WEST POINT, Georgia — Centering a couple of new-model first drives on a factory tour often portends troubled product ahead. Kia’s two mid-cycle refreshes, of the Optima mid-size sedan and Sorento three-row sport/utility, both for model year 2019, are moderate enough that they might have been simply added to the local press fleets.
Kia, which has slid behind Subaru this year to ninth-place among automakers in U.S. auto sales (Hyundai is seventh, but also is struggling to hold back Subaru), builds both the Optima and the Sorento in its plant, here, about an hour’s drive south of Atlanta. We took that drive from the airport in a loaded 2019 Kia Sorento SX-Limited V-6, which starts at a rather un-Kia-like $47,490, and includes 19-inch alloys, rain-sensing windshield wipers, deluxe stainless steel pedals, premium Nappa leather seat trim with ventilated front seats, second-row heated outboard seat cushions, heated steering wheel and LED headlights, daytime running lights and foglamps.
An eight-speed automatic is new on V-6-powered ’19 Sorentos, with a revised six-speed on the four-cylinder versions. There’s the usual front- and rear-fascia redesigns, available driver attention warning and lane-keep assist, new wheel designs (except on the SX trim), revised instrument cluster with better graphics, two-way lumbar support for SX and SXL front passengers, standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and available wireless charging tray and Harman Kardon Quantum Logic Surround Sound.
The ’19 Kia Sorento was comfortable, quick, and big on the drive from Atlanta Hartsfield Airport to our accommodations somewhere in the direction of the West Point plant. It’s an SUV, and my drive partner and I drove it as such. Kia’s entry in the large-midsize three-row SUV race is good enough to be compared with the top models, even if it’s not one of the bestsellers.
Kia’s Georgia plant has been building Sorentos since 2009, and added the Optima in 2011. It can build up to 360,000 per year in any mix. Like most modern factories, there’s flexibility here, so Kia can switch between sedan and SUV production pretty easily. It’s hard to find anything that stands out in any modern auto factory, and what we found here was something Kia PR pointed out to us—line workers are friendlier and happier than you’d expect. Virtually all of them wave and smile at the passing electric tour karts.
Based on sales, the Kia Optima hasn’t lost much ground to the Sorento, bucking the trend of most other sedan-SUV relationships. Through May, Kia Optima sales are off by more than 10,000 units from May 2017, but the total this year so far of 38,253 is just short of Sorento’s 40,671, up just 166 units versus May a year earlier.
So, about that 2019 Kia Optima SX 2.0T. There’s not a hell of a lot to report from the drive. We got some twisty, hilly country roads in Western Georgia, but mostly it felt like a good, solid mid-size sedan. Moderate, benign front-wheel-drive understeer. A decently compliant ride even with 18-inch alloys. Linear, predictable steering with a modicum of feedback. The most important thing is that Kia got rid of its old bugaboo of feeling like its various chassis were developed in a country where all the roads are straight and smooth. That bugaboo was exorcised only a couple of generations ago.
The 245-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo four is right up there for such engines in midsize sedans. Like any turbo four, there’s just enough lag, especially launching out of tight corners, to make you miss the days of V-6 options in such cars, but this is the future.
The lane-departure warning is too intrusive on the narrow two-lane roads. The center console information/entertainment screen includes buttons for audio volume and station, and heating/ventilation/air-conditioning temperature and fan setting, so it’s more user-friendly than in many other midsize sedans. The interior leather and plastic quality is about average for aspirational, top-trim commodity brand sedans, which is rather good, these days. The black plastics don’t get too obvious until you run your hand to the bottom of the inner door panels.
Most refreshing of the Kia Optima’s refresh is its Stinger-inspired front- and rear-fascias, though this is no Stinger, and doesn’t aspire to be. Sometimes the halo effect is just enough.
There’s also a new Driver Attention Warning added to Optima’s suite of driver-assist systems, and a redesigned, “easy-to-understand” UVO telematics and entertainment system, with UVO play, UVO link, and UVO link with navigation.
One more thing to report is that Kia showed off its commitment to The Ray, an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 85 in West Georgia. Named by his daughter for industrialist Ray C. Anderson, who sold environmentally friendly office building carpet tiling with built-in wiring for computer systems, the goal is to make that portion of highway carbon-neutral by 2020, using funds from Anderson’s foundation. The Ray includes solar panel-powered EV charging at a rest stop. There’s also 50 square meters of solar road on the Interstate, the first such pilot outside of France, and a nifty electronic tire station that can measure your vehicles’ tires’ pressure and tread depth when you slowly drive past it.
Kia’s participation in The Ray makes for good-neighbor public relations, but the automaker’s most impressive gesture just might be that it’s not giving up sedans for all-SUVs, all-the-time, yet.
2019 Kia Optima SX 2.0T Specifications
|ON SALE||Summer 2018|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged I-4/245 hp @ 6,000 rpm/260 lb-ft. @ 1,350-4,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|L x W x H||191.1 x 73.2 x 57.7 in|
2019 Kia Sorento SXL V-6 Specifications
|ENGINE||3.3L DOHC 24-valve V-6, 290 hp @ 6,400 rpm/252 lb-ft. @ 5,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||19/24 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||189.0 x 74.4 x 69.1 in|