Rapid technological progress, accompanied by the increasing standardization of what once was sold as costly optional equipment, is upsetting the notion of traditional automotive luxury.
I’ve written this before — much to the chagrin of many in the car industry, particularly executives who cling to the eroding but still profitable idea that “luxury” is reserved for those truly wealthy enough to afford it, or aspirant buyers willing to incur enormous debt to acquire it.
I am hereby restating my argument and offering as proof Exhibit A — the 2016 Kia Optima SX Limited sedan.
It carries a starting price of $35,790, which is $13,950 more than the base — but still surprisingly well-equipped — Optima LX.
A difference of nearly $14,000 is no small thing. Not for me, at least. And, I suspect, it isn’t chump change for most of you. But the top-of-the-line, fully equipped Optima SX Limited is still tens of thousands of dollars less expensive than many similarly outfitted traditional luxury automobiles.
This is where I usually get the Timex-Rolex argument. It goes something like this: Both watches perfectly reflect passing seconds and minutes. But the Rolex is more elegant, expensive, luxurious — fitting for someone wealthy enough and willing to spend the money to acquire the prestige it presumably imparts.
I used to give that counterargument some credence — until along came Apple and Kia.
The new Apple watches — effective wrist computers, smartphones and timepieces — arguably do more and provide greater service than the most expensive Rolex, for a lot less money. Kia? Put it this way: Kia is doing to the car industry what Apple has done to the phone, wristwatch and computer businesses.
Here is my interpretation of Kia’s business philosophy: Everyone who buys a car wants to feel safe in that car and will appreciate any driver-assistance technology that enhances their feeling of security. Everyone wants to remain safely in touch with everyone and everything else, even while driving. Everyone appreciates flattery, something that visibly “congratulates” them for “having arrived,” or at least for making solid progress toward getting there. Everyone loves a good deal, something that speaks to their common sense, as opposed to something that primarily strokes their egos while lifting their wallets.
In addition, the Kia thinking goes: Of course, everyone wants a car that moves with authority. The Optima SX Limited gives them that with a turbocharged (forced air) 2-liter in-line four-cylinder gasoline engine (245 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque). But people want everything, assuming they can get it. They want big horsepower in tandem with good fuel economy. The Optima SX Limited delivers decently, with 22 miles per gallon in the city and 32 mpg on the highway, with premium fuel needed for “best performance.”
I absolutely loved driving the Optima SX Limited. It is comfortable. The model driven for this column came with optional quilted Nappa leather seat covering. Standard driver-assistance technology (in the SX Limited) included a premium onboard navigation system with high-definition rearview camera; Bluetooth wireless technology with hands-free connectivity; electronic rear parking assistance; forward collision warning system; lane-departure warning; blind-spot detection; rear cross-traffic alert, advanced smart cruise control and autonomous emergency braking.
All of this stuff works, consistently and reliably. It could mean the difference between a costly crash and no crash at all.
That, to me, is far more important than sub-five-second 0-to-60-mph acceleration times, or excessive horsepower that can safely be exploited only on a racetrack, or “prestige” that becomes less prestigious with each monthly payment.
Kia is on to something here. The South Korean company understands the future of the global automobile industry — a world in which 99 percent, as opposed to 1 percent, of the world’s car buyers control the direction of that industry. It is a world where vehicle safety is not an option, low emissions are a universally mandated requirement, and the “joy of driving” is not limited to those with enough money and horsepower to put a car on a racetrack.
Bottom line: The 2016 Kia Optima — base LX, LX1.6 Turbo, EX, SX, or top-of-the-line SX or SXL Limited — is well worth the look for anyone shopping for a nicely done, well-equipped, reasonably affordable midsize family sedan.
Ride, acceleration and handling: The SX Limited gets very good marks in all three.
Head-turning quotient: Mainstream attractive.
Body style/layout: This is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive midsize family sedan with a traditional notchback trunk.
Engine/transmission: The 2016 Optima SX Limited comes standard with a turbocharged, 16-valve, gasoline-direct-injection 2-liter in-line four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing (245 horsepower, 260 pound-feet of torque). The engine is linked to a continuously variable automatic transmission.
Capacities: Seating is for five people. Cargo capacity with all seats in place is 15.4 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 18.5 gallons of gasoline. For non-turbo models, regular grade is okay. Premium grade is recommended for best performance in turbocharged versions.
Actual mileage: I averaged 32 miles per gallon in spirited, albeit legal, highway driving.
Safety: Standard equipment includes four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front, solid rear), four-wheel anti-lock braking system, emergency braking assistance, stability and traction control, driver-side knee air bag, full-length side curtain air bags, hill start assist control, tire-pressure monitoring, and lower anchors and tethers for children.
Pricing: The 2016 Kia Optima SX Limited (fully equipped with mostly standard advanced electronic safety equipment) starts at $35,790 with an estimated dealer’s invoice price of $32,000. Estimated price as tested is $36,615 including an $825 factory-to-dealer shipment charge. Estimated dealer’s price as tested is $34,000.