Baby steps: Kia moves upmarket with the Optima SX Limited

Kia Optima SX Limited profile viewKia, once the cheapest of cheap cars, has turned its sights to the luxury market. Americans are still waiting for the Korean company’s K9, a large rear-wheel drive sedan that could do for Kia’s bad reputation what the Genesis did for parent company Hyundai. In the meantime, Kia is adding options to the midsize Optima. At $35,275, the Optima SX Limited is the most expensive Kia ever.

For an extra $7,200 over an Optima SX, Kia buyers will get a more upscale driving environment. The seats, center console, and door panels are wrapped in Nappa leather, while the steering wheel, doors, and shifter get wood accents. Luxury brands like Jaguar may be moving away from leather and wood trim, but Kia seems to be going for credibility over trendiness.

On the outside, the SX Limited gets chrome 18-inch wheels and red brake calipers that would make any street racer proud. Other exterior tweaks include LED daytime running lamps and a chrome rear spoiler. The changes are small, but luckily the Optima is already one of the best-looking sedans on the road.

The SX Limited is powered by the same 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4 as the SX. The turbo motor makes 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Kia opted for a smaller turbocharged engine over a V6 in the name of fuel economy; the I-4 has been the top Optima engine since the car’s launch.

With lots of new trim and no significant mechanical changes, it’s hard to see why someone would pay an extra $7,200 for an Optima Kia Optima SX Limited interiorSX Limited. For that money, buyers should expect a more powerful engine or some new tech. The Kia’s inflated price makes it much more costly than a Toyota Camry SE V6 ($30,875), a Honda Accord EX-L V6 with navigation ($32,720), or a Volkswagen Passat SEL Premium ($33,720).

The Optima already looks good, both inside and out, so the SX Limited’s add ons aren’t just expensive, they’re unnecessary. An Audi A4 may have LED daytime running lights, and an Infiniti G37 may have a chrome rear spoiler, but that’s not what makes them luxury cars. In this case, beauty really is more than skin deep. Kia knows this, or else it wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of building the K9. Kia shoppers should skip the Optima SX Limited and wait for that car if they want a real luxury vehicle.