2016 Kia Optima First Drive

October 20, 2015

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.

Once underway, the most surprising part of your Optima driving impression might just be how quiet this model is. Kia has finally properly addressed—to an extreme—the former Optima’s cabin road noise issues with loads more padding and everything from special acoustic laminated front-door windows and new engine mounts to more dash and underbody.

It certainly feels far quieter and a bit more forgiving over pockmarked roads, yet we think the Optima handles better, too. There’s more give, and definitely plenty of lean built in, but also seemingly more usable grip, and the Optima loads and unloads confidently in tight esses. Steering weighting is worlds better than it was when the last-generation Optima was new; it now builds weighting in a mostly even, predictable way and tracks well on center, across the wide range of models we drove. Keep in mind, by the way, that the SX and SXL models include rack-mounted electric power steering system that Kia considers superior for enthusiastic driving over the column-mounted EPS unit in other models.

Luxury-car ambience, frugally

Considering all this comfort and fluency with the road, the Optima manages find a luxury-car ambience that was mostly foreign to this nameplate before—and in top-trim SXL models, with their Nappa leather upholstery, ventilated front seats, heated back seat, heated steering wheel, and 14-speaker sound system (essentially lots of great hand-me-downs from the premium Cadenza sedan), it’s either an over-the-top $37k Optima or an interesting counter to luxury-brand models.

For most buyers’ needs, we’d probably recommend the EX 2.4-liter model, for its upgraded look, with blacked out pillars, LED taillamps and positioning lamps, and projector headlamps, plus things like automatic climate control, rear vents, rapid-charge USB ports, a heated steering wheel, heated front seats, and seat memory settings. And the Optima now gets both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, which lets you run a wide range of apps from your smartphone, using the Optima's UVO touch screen and other voice and toggle shortcuts.

Next year there’s a new Optima Hybrid on the way, and based on what we’ve seen (and experienced) of the 2015 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, we have some great expectations of this revamped high-mileage model. But now there’s another more mileage-minded pick in the lineup—the Optima LX 1.6T, with a 178-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbocharged direct-injection four-cylinder engine and seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT).

1.6T drivability is the only fumble

The 1.6T, which feels surprisingly strong and makes its peak 195 lb-ft at just 1,500 rpm, has a lot of potential, but the tuning of the DCT makes it feel like an ordinary automatic most of the time, with slurred, rather delayed shifts on acceleration—even in Sport mode, nothing as vivid and crisp as what you’ll find in Volkswagen’s cars with DSG, or Acura’s TLX and ILX with their dual-clutch ‘box. As you approach a tight bend in a two-lane country road and ease off the gas, you’ll need to remember to pull the shift lever over to the manual gate and downshift ahead of time, lest the setup will upshift by itself and offer up a confused delay when you get back on the gas.

Likewise, the DCT seems to be off a beat in low-speed city use—especially on slight hills—with crude, difficult-to-modulate creep when you need to gingerly shimmy into a parallel-parking spot.

On the upside, the mileage we saw from the 1.6T looked impressive; and with EPA ratings of 28 mpg city, 39 highway, the potential is there (with a light right foot) of getting compact-car mileage from a spacious mid-size sedan.

Although we think Hyundai’s tuning of the 1.6T/DCT combination leaves more to be desired (Kia’s version is definitely sportier, just still not crisp enough), we think that the closely related Sonata Eco, and the way it’s packaged as an efficiency-focused model, might better align with expectations.

More nuanced and elegant, though hardly bolder

And that leads to an important point. The Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are closely related. And they appear to be a even more closely aligned in their recently revamped versions, for 2015 and 2016, respectively. The 2016 Kia Optima, especially from the outside, feels better looking—far more nuanced, and a bit more elegant, for sure—but not striking out into any new design territory.

Kia and Hyundai officials will go to great lengths to outline how their respective models are different—and in all fairness, they are assembled in different locations, with some key differences in their supply chains; yet they share core architectures, engines, and even looking at these two models, the essential walk-up of models in the lineup. The entire field of mid-size sedans has entered a period in which it’s becoming increasingly difficult to discern the differences in design, features, and even handling between models; so we hope these two models preserve their core differences.

Identities aside, Kia has nothing to worry about here. It’s taken the model that’s pushed the brand’s sales to new heights, outselling nameplates like the Volkswagen Passat and Chrysler 200 on a model basis, and made both the 2.4-liter and 2.0T versions better than their predecessors in every possible way. This time around they might not be game-changers in the same way, but they’re already on top of their game.

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