We recently drove a 2016 Kia Optima EX, a model level below the new Optima SX models that secured the updated sedan’s place as the winner in the midsize category of our Best Buys Award. Usually, the distinction between different models comes down to how much stuff you're getting for your money, with higher trim levels getting more content. However, the Optima features a key mechanical difference: non-SX models get a different power steering mechanism, and we were eager to see how it changes the character of the car.

To be clear, it's not as if one steering mechanism points the car in different directions better than the other. Instead, it comes down to steering feel, which is one of those esoteric things automotive enthusiasts like to talk about. The steering mechanism in the SX provides better feel, while the rest of the lineup has a system that isn't quite as good. But what all that means -- and whether it matters -- is hard to explain without comparing the cars back to back, so instead, let's talk about pens.

It’s all about feedback

Imagine writing your name on a piece of paper with a felt-tip pen. It's smooth, the ink flows nicely, and you can read your name just fine, although it may be a little fuzzy around the edges. Now, imagine writing your name again, but this time using a ball-point pen. The ball point feels sharper, leaving a finer mark, and is so sensitive that you can even feel the texture of the table as you write.

That's similar to the way the steering in the different Optima models is. The Optima EX is the felt-tip: it steers the car just fine, but there's not very much finesse to the mechanism, as if there's a layer of padding between your hands and the front wheels. The Optima SX is the ball point: the steering feels sharper, more connected, and more precise. Note that either way, we're talking about mainstream sedans here; nobody is going to mistake either for an Audi A4, for example.

The bigger question is whether or not drivers care, and honestly, it depends on the individual. Those who prefer more feedback will gravitate to the Optima SX, which is a pretty solid and nice driving car. But even with its softer feeling steering, the Optima EX is no slouch. There's a strong 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, nicely sorted suspension, and plenty of features like pushbutton start, a Harmon Kardon audio system, navigation, and leather seats with heating and cooling for a hair over $30,000. In other words, the Optima EX simply reinforced the fact that we made the right call with our Best Buys decision: regardless of model, the 2016 Kia Optima is a class-leading sedan.


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