Aspen, Colorado — For years, each successive redesigned Kia model was a quantum leap over its predecessor. But after years of playing catch-up to the rest of the industry, Kia is now a major automotive player by any measure and can finally afford to settle down. Case in point: The 2016 Kia Optima that is represented as “all-new” but uses mostly carryover powertrains and looks almost identical to the Optima it replaces.
Why play it safe? Well, the outgoing Optima has been a watershed car in Kia’s fortunes; its stylish looks and sporting dynamics took the Korean company into the big leagues of the midsize sedan segment for the first time. In 2012, the Optima became the first Kia to sell more than 150,000 vehicles annually in the U.S., and it has maintained that sales pace since then. So to avoid messing with success, Kia has simply set out to improve the 2016 Optima rather than reimagine it. Will staying the course with the new Optima pay off for Kia, or will it restrict progress? We drove the new car through the mountainous terrain around Aspen, Colorado, to find out.
Starting from the top down
Although the value-oriented LX and comfortably equipped EX models make up around 85 percent of Optima sales, we spent most of the day driving the top model in the range, a loaded 2016 Kia Optima SXL with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. With its ambitious price of $36,615, the front-wheel-drive SXL costs a few thousand dollars more than loaded V-6 versions of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and seems to set its sights on premium cars like the Acura TLX and Buick Regal rather than mainstream family sedans. It’s more our kind of car.
When it comes to style, the Kia pulls off a convincing impression of a near-luxury sport sedan. The overall shape is familiar, yes, but the lines are a bit sharper and tauter, and the graceful arc of the greenhouse and sharply raked rear glass make us think of the Audi A7. (Probably this is no coincidence since Kia’s chief designer Peter Schreyer spent some years in design at Audi.) Details such as chrome trim, LED lighting accents, and 18-inch alloy wheels elevate the impression made by this pleasing shape, and subtle sporting touches such as red brake calipers don’t go unnoticed.
The cleanly styled interior also looks and feels worthy of the price tag. Sharp-looking gauges are easy to read, the plastics are high quality, and the quilted Nappa leather adorning the seats is both attractive and plush. Above all, the refreshingly simple array of buttons and knobs is logical to use and requires no learning curve to operate. Kia’s Uvo touchscreen interface, which includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capabilities, is similarly intuitive, though the screen itself is a bit of a reach from the driver’s seat.
The problem with reaching beyond the mainstream competition is that we raise our standards for driving dynamics, too. And the Optima SXL is not the sport sedan we were hoping for, as we find on our challenging two-lane route through the Rocky Mountains. The revised engine has lost 29 hp and 9 lb-ft of torque compared to the previous Optima’s 2.0-liter, since Kia says it tuned the engine for improved everyday drivability with more low-range torque and less turbo lag instead of outright horsepower. The four-cylinder pulls strongly from around 1,500-4,000 rpm, but it also runs out of steam as we push it higher in the rev range. While it is satisfyingly smooth and responsive for motoring around town, the Kia’s turbo-four doesn’t provide the oomph of similar-spec turbo-four engines from BMW and Volkswagen, let alone the potent V-6 engines that are optional in the Accord and Camry.
The 2016 Kia Optima’s revised chassis setup is much more composed in daily driving than its predecessor, but, like the powertrain, it doesn’t encourage you to drive with any sort of gusto. A new, rack-mounted electric-assist steering system affords far more natural levels of effort and better on-center behavior, but it isn’t as precise as we’d expect from a sport sedan. The suspension is rarely upset by imperfections and lends the car a planted feel, but the relatively soft tuning permits too much body roll, dulling the Optima’s responses when pushed a bit harder through switchbacks and esses. Rather than the sportiness that its sharp design suggests, we come away more impressed with the Optima SXL’s quiet and refined demeanor that falls more on the luxury side of things.
Humble roots still shine
When you think of the 2016 Kia Optima as a mainstream midsize sedan, this car’s strengths shine brighter. Take the base LX model with its newly available 1.6-liter turbo-four and dual-clutch automatic transmission that we drive later in the day, for instance. This little engine is a stout performer and feels nearly as punchy as the larger (and much more expensive) 2.0-liter unit. Because of its impressive performance and an EPA estimated 39 mpg highway, the 1.6-liter turbo is the clear choice in the lineup, though it’s restricted to one trim level (for now). A carryover 2.4-liter four-cylinder mated with a six-speed automatic will remain the volume powertrain, though Kia is closely monitoring demand for the LX 1.6 model to see if it might want to expand availability of the small-displacement turbo in the future.
The Optima LX costs about $10,000 less than the SXL and is nearly 300 pounds lighter, and yet it has the same quiet, refined ride and competent handling as the top-trim model, striking a nice balance between the sharp but slightly harsh Mazda6 and the comfy but mushy Toyota Camry. The LX’s dashboard layout is just as attractive and easy to use as the SXL’s, and it makes us think the 2016 Kia Optima might have the best interior in its class. Sure, without as much fancy exterior trim as the SXL, the lower-trim Optima doesn’t stand out quite as much on the road. And yet it’s still a hell of a lot more stylish than an Accord or Camry thanks to the same clean, flowing lines and a rakish greenhouse. That the Optima achieves this look without sacrificing rear-seat room (thanks to a slightly longer wheelbase and a wider track) is even more impressive, and the 15.9-cubic-foot trunk is capacious.
Most of these positives were true of the previous Optima, too, which was a similarly competent and stylish alternative to the big-name midsize sedan players. Yet the improvements to the car’s refinement, interior quality, and feature content have made it an even more compelling choice compared to the sales leaders.
Only the top-trim Optima SXL is let down a bit by its ambition; it’s missing that extra little bit of driving enjoyment that we expect with such premium pricing. Across the rest of the lineup, though, the 2016 Kia Optima remains a fashionable, interesting car that doesn’t compromise functionality for its looks. Kia might not have made a big jump forward with the 2016 Optima, but it didn’t need to. In this case, taking the safe route was the right choice.
2016 Kia Optima Specifications
- On Sale: November 2015
- Price (base/as tested): $22,665/$36,615 (SXL)
- Engines: 2.4-liter DOHC 16-valve I-4/185 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 178 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm; 1.6-liter turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/178 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm; 2.0-liter turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/245 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 260 lb-ft @ 1,350-4,500 rpm
- Transmissions: 6-speed automatic (2.4, 2.0T), 7-speed dual-clutch automated manual (1.6T)
- Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
- EPA Mileage: 22-28/32-39 mpg (city/highway)
- Suspension F/R: Strut-type, coil springs/multilink, coil springs
- Brakes F/R: Vented discs/discs
- Tires F/R: TBD
- L x W x H: 191.1 x 73.2 x 57.7 in
- Wheelbase: 110.4 in
- Headroom F/R: 39.8/37.8 in
- Legroom F/R: 45.5/35.6 in
- Shoulder Room F/R: 58.1/56.4 in
- Cargo Volume: 15.9 cu ft
- Weight: 3,219-3,594 lb
- Weight Dist. F/R: N/A
- 1/4-Mile: N/A
- Top Speed: N/A