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2016 Kia Optima First Drive

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The 2016 Kia Optima has a tough act to follow.

Forget the two generations of the Optima that preceded the outgoing model; it was the 2011 Optima that was Kia’s big break in the U.S.—the model with which the brand really blew past an era of forgettable, derivative mainstream attempts and found its own style.

One year it was barely competitive on anything but price, then the next year it was right in the heart of the mid-size sedan market, with engine technology a notch ahead of many rivals, an awesome feature set, and voluptuous styling that made this model a head-turner.

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As we report in our full review of the 2016 Optima, Kia has made its mid-size sedan better in every way. It’s better-driving, more refined, and fuller-featureed, all while keeping its status, at least in its more affordable trims, as one of the best value-for-money picks on the market—but maybe not quite the radically different head-turner its predecessor was.

As we’ve found now over several first-drive opportunities, the new Optima is simply a much better drive than before, either in its base 2.4-liter or high-performance 2.0T versions. In LX and EX models, powered by the 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine. Kia’s done a great job in tuning this engine to feel more confident with the six-speed automatic transmission; it’s plenty quick for most needs.

Above that, in SX and SXL models, the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine has a different turbocharger than before, and it spools up far quicker, offering almost no lag now and producing its peak torque of 260 pound-feet at just 1,350 rpm. Horsepower is down to 245, but we’re willing to forgive that for a far less peaky, more responsive engine—and the automatic also works really well here, with steering-wheel shift paddles provided.

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While we wouldn’t call the Optima one of the sportiest entries in its class, it rides and handles better than the previous version. Thanks to a new suspension geometry that moves mounting points outboard, with new bushings, and revamped spring-and-damper settings, the Optima feels simply better composed. It’s more compliant over minor bumps yet less bouncy over harsh impacts, and in SX guise we think it has one of the sweetest ride-versus-handling compromises in its class.

More pleasant in every way

The 2016 Optima is simply a very pleasant car to spend time in. Front seats have improved, with more thigh support, and the driving position’s definitely better than before. The passenger no longer has to be less comfortable than the driver, either, as throughout the model line the front ride-along seat is height-adjustable. All models have split-folding rear seatbacks—a feature Honda doesn’t think mid-size shoppers want—and by the way, to tear down another affordable-car compromise, there are no steel wheels and hubcaps in the lineup.


 
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