When the midsize Optima sedan was redesigned in 2011, it quickly became one of the best-selling vehicles in Kia's lineup. Kia is looking to build upon that positive momentum with the all-new 2016 Optima. It's more fuel efficient and delivers a better overall driving experience without straying too far from the winning formula that made the previous model so popular.
What Is It?
At first glance, the 2016 Kia Optima doesn't appear to have changed much. But beneath the massaged sheet metal of this sharp-looking midsize four-door sedan sits an all-new chassis, which Kia says is longer, wider, lighter and stiffer than the outgoing model. This translates into more interior space, better fuel efficiency and improved ride and handling.
Both of the four-cylinder engines used in the 2015 Optima are carried over but have been retuned for better fuel economy. The 2.4-liter engine in the base LX and EX trims is now rated to deliver 30 mpg in combined driving (25 city/37 highway), a 1-mpg boost. The new top-line SX trim's 2.0-liter engine gains 1 mpg in combined driving (25 combined/22 city/32 highway) over its predecessor.
The mileage gains come at a price, however, as the 2.4-liter engine forfeits 7 horsepower and 3 pound-feet of torque (185 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque), while the 2.0-liter engine gives up 29 hp and 9 lb-ft (245 hp, 260 lb-ft of torque). Both engines are paired to a six-speed automatic transmission that sends power to the Optima's front wheels.
New for 2016 is a turbocharged 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. With an EPA rating of 32 mpg in combined driving (28 city/39 highway), the new engine is expected to be the sales volume and fuel-efficiency leader of the family.
The Optima line starts with the LX trim priced at $22,665. Stepping up to the turbo 1.6 engine bumps the starting price to $24,815, with the EX coming in just above at $25,715. The more performance-oriented SX models start at $30,515, with the fully loaded SX Limited at $36,615.
How Does It Drive?
Our initial test-drive of the Optima took place in the mountains at around 8,000 feet and climbing as high as 12,095 feet above sea level. Because of this, the majority of our drive time was allocated to the more powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter cars. Turbochargers can better mitigate the power-diminishing effects of thinner air at high elevation by pushing air into an engine.
Despite the altitude, our Optima SX Limited test car didn't suffer any noticeable power deficits, with ample thrust available for executing a pass or powering up grades. A subtle detent in the throttle pedal travel encourages efficiency, reminding drivers to avoid pedal-to-floorboard blasts. There is noticeably less top-end punch compared to the previous model, which could be a strike against the new car for someone who enjoys wringing an engine out to redline.
At cruising speeds, the Optima's cabin is luxury-quiet thanks to a number of sound insulation improvements to the 2016 model. The SX trim's sport-tuned suspension delivers a ride a couple notches firmer than "supple," controlling body motions competently without committing to real sporting intent. The variable-assist electric power steering falls in this same camp.
The SX trims benefit from a robust rack-mounted assist motor (a column motor is equipped in lower trims) for a more precise steering response. Neither setup, however, is good at communicating what's happening between the road and the front tires. So although the driving characteristics of the new Optima are superior to the previous-generation car, the engagement factor is still missing.
Back at sea level in California, we found our data corroborated our initial test-drive impressions. The new car outruns the old until about 50 mph before giving up a couple tenths to its peakier predecessor. During testing, the Optima with the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine hit 60 mph in 6.7 seconds, which is about average for the class.
Road grip improves significantly (0.86g versus 0.80g), as does slalom speed (66.0 mph versus 62.7 mph), earning the Optima a top dynamic spot in the class despite the lack of road connection we felt. While its straight-line speed may not be quite as quick as, say, a V6-powered Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, the Optima maintains an athletic pace for a midsize sedan in this class.
The six-speed automatic transmission features Kia's Sportmatic shifting, which simply means you can manually select gears sequentially using the console shifter or the steering-wheel-mounted paddles on SX models. This automatic won't match the engine rpm on downshifts like a sportier transmission would, but it does provide crisper shifts than the seven-speed dual-clutch in the 1.6-liter LX model.
What's the Interior Like?
Just as the Optima's exterior design has created a strong draw for buyers, the interior design and content is equally compelling. Thanks to the slightly stretched body dimensions, the passenger space inside expands in nearly every dimension. There's more hip- and shoulder room front and rear, ranging from an inch to an inch and a half. There's also an inch more rear legroom and a half cubic-foot of additional trunk space.
The dash has been designed more symmetrically, with clean horizontal lines and switchgear that is uncluttered and more visually inviting to the front passenger. The climate controls are easy to operate, with dual-temperature zones (standard on EX trims and up), and an 8-inch central touchscreen (available on LX turbo trims and up) is nicely integrated and well positioned to prevent sun glare.
There's an abundance of usable storage space and a long list of standard and optional features. You can specify everything from heated and ventilated Napa leather seats, a 10-speaker Harman Kardon QuantumLogic sound system, a huge panoramic sunroof and 360-degree bird's-eye-view parking cameras.
Kia utilized many premium materials in a conscious effort to elevate the appearance and feel of the cabin and to help justify the asking price of the top level trim. While this is indeed the nicest Optima to date, the price tag rises dangerously close to that of some luxury models that are still a rung above.
What Features Come Standard?
One of Kia's continued strengths is the level of standard content offered. Beginning with the base LX trim that starts under $23,000, notable standard features include a 5-inch central touchscreen, a 3.5-inch LCD trip computer, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a six-speaker sound system with USB and auxiliary audio jacks, satellite radio, cruise control, remote keyless entry, automatic headlights and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The LX 1.6T, in addition to the upgraded turbocharged powertrain, adds heated and power-folding mirrors, a Smart Trunk (automatically opens when the key fob is nearby), improved sound insulation, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gearshift knob and keyless push-button ignition.
The EX trim uses the base engine, but retains all the other features offered on the LX 1.6T. Additional standard equipment includes heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, 12-way power driver seat with memory, dual-zone climate control, an illuminated glovebox, leather upholstery, wood grain interior accents, two additional USB charging ports, a rear 12-volt power outlet, dual projector-beam headlights, LED taillights and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Stepping up to the SX trim adds the larger turbocharged 2.0-liter engine, a sport-tuned suspension, dual exhaust tips, 18-inch alloy wheels, adaptive bi-xenon headlights (a first for Kia), sportier LED taillights, unique front and rear exterior styling, a rear spoiler, an 8-inch color touchscreen with navigation, a flat-bottom sport steering wheel with paddle shifters, leather sport seats, a 4.3-inch color LCD trip computer, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and rear window shades.
For those who want it all, the SX Limited trim leaves no box unchecked. In addition to the SX features, there's a panoramic sunroof with power sunshade, High Beam Assist (automatically dims the headlights when vehicles are detected), rear sonar parking sensors, a 360-degree surround-view monitor, a blind-spot detection system, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, a lane departure warning system, forward collision warning with automatic braking, an electronic parking brake, a 10-speaker 630-watt Harman Kardon sound system, LED interior lighting, quilted Napa leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a 10-way power front passenger seat, a leatherette-wrapped interior with contrast stitching and premium Tricot-wrapped headliner and pillars.
What Competing Models Should You Also Consider?
The entry-level midsize sedan segment is hotly contested, and it was only within the past five years that the Kia Optima became part of the conversation. The Honda Accord and Toyota Camry have always been, and continue to be mainstays in this category, with reputations for dependability and loyal brand followings. Both Honda and Toyota offer V6 engine options that achieve fuel economy figures comparable to Kia's 2.0-liter turbo engine, but with slight horsepower advantages.
If you're looking for a more engaging driving experience, the Mazda 6 should definitely be considered. Offered only with a surprisingly torquey yet fuel-efficient 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the Mazda 6 relies more on solid driving dynamics and attractive design, over providing the longest menu of options. The Mazda 6, along with the Honda Accord, is among the few that still offer a manual transmission option.
On the domestic front, the Ford Fusion aligns with Kia's approach, offering both standard and turbocharged four-cylinder engines. The Fusion sports a handsome exterior design and a potent 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine, and it can be specified with all-wheel drive. Lastly, the all-new Chevrolet Malibu comes out swinging in 2016, with impressive exterior design and two turbocharged four-cylinder engines, a 1.5-liter and 2.0-liter, mated to six- and eight-speed transmissions, respectively.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
The new Optima manages to preserve much of what made it the sales success that it is today, while making notable improvements to key areas like fuel economy, cabin comfort and handling dynamics. Kia continues to offer a high level of value in each trim level, even if the top-of-the-line SX Limited model is now one of the most expensive trims available in this midsize class.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
There are cars in this class with more powerful V6 engines that deliver nearly the same mileage as Kia's turbocharged engines. Some competitors also offer larger cabins, additional safety options and sharper handling. In short, there are so many options to choose from, it pays to consider all of them.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.