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2013 Kia Optima SXL: Midsize marvel

by: KIA MOTORS NORTH AMERICA - The 2013 Optima is Exhibit A in Kia's masterplan for world domination.By now everyone and their mother is aware of Kia’s plan for world domination. When I parked my 2013 Optima SXL during the first day of testing, the attendant said it looked like an Audi. When I told him it was a Kia, he said he knew and they sure have come a long way in a short time.

Honestly. He said that. So if you didn’t know by now, take my word for it — Kia no longer makes substandard economy cars but is challenging the world with its stylish, well-designed, well-made and reasonably priced cars and crossovers.

The completely revised Optima that debuted in 2011 is Exhibit A. Earlier versions of the affordable midsize car were anything but memorable. But the current version stands out from the crowd. The exterior styling is sleek and sexy. The interior is contemporary and roomy. The list of standard equipment and options is extensive. And the variety of models is impressive — a base four-cylinder that gets good mileage, the turbocharged four cylinder SX that’s a real performer, and a hybrid version for the environmentally-conscious consumer.

I tested a 2013 Optima Hybrid in January and was impressed by its styling, comfort and performance. Some other hybrids may get better mileage, but they don't look as good doing so.

But in my mind, the 2013 Optima SXL — the subject of this test — is in a class by itself. For starters, the SX version comes with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four cylinder that cranks out 274 horsepower and 269 foot pounds of torque. I’ve always liked the way turbochargers use exhaust gases to drive turbines that force more fuel and air into the engine. The additional power swells as the speed increases, building momentum in a growing wave. Hooked up to a six-speed Sportmatic transmission with a manual shift mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, the turbo motor turns the Optima into a real star.

But just as important, the L stands for Limited and designates a number of additional performance and luxury options, meaning the SXL comes with everything from stronger four-wheel-disc brakes to unique 18-inch chrome wheels and a full leather interior that includes heated and cooled from bucket seats. Toss in a panoramic sunroof, a navigation system with rear view camera and all the connectivity a teenager could want, and my test Optima was a fully loaded ride.

And speaking of the ride, it was exrtremely well balanced — not to soft and not too firm, but supple enough to aborb road imperfections while still encouraging hard cornering. Some drivers who are only looking for a comfortable family car might find the suspension a little to hard, but for anyone who wants to little fun now and then, the set up is hard to beat.

Of course, adding all those performance and luxury compopents pushes the cost of the 2013 Optima SXL well past the approximately $22,000 base price. The sticker on my test car read $35,470, which is still not bad for everything on it.

And downsides are few. The rear roofline is so sloped that tall passengers have to watch their heads getting into the back seats. And a few hard plastic pieces in the interior clashed with the soft plastic and leather that covered everthing else. But the dash and center console are so well designed, it is easy to overlook those reminders of Kia’s past. The angled center stack reminded my of those in the late and lamented Saab turbos, which also understood the concept of a “driver’s car.”

Despite making such a strong impression just two years ago, the 2013 Kia Optima is already facing stiff competition. The aforementioned Fusion and Camry are also sleeker looking after recent redesigns. The Honda Accord is now closer to a desirable midsize after a strategic course correction and upgrade. And the Volkswagen Passat is knocking on the door, too.

But for sheer value, the 2013 Optima line is hard to beat, including the surprisingly well done top-of-the-line model, the SXL.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: Optima SXL.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Styles: Four door car.

• Engines: 2.4-liter inline 4 (200 hp, 186 lb-ft); turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4 (274 hp, 269 lb-ft – as tested); hybrid system including 2.4-liter inline 4 and electric motor (206 hp and 195 lb-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 24/35/28 (4/auto); 22/34/26 (turbo 4/auto); 34/39/36 (Hybrid).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $21,220 ($35,470 as tested).