In the automobile birthing business, you win some and you lose some.

In the case of the new Kia Optima SX Turbo, product planning director Orth Hedrick most assuredly lost one.

Because the soon-to-arrive SX, by virtue of its turbocharger and sport-tuned suspension, is more performance-minded than the regular 2011 Optima that debuted last fall, Hedrick thought it should be offered with a manual transmission. And he was pretty confident he would prevail over the bean tallymeisters who felt the number of SXs sold wouldn't justify the added expense of offering a manual alternative to the automatic.

"I think we'll win that one," he told me back in September.

Well, he didn't. At a recent press preview for the SX, which will start appearing in showrooms next month, I learned the car will be available only with a six-speed automatic. When I asked Mike Sprague, Kia's vice president for marketing and communications, why the manual was AWOL, he replied:

"A lot of young people [the principal projected market for the SX] just aren't interested in shifting. They're eating, talking . . . ."

At this point, another reporter interjected an additional activity, one dealing with the propagation of the species.

"I didn't say that," said Sprague, making sure the record was clear.

As it turned out, the SX was as much fun as the Q&A. This is an exceptionally handsome midsize sedan whose composed suspension and 274-horsepower engine make it a delightful playmate.

Since Kia is owned by Hyundai, Kia models like the Optima share structure and mechanicals with a corresponding Hyundai car. The Optima, for example, is the corporate counterpart of the Hyundai Sonata.

While they share hardware, the two are differentiated by body styling, interior design and their personalities. Long an anonymous, cheaper take on Hyundai cars, the Kia offerings have become sportier than their corporate counterparts, and have waxed more stylish and upmarket than they were. Indeed, I think the Optima's body design is more comely and more interesting than the Sonata's.

The Optima debuted with a 2.4-liter 200-horsepower four that provides more than adequate power and nice EPA mileage estimates of 24 city and 35 highway. The two-liter turbo engine (the 2.4-liter with a smaller bore and stroke) brings 74 more ponies to the party without much of a mileage penalty. It has EPAs of 22 and 34.

There's good reason why the turbo gets both good power and excellent mileage. It is the techiest engine Hyundai and Kia have ever put in a car, according to powertrain engineer Cory Bruckner.

The engine features direct injection, which increases power and fuel economy by injecting the fuel directly into the combustion chamber, and a unique dual-scroll turbocharger, whose twin-turbine design minimizes turbo lag and improves mileage. Bruckner claims a 10 percent boost in economy over a conventional, single-scroll turbo.

This engine will be available in both the EX Turbo, which is a regular Optima equipped with a turbocharger and larger front brakes, and the SX, which has the big brakes, the higher-performing suspension, sporty styling cues, and comes only with a black interior.

The EX Turbo will start at $24,495, the SX at $25,995.

In addition to the driving fun afforded by an engine that gets you from 0 to 60 in well under seven seconds, and suspension and steering systems that make fast turns a treat instead of a treatment, the SX does a good job of being a family car. It is quite roomy and comfortable, for openers. The ride is firm, yet supple, the seats are supportive, the instruments and controls are accessible, and, thanks to good sound damping, the cabin tends to be seen and not heard.

The driving experience is further enhanced by a long litany of amenities and an interior finished with good-quality, pleasing materials, like standard leather seats and the padded, saddle-stitched, pebble-grain plastic on the dash.

This is, finally, a fun family car that drives one more nail in the coffin containing Kia's forgettable past.

Excellent

2011 Optima SX Turbo

Base price: $25,995.

Standard equipment: 2-liter, turbocharged engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and an extensive amenity list ranging from leather seats and alloy wheels to a glove box that will cool your food and drink.

Options: Include a dual-pane sunroof.

Fuel economy: 22 m.p.g. city, 34 highway.

Handling: Running back moves.

Styling: Adult sporty.

Engine: Excellent.

Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles bumper to bumper, 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain.

The Ben Key: Four Bens, excellent; Three Bens, good; Two Bens, fair; One ben, poor.EndText

Contact Al Haas

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