2016 Kia Optima Review

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Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
July 4, 2016

The 2016 Kia Optima is better than its game-changing predecessor in nearly every way—except it’s a little less distinct.

The 2016 Kia Optima arrives to a very different mid-size sedan market than what existed five years ago. That’s when the 2011 Optima appeared on the market, truly putting Kia on the map with American mid-size sedan shoppers.

That was a time when several top-selling models in the mid-size market, like the Camry and Accord, in their previous forms, appeared to be under a sort of success paralysis. Now, with the Optima no longer a niche model, and instead a serious contender in its class—a benchmark of sorts for style and value, outselling the Volkswagen Passat and Chrysler 200—will Kia leap ahead again, or will it try to stay in that market sweet spot?

After spending some time with the new Optima, we can say that the answer lies closer to the latter: It doesn’t mess too much with the good thing it has, and it fine-tunes, finesses, and fetters every detail in between—to create a 2016 Optima that’s all-new but keeps close to the form of the much-loved outgoing model.

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In design and styling, the last Optima was a resounding success, as it pushed the brand’s mid-size sedan entry from faceless to fashionable. The 2016 remains one of the better-looking sedans on the market today, although it’s no longer at the bold leading edge, like its predecessor. From the outside, the Optima continues to embrace many of the design traits that used to be verboten in a sedan—like the swoopier, coupe-like roofline (elongated just enough to assure some back-seat head room), a greenhouse that tapers at the rear, and proportions that are almost like those of a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan.

In person and out in the real world, off auto-show stages, the 2016 Optima could be mistaken for the previous model on the outside—although sharpen focus and the combination of better front or rear styling plus more softer sheet metal cements its role in having a design that’s evolved and matured into something better detailed, more nuanced.

Inside the change is much easier to see as what it is, which is a complete redesign. As you sit in the front seats, you’ll notice that space has been used a bit more wisely, with the corners somewhat more pushed out. The dash is no longer as segmented and visually canted toward the driver’s seat. Trims, buttons, and switchgear inside improve by leaps and bounds, and you won’t have to look far to see the level of improvement here in the details.

The 2016 Optima is marginally longer, taller and wider than before, and these change add up to a slightly roomier and more comfortable cabin, along with more trunk space. Seats have been improved in front, and for 2016 Kia has brought a height-adjustable passenger seat to the entire Optima lineup. Rear seating isn’t the most comfortable in the class, as we see it, although the long rear doors (and wide cutlines) make getting in and out easier than in most mid-sizers. Trunk space has grown slightly in the 2016 Optima, to 15.9 cubic feet, and a wide opening to the cabin, with split-folding rear seatbacks, is standard for cargo flexibility.

Kia has clearly learned from the introduction of its larger, upmarket Cadenza and downright luxurious K900 sedans over the past several years. The current Optima does away with the outgoing model’s road noise issues, keeps engine noise at bay, adds a smidge more seating space throughout, and offers supple ride quality and impressive cabin trims, no matter which model you choose. In short, it’s one of the most refined interiors in its class.

The 2016 Optima comes in five trim levels—LX, LX Turbo, EX, SX Turbo, SXL—and they correspond to several different powertrains. The three engine choices include a new 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and two powerplants that carry over from the previous generation, the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder and 2.0-liter turbocharged engine models.

The 2.4-liter GDI engine available on LX and EX models is estimated by Kia to produce 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 178 pound-feet of torque, while the 2.0-liter turbo is expected to generate approximately 247 hp at 6,000 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 1,350 rpm. Both engines are slightly down in power over the previous versions, but they’ve been retuned for better drivability. All models get a multi-mode switch for Eco, Normal, and Sport settings for the powertrain, while SX and SXL trims add paddle shifters.

The 1.6-liter turbo available for Optima LX is expected to produce 178 hp at 5,500 rpm and 195 lb-ft of torque at just 1,500 rpm. The new engine mates to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, which works like an automatic. Kia says the 7-speed DCT delivers a sporty feel without sacrificing fuel economy—although we have mixed feelings about the drivability as it’s tuned and think that the 2.4-liter models are a better bet for most needs.

Ride quality is much-improved throughout the lineup, with suspension mounting points moved outward—on a stiffer body, with new four-bushing mounts. With new tuning, Kia has built an Optima that feels more compliant over the minor bumps yet less bouncy over harsh impacts from potholes and railroad tracks. It’s not one of the sportiest in this class, yet it now has one of the best ride-versus-handling compromises, especially in top SX form.

Kia has for years been one-upping other automakers in terms of features and sheer value for money, and the 2016 Optima is no exception. The new Optima starts below the $23,000 mark and includes, even at the base LX level, a rear camera system, satellite radio compatibility, a six-way power seat, air conditioning, cruise control, and keyless entry. All versions also include alloy wheels, while heated sear seats and ventilated front seats are quite widely offered—not just on the single most expensive model.

On EX and SX models you can opt to get heated outboard rear seats and ventilated front seats, and a safety package with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and available surround-view monitors.

And before you scoff at the nearly $37,000 sticker price of the top-of-the-line SXL, keep in mind that it comes equipped better than many luxury models, with standard advanced cruise control, stitched soft upper door trim, Nappa leather upholstery, and all the aforementioned active-safety features—plus awesome 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio.

The Optima is also one of the first models on the market to offer both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay—connectivity systems that let you interact with your smartphone via the Optima’s UVO infotainment screen. UVO now also includes Geo-fencing, Speed Alert, Curfew Alert, and Driving Score, with music, messaging, navigation, and voice calls all available via the screen, the steering wheel, or voice command.

The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine earns EPA ratings of 24 mpg city, 35 highway, 28 mpg combined, while the 2.0T models at the top of the lineup return 22/32/25 mpg. Go for the 1.6-liter turbocharged models in the middle, and you’ll earn the best ratings in the lineup, at 28/39/32 mpg.

8

2016 Kia Optima

Styling

Many may see the styling and design of the 2016 Kia Optima as only slightly evolved, yet it looks leaner and more svelte than its predecessor—with far better attention to the fine details inside.

The 2016 Kia Optima is one of many very good-looking sedans on the market today. But it’s no longer at the bold leading edge of the field, like its predecessor.

From the outside, the Optima continues to embrace many of the design traits that used to be verboten in a sedan—like the swoopier, coupe-like roofline (elongated just enough to assure some back-seat headroom), a greenhouse that tapers at the rear, and proportions that are almost like those of a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan.

Yet at a time when pretty much every mid-size rival—even the Toyota Camry—has become more visually interesting and stylish, the Optima has a harder time standing out in 2016 than it did in 2011, when that previous model made its debut.

The previous generation of the Kia Optima seemingly came out of nowhere. One year it had been an anonymous, also-ran sedan that was a “bar of soap” in the sedan market, essentially. Then, with the design introduced by design boss Peter Schreyer, it became one of the distinct, cohesive, and flamboyant among affordable mid-size sedan designs on the market. That’s no doubt a tough act to follow, and the new fourth generation of the Optima seems to take more of a careful, evolutionary tack; it doesn’t mess up a good thing, but it doesn’t take the design into new places either.

In person and out in the real world, off auto-show stages, the 2016 Optima could be mistaken for the previous model on the outside—although sharpen focus and the combination of better front or rear styling plus more softer sheet metal cements its role in having a design that’s evolved and matured into something better detailed, more nuanced.

On the outside, the new Optima has been incrementally stretched to be longer, wider, and taller than its predecessor, but only a slight bit in each case. Somehow the changes add up to something more noticeable at the front or rear. More aggressive sculpting makes it feel as if the grille were lower, even if it isn’t, and the well-sculpted airdam helps give the Optima more visual width and presence. In back the look is a little less distinctive, with taillights that flare slightly upward and outward to the corners. Meanwhile, especially if you’re in the right light, you’ll notice that the previous Optima’s side creasing has been softened; that especially makes the tapering and sculpting around the rear pillar look a little softer and more expressive.

Inside the change is much easier to see as what it is, which is a complete redesign. As you sit in the front seats, you’ll notice that space has been used a bit more wisely, with the corners somewhat more pushed out. The area immediately around the driver doesn’t feel like it’s quite as driver-focused as in the last generation, as the instrument panel is no longer as segmented and visually canted toward the driver’s seat. Instead the dash design feels a bit more linear and horizontal, while an upper crease arcs around the top of the dash and through to the doors, framing the cabin for the front occupants nearly.

Trims, buttons, and switches inside improve by leaps and bounds, and you won’t have to look far to see the level of improvement here in the details. The 2016 Optima inherits some of the look, and the upscale, luxury-influenced details in everything from surfacing to brightwork and gauge faces. It’s one very well-coordinated cabin.

Review continues below
8

2016 Kia Optima

Performance

Kia has truly optimized the driving experience of the 2016 Optima; it feels quite responsive and nimble relative to other sedans in its class—and more so than its predecessor.

The 2016 Kia Optima still offers an all-4-cylinder lineup and a choice between naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines; yet with this year’s redesign it gets far more of a focus on handling and ride, as well as a new third engine choice—slotting between the two in performance and aimed at those who are fuel-economy focused.

The most fun you’ll have behind the wheel of the 2016 Optima is definitely with the SXL or SX models and their 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, which makes 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. The horsepower rating is down versus last year’s model, but this engine has been reworked to deliver its torque lower in the rev range (peak torque arrives at just 1,350 rpm) and more immediately than before.

The 2.0T comes only with a 6-speed automatic, and the combination works well, reading your right foot in more enthusiastic driving and making smooth upshifts and prompt downshifts (and these SX and SXL models get steering-wheel shift paddles). Versus the 2.0T models in last year’s Optima, this engine feels far more refined and quiet.

This year those who want turbocharged performance, but better fuel economy, have a new option: the LX 1.6T. This Optima model makes 178 hp—actually less than the base engine—but its 195 lb-ft of torque at just 1,500 rpm makes it feel stronger in most kinds of driving. It’s the only Optima in the lineup to get a new 7-speed dual-clutch automatic (or automated manual gearbox arrangement, to be more accurate).

That dual-clutch gearbox in the Optima LX 1.6T is hesitant to the degree that it gets in the way of drivability; and while it shifts quite smoothly in full-on acceleration runs or passing maneuvers, it seems to struggle on curvy, hilly highways, pausing far too long for shifts sometimes. Its low-speed drivability for parking is also frustrating, and it’s clumsier than either VW’s DSG or Ford’s PowerShift—two other uses of dual-clutch technology.

At the base level, the Optima LX and EX are powered by a 185-hp, 2.4-liter direct-injection inline-4. It’s mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, and we’ve found this combination to be responsive, smooth, and perfectly adequate for most buyers’ needs. It doesn’t make its peak 178 lb-ft of torque until 4,000 rpm, however, which means that the transmission will require a downshift more often than with either of the turbocharged engines.

Ride quality is much-improved, too, with suspension mounting points moved outward—on a stiffer body, with new four-bushing mounts. The Optima continues to ride on MacPherson struts and coil springs in front, with a multi-link independent setup in back, but thanks to some very different spring-and-damper settings, the net effect is an Optima that feels more compliant over the minor bumps yet less bouncy over harsh impacts from potholes and railroad tracks. With more predictable body lean, too, it’s a combination that we much appreciate; while not one of the sportiest in this class, it’s now one of the best ride-versus-handling compromises, especially in top SX form.

Throughout the model line brake-pedal feel is quite good, too, and this is far more difficult to fluster than you might expect for a quite economical sedan.

All models come with a Driver Mode Select system that relates to powertrain response. It provides Eco, Normal, and Sport modes, and changing shift points and throttle sensitivity accordingly. We tended to like Normal the best in nearly all the powertrains—except when being driven very rapidly. Eco Mode, especially with the 1.6T model resulted in hesitant shifting even though we liked the softer tip-in.

One other note: Kia offers two different power-steering setups in the Optima. top SX and SX-L models get a special rack-mounted electric power steering system that offers a more precise feel just off-center. We do think the SX tracks slightly better and deals a bit better with crowned backroads. Yet even on the other models, the tuning of the steering is now quite good, with a quite precise feel and good sense of center.

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8

2016 Kia Optima

Comfort & Quality

The 2016 Kia Optima now has one of the quietest, most refined cabins in its class—with plenty of space, too.

Kia has clearly learned from the introduction of its larger, upmarket Cadenza and downright luxurious K900 sedans over the past several years. The current Optima does away with the outgoing model’s road noise issues, keeps engine noise at bay, adds a smidge more seating space throughout, and offers supple ride quality and impressive cabin trims, no matter which model you choose. In short, it’s one of the most refined interiors in its class.

Although Kia’s made some efforts to soothe cabin noise in the Optima in recent model years, the outgoing one had one of the noisier interiors in its class—particularly for road noise. With this year’s redesign, it’s finally properly addressed—to an extreme—with loads more passing and ground-up considerations for noise and vibration. With everything from special acoustic laminated front-door windows, new engine mounts, more dash and underbody insulation, and more robust body panels, the Optima manages to seal out the outside world with a luxury-car ambience.

Seating comfort is quite good in the Optima, thanks to a new seat design with longer lower cushions and more side support. Back support is better than we remembered from the old car, too—and better than the norm for an affordable sedan—and there seemed like a very wide range of adjustability in these front seats. For 2016, Kia has brought a height-adjustable passenger seat to the Optima lineup—allowing especially short or tall passengers the same sort of seating comfort that the driver can obtain.

There’s more rear seating space, officially, although we continue to see this back seat, contrary to whatever the numbers might say, as not quite as comfortable for taller occupants as the class leaders of the group—as we see it, the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat. The cushions are just a bit short and flat in back, and we found them quite low, leaving knees up and heads for 6-footers right up against the headliner and tapering rear pillar. Those outboard back-seat positions simply aren’t as comfortable as what you’ll find in some rival models (the Accord, for instance). Yet to Kia’s credit the long rear doors (and wide cutlines) make getting in and out easier than in most mid-sizers.

Trunk space has grown slightly in the 2016 Optima to 15.9 cubic feet. This is a large trunk with an opening that should be wide enough for most big-box boxes. And as opposed to some models in this class (Accord, nudge), a 60/40-split rear seat setup is standard on all versions of the Optima, allowing that added flexibility when you’re willing to trade off some passenger space for longer-item cargo space.

Functionally, the Optima’s interior hits all the marks, with a simple yet elegant interface that includes rotary knobs for volume and tuning, as well as for temperature settings, plus clear steering-wheel shortcut buttons, legible gauges, and relatively intuitive, straightforward touchscreen interfaces.

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10

2016 Kia Optima

Safety

The 2016 Kia Optima builds on an already stellar reputation with new active-safety features and a stouter structure.

The Optima is built on a body structure that’s essentially all-new, with far more high-strength steel than before, as well as various other measures to increase strength and crash-test safety without adding weight.

The independent IIHS has rated the Optima "Good" in all categories, including the notoriously difficult small-overlap crash test. When optionally equipped with active safety measures, the Optima earns a "Superior" rating by the IIHS for crash avoidance and mitigation. Add all that up and the Optima earns a Top Safety Pick+ designation, the highest mark by the independent agency.

The feds have been equally kind. The Optima has earned five stars across the board, which include frontal crash, side impact and rollover safety.

All trim levels of the Optima offer a rear camera display, while there’s a great surround-view camera system on SX and SXL trim levels. Also available: adaptive cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking.

All Optima models come with a pretty long list of standard safety features, including seat-mounted side airbags, side-curtain airbags, a driver’s knee bag, front active headrests, electronic stability control, and hill-start assist, to keep the vehicle from rolling back when starting on a steep uphill grade.

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10

2016 Kia Optima

Features

Across the 2016 Optima lineup, Kia continues to load on the value, offering more features than key rivals—as well as some features not found in other affordable mid-size sedans.

Kia has for years been one-upping other automakers in terms of features and sheer value for money, and the 2016 Optima is no exception. Despite the redesign, the new Optima starts below the $23,000 mark and includes, even at the base LX level, a rear camera system, satellite radio compatibility, a six-way power seat, and keyless entry.

Other features wrapped into the price of that base model include air conditioning, Bluetooth, a six-speaker audio system, cruise control, and a rear center armrest with built-in cupholder.

All versions also include alloy wheels; there are no steel-wheel Optimas, even for fleet use. The front seats are height-adjustable in all 2016 Optima models, which is a feature that many models in this class don’t even offer in their most loaded-up top-trim versions. Meanwhile heated sear seats and ventilated front seats are quite widely offered—not just on the single most expensive model.

Above the base LX is the somewhat sportier yet efficiency-focused LX 1.6T. It adds the 1.6-liter turbocharged engine and dual-clutch automatic transmission plus folding heated side mirrors with turn signal lamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, keyless ignition, while LED taillights, dual-zone automatic climate control (with rear vents), rapid-charge USB ports, and a power driver’s seat are available as options.

Mid-range EX models, still with the base 2.4-liter engine, come with leather upholstery, heated front seats, larger 17-inch alloys, black-gloss pillars, LED taillights, projector headlamps, LED positioning lamps, dual-zone automatic climate control, rapid-charge USB ports, a leather heated steering wheel, wood grain trim, mood lighting, and an illuminated glove box.

On any of the LX or EX models, you can opt for rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitors, and rear cross-traffic alert systems.

At the SX level you get the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, with the strongest performance of the lineup, plus gloss black and hairline metal interior trims, overhead pin lamps, and metal pedals. On EX and SX models you can opt to get heated outboard rear seats, ventilated front seats, an upgraded headliner, and a 10-way power passenger seat.

Here, you can opt for forward collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and a surround-view camera system.

Before you scoff at the nearly $37,000 sticker price of the top-of-the-line SXL, keep in mind that it comes equipped better than many luxury models, with standard advanced cruise control, stitched soft upper door trim, Nappa leather upholstery, a 12-way driver-side and 10-way passenger-side power seat, ventilated front seats, and all the aforementioned active-safety features.

The SXL also includes an awesome Harman Kardon audio system, with 10 speakers, Clari-Fi technology and an upgraded 630-watt digital amplifier. Clari-Fi is a patented music restoration technology that rebuilds audio signals lost in the digital compression process.

Connectivity continues to be quite straightforward and intuitive, yet simultaneously cutting-edge, in the Optima. The 2016 Optima will offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which allow drivers to access a suite of core functions from their smartphones. It also now includes parent-friendly features such as geo-fencing, speed and curfew notifications with a novel "driving score" to monitor driving patterns.

Android Auto wasn’t yet working in our pre-production test vehicles, and Apple CarPlay won’t be enabled until later in the year; we’re eager to try both systems and will update these review pages as we do.

A so-called tire mobility kit, with sealant and an inflator can, are included in all Optima models, but if you want a physical spare you might have to work out a deal at the dealership.

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8

2016 Kia Optima

Fuel Economy

The 2016 Kia Optima drops the Hybrid for now; yet the new LX 1.6T model adds a efficiency-minded alternative to that.

The last generation of the Kia Optima did away with the optional V-6 in favor of a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Now, the new-generation 2016 Optima adds a mid-range turbocharged engine that provides both better performance and fuel economy.

The base 2.4-liter inline-4 engine earns EPA ratings of 24 mpg city, 35 highway, 28 combined, while the 2.0T models at the top of the lineup return 22/32/25 mpg. Go for the 1.6-liter turbocharged models in the middle, and you’ll earn the best ratings in the lineup, at 28/39/32 mpg. Part of that is due to the 7-speed dual-clutch automatic (technically a special kind of automated manual gearbox) that has fewer mechanical losses than a conventional automatic.

So far, in some back-to-back drives and based on anecdotal trip-computer readouts, we’ve also seen the 1.6-liter versions as the most fuel-efficient in the lineup. In all fairness, the 2.0T model is likely fuel-efficient if you drive it gently. It has all the perkiness on tap and you’ll likely catch yourself enjoying that—and forgetting about the mileage at times.

For the first time the Optima has a full-floor undercover, which helps not only with road noise but also aerodynamics and highway fuel efficiency.

For now, there’s no hybrid in the lineup; but that’s due to change with the return of the Optima Hybrid sometime this year. This model will remain quite closely aligned with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and based on how significantly the Sonata Hybrid has improved for 2016, that’s a great thing. According to the EPA, the Optima Hybrid manages 36/40/38 mpg.

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December 31, 2016
2016 Kia Optima 4-Door Sedan LX

Best car for the money

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My previous car was a 2013 Kia Optima. The 2016 version is just as good and then some. Improvements noted: interior materials, backup camera, ride quality, quietness, fuel mileage. Both of my Optimas have had... + More »
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April 21, 2016
2016 Kia Optima 4-Door Sedan SXL Turbo

Must have this car

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I'm a paraplegic and this car is the best car I've ever driven in the 16 years I've been in a wheelchair. I wish I had one I wouldn't trade it for the world. Great car great job Kia.
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January 18, 2016
2016 Kia Optima 4-Door Sedan SXL Turbo

Luxury car at an affordable price.

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love the 2.0 turbo, even if the fuel economy is not that great. I can't think of a feature that this car is missing.
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August 27, 2015
For 2016 Kia Optima

Great looking car, but saddened by the few things I wish I would have known before my purchase decision.

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The passenger seat is placed lower than the drivers seat and cannot be adjusted. I did not know this when I purchased the car, because I test drove it obviously on the drivers side. When my husband drives, I... + More »
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April 20, 2015
For 2016 Kia Optima

Great Cars

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Had 1 2012 for 3 years and 3 mos - nothing ever went wrong - great looking and great resale value.
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