.
Body Styles, Trim Levels, and Options
The 2012 Kia Optima is a midsize sedan available in five trim levels: LX, EX, EX Turbo, SX and Hybrid.
Standard equipment on the LX (with manual transmission) includes 16-inch steel wheels, automatic headlights, foglights, heated mirrors, full power accessories, a height-adjustable driver seat with power lumbar adjustment, air-conditioning, a cooled glovebox, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth, and a sound system with a CD player, satellite radio, an auxiliary audio jack and an iPod/USB audio interface. Opting for an LX with the automatic transmission gets you alloy wheels, cruise control and the availability of the Convenience package, which consists of an eight-way power driver seat and an auto-dimming rearview mirror.
The EX comes standard with the Convenience package as well as 17-inch alloy wheels, LED taillights, keyless ignition/entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear air vents, wood interior trim and leather upholstery. The EX Turbo gets a more powerful engine, bigger brakes and a different grille design. The SX is also turbocharged but has a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels, xenon headlights, a rear lip spoiler, unique bumper designs, steering-wheel paddle shifters and an upgraded trip computer. The Optima Hybrid is equipped similarly to the EX, though it has unique 16-inch alloy wheels, a rearview camera and cloth upholstery.
The Technology package (offered for all trims except the manual-equipped LX) adds a rearview camera, a navigation system and, on the LX, dual-zone climate control and rear air vents. The Premium package for the EX and SX adds a panoramic sunroof, a four-way power passenger seat, driver memory functions, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats and an eight-speaker Infinity sound system with HD radio and the Uvo voice-activated electronics interface. On the EX and EX Turbo, this package also includes a heated steering wheel. The Hybrid's Premium Technology package effectively combines those two packages and also includes 17-inch wheels, xenon headlights, leather upholstery and the auto-dimming rearview mirror.
Powertrains and Performance
Powering the front-wheel-drive 2012 Kia Optima LX and EX models is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder that produces 200 hp and 186 pound-feet of torque. A six-speed manual is standard on the LX, while a six-speed automatic is standard on this and all other Optimas. In California-emissions states, the Optima has a Super Ultra Low Emissions rating (versus Ultra-Low elsewhere) resulting in a lower power output of 192 hp and 181 lb-ft.
In performance testing, a loaded Optima EX in SULEV form went from zero to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds -- the ULEV Optima will be a bit quicker, but either way, the car is on par with other vehicles in the class. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 24 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined regardless of transmission. In testing of the related Hyundai Sonata, we found these numbers to be accurate.
The EX Turbo and SX get a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 274 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. These Optima Turbo models returned a quick 0-60-mph time of 6.5 seconds, along with an EPA-estimated fuel economy of 22/34/26. This is theoretically outstanding for a car with this much power, but as we've discovered in our long-term test of an Optima Turbo, your numbers won't come close to those if you frequently utilize that power.
The Kia Optima Hybrid is powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine paired with an electric motor and a six-speed automatic transmission. Combined power output peaks at 206 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Acceleration from zero to 60 mph requires 8.4 seconds, which is reasonably quick for a hybrid. The EPA estimates the Optima Hybrid fuel economy at 35/40/37 mpg; however, in extensive real-world testing we've found the hybrid struggles to match those numbers. We managed only 33 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.
Standard safety features on the 2012 Kia Optima include four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, side airbags, side curtain airbags and hill start assist. A rearview camera is optional.
In government crash tests, the Optima earned a top five-star rating for overall safety performance, with five stars awarded for both overall frontal and side-impact tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Optima a top score of "Good" in frontal-offset, side-impact and roof strength tests. In Edmunds brake testing, an Optima EX came to a stop from 60 mph in a class-average distance of 121 feet. The Hybrid and the sportier SX took a few feet more.
Interior Design and Special Features
First impressions of the 2012 Kia Optima's interior are exceptionally favorable. Where most other family sedans in this segment fall somewhere between sedate and bland, the Optima has a distinct European flair. And that should come as no surprise when you consider that Kia's chief designer used to work for Audi. While the Kia's interior isn't as sumptuous as an Audi's, there's an abundance of soft-touch materials, and any hard plastics are at least well textured. The Optima Hybrid's cabin is essentially the same, with a special gauge cluster that displays hybrid power flow and overall driving style efficiency.
This year, Kia's Uvo (pronounced "yoo-voh") electronics interface system is now available on all but the base LX trims. Similar to Ford's Sync system (both are powered by Microsoft), Uvo provides voice control of cell phones and MP3 players as well as other services such as turn-by-turn navigation. In our limited testing of Uvo, we found it to work quite well.
The Optima has a fairly spacious cabin with comfortable seats and a solid amount of legroom front and rear. Headroom (particularly in back) is a bit tight due to the car's rakish, coupelike roof line. Taller folks should definitely think twice about the optional panoramic sunroof, as it further decreases headroom. The Optima's 15.4 cubic feet of trunk space is about average for its class, but the hybrid's drops to a paltry 9.9 cubic feet because of its battery pack placement.
The 2012 Kia Optima's ride quality is comfortable without being isolating, but the same can't be said of its numb steering. Thankfully, the steering is at least firmer and more responsive than its more comfort-tuned Sonata cousin. Overall handling for the Optima is hardly memorable, due mostly to its conservative tire choice, but it's certainly pleasant and better than average for the segment.
Both of the regular four-cylinder engines are impressive. They produce best-in-class power and are paired with responsive and smooth-shifting transmissions. The potential for truly impressive fuel economy is an ample slab of icing on the cake.
Less impressive is the Optima Hybrid. Its electric motor makes accelerating from a dead stop a smooth affair, and at highway cruising speeds the electric motor can aid with quick bursts of acceleration that make the engine almost feel turbocharged. However, in low-speed driving or quickly changing traffic conditions, the hybrid shudders and lurches while deciding which gear it wants. It is similarly unpredictable under braking.