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2016 Kia Optima Test Drive Review
The 2016 Kia Optima Turbo doesn’t feel weaker. If anything, the car is more responsive at lower engine rpm, where most drivers prefer and appreciate a palpable feeling of acceleration.
In almost every respect, the redesigned 2016 Kia Optima is the standard-bearer of the midsize family sedan segment. From its exterior styling and interior design to its safety and infotainment systems, the new Optima is firing on all cylinders. Plus, in Optima Turbo spec, and with a single exception, this car is great to drive.
Look and Feel
Competence is underrated. Success is too often attributable to whom you know or how you look instead of what you know and how you work. Good thing the redesigned 2016 Kia Optima has all the bases covered, which likely makes its primary fault all the more glaring.
Now the 29th best-selling vehicle in America (as of November 2015), the Kia Optima’s styling is a significant contributor to its success. This year, Kia refines rather than redefines the car’s look, and from any angle it is an attractive midsize family sedan, inside and out.
My test vehicle was the top-of-the-line SX Limited, painted Horizon Blue and equipped with Black, diamond-quilted premium Nappa leather upholstery. The price came to $36,615, including the $825 destination charge. You needn’t spend that much on a new Optima. The base LX model costs just $22,665, and prices stair-step from there with the LX 1.6T, the EX, and the SX.
Relentlessly black inside, my test car’s cabin was nevertheless airy thanks to the SX Limited model’s panoramic glass sunroof. Metallic-finish interior trim also helps to lighten the mood, but I’d suggest trying the Ivory or Aubergine interior colors, which result in a two-tone interior treatment. Unfortunately, neither is offered with Horizon Blue paint.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is standard for the Optima SX and SX Limited. A reworked version of the force-fed engine offered in the previous-generation Optima, it makes 245 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque between 1,350 rpm and 4,000 rpm.
These figures are lower than last year, but the torque is made at lower rpm, helping to make up for losses. Kia says the engine is “retuned for fuel economy and better performance and drivability.” Based on my test drive, the company succeeded in its goals. The Optima Turbo doesn’t feel weaker. If anything, the car is more responsive at lower engine rpm, where most drivers prefer and appreciate a palpable feeling of acceleration.
Fuel-economy estimates rise, from 24 mpg in combined driving to 25. I averaged 25.3 mpg on my official test loop. A cross-town drive, which in Los Angeles takes 90 minutes when traffic is moving, netted 27.9 mpg with the majority of the miles covered on freeways. That’s short of the official 32-mpg rating on the highway. I also got 19.4 mpg in city and suburban driving, less than the EPA’s 22-mpg estimate.
A 6-speed automatic transmission with a manual shift mode and paddle shifters is standard, and a Drive Mode Select system allows the driver to program the powertrain and steering to Eco, Normal, and Sport settings. Each gives the car the expected demeanor, though it would be nice to combine Normal steering with Sport powertrain characteristics.
Shift the transmission, and the selector feels solid and robust, like an expensive piece of engineering. The paddle shifters work decently, but a more aggressive character would be appreciated, especially in terms of downshift rev matching. Overall, I have no substantial complaints about the SX Limited model’s engine or transmission. The brakes are well done, too, drawing no undue attention to themselves.
My SX Limited test car demonstrated a firm, but not unpleasant, ride quality. However, if would be great if Kia could dial in some additional compliance while at the same time reducing body motion when the Optima travels over dips and around corners. Depending on the road surface, the Optima is quiet… or not. Wind and engine noise are almost always perfectly attenuated.
Coarse road surfaces and the resulting tire noise aside, the Optima’s most significant flaw is its steering. In driving situations where fine-tuned steering inputs are particularly important, such as when traveling in narrow lanes or around sweeping curves, I could sometimes feel the steering shaft’s pinion moving along the steering rack, notch by notch. To a driver making slight steering adjustments, this translates to sticky and inaccurate steering.
Work the steering wheel, such as when turning into suburban corners and parking spaces, or when tackling sharp curves on a twisty mountain road, and you’re not going to notice the problem. But when it’s dark, and you’re tired, and you’re making your way down the narrow lanes of an L.A. freeway, it is all kinds of aggravating. The fact that it seems to happen intermittently certainly doesn’t help.
Form and Function
Essentially, the Optima SX Limited is an entry-level luxury car. From the premium, diamond-quilted leather seating to the upholstered roof pillars, the only giveaway that this Kia originates from humble beginnings is the hard plastic used for the lower portions of the dashboard and door panels, and the front seat backs.
Interior controls are nicely done. For the primary controls, Kia supplies intuitive, refined knobs as well as large buttons with decipherable text and icons, and groups everything logically so that the climate controls are together in one location and the stereo controls are together in another location. It all works exactly as one expects, though I’m not a big fan of the red backlighting at night.
Once you get the driver’s seat and the tilt/telescopic steering wheel properly adjusted, you’re likely to find the Optima SX Limited quite comfortable. Heated and ventilated front seats (including the seat backs), as well as a heated steering wheel, came in handy during a chilly early-morning video shoot. Soft-touch door panel materials and plush armrest padding help to make the Optima comfortable for hours at a time.
All Optimas have a front passenger’s seat height adjuster, which helps to make it easier to get into and out of the car while providing added thigh support during the ride. In the Optima SX Limited, front passengers enjoy a 12-way power-adjustable seat.
Rear seat room is generous, and one passenger commented on how open and expansive the car felt thanks to its panoramic glass roof. The rear seat cushion is, however, rather firm, which some people might not like. A center fold-down armrest contains cup holders, and the SX Limited is equipped with heated rear seat cushions and manual side-window sun shades, the latter perfect for keeping sunlight out of a baby’s eyes while he or she is riding in a reverse-facing child seat.
Storage space abounds in the redesigned Optima, and the trunk grows in size for 2016, from 15.4 cubic feet last year to 15.9 this year. The space is large, and 60/40-split folding rear seats enhance cargo capacity, but premium stereo speakers in the SX Limited prevent storage of full-size suitcases on their sides.
All but the base Optima LX include a Smart Trunk feature that automatically pops the trunk when you step close to the back of the vehicle with the key fob in a pocket or purse, which is helpful when your hands are full. Unfortunately, the lid doesn’t power all the way up, so you’re still required to find a way to get it all of the way open to load items.
Standard for the Optima SX and SX Limited, and optional for the LX 1.6T and EX, Kia’s Your Voice (UVO) eServices infotainment system is excellent. Featuring a navigation system, voice-recognition technology, a wireless smartphone charging pad, Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology, and more, it is just about as modern as this kind of system gets.
My test car’s UVO eServices setup came with an impressive 10-speaker, Harman Kardon premium Surround Sound audio system. This made its Jukebox music-storage function, Bluetooth streaming-audio capability, and Internet radio access all the more pleasurable to use. Additionally, the system features song-tagging capability and USB 2.1 quick-charge ports.
What I really like about UVO eServices, though, is that the connected services are free rather than based on tiered subscription requirements. In many, but not all, competing models, the owner must subscribe to features such as automatic collision notification, emergency 911 calling, the ability to find the vehicle in a crowded parking lot, vehicle health reporting, and more. With the Optima, all you need is a paired smartphone and these features are ready to use.
Kia does need to improve the Optima’s voice-activated navigation system. My family was heading out on an overnight trip, and we had a hotel name, a city, and a street. After two failed attempts at programming the destination by voice, my wife whipped out her iPhone and asked Siri for help. It took mere seconds.
Exclusive to the Optima SX Limited, the surround-view monitoring system really helps when maneuvering in tight quarters. It provides a top-down view of the car and its surroundings, and employs front and rear parking sensors to help a driver easily reverse from a space, parallel park, or make a 3-point turn.
Every 2016 Optima is equipped with a standard reversing camera. A blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alerts is standard for the SX Limited model and optional for other Optimas. If you’re seeking anything further in terms of safety equipment, upgrading to the LX 1.6T, EX, SX, or SX Limited is a requirement.
These four versions of the car either include or make available several free, safety-related UVO eServices features. They include 911 Connect, which puts the car’s occupants in touch with emergency services personnel with the touch of a button or, in the case of a collision, automatically following an airbag deployment.
Additionally, UVO eServices provides several features that are useful when teenage drivers might be using the family car. They include Find My Car, Speed Alert, Geo-Fencing, and Curfew Alert capabilities that give parents the ability to locate the vehicle and to receive alerts when the Optima is going too fast, too far from home, or too late at night.
Adaptive bi-Xenon headlights are standard for the SX and SXL, helping to illuminate around curves and corners at night. The SX Limited also includes automatic high-beam headlights, a lane-departure warning system, and adaptive cruise control with forward-collision warning and automatic emergency braking. Most of this equipment is available for the Optima SX.
As this review is published, crash-test assessments are forthcoming. However, Kia has upgraded the Optima’s underlying structure in order to improve the car’s performance in the tough small overlap frontal impact test that is conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In fact, more than half of the Optima’s architecture is constructed using advanced high-strength steel, representing a 150-percent increase over the previous model.
Equipped with one of the best powertrain and full-vehicle warranty programs money can buy, Kia makes Optima ownership relatively worry-free. Better yet, the automaker includes a no-charge roadside assistance plan active for the first 5 years or 60,000 miles that the car is on the road, whichever comes first.
Given this warranty, the stakes are high for Kia to build a quality car. Otherwise, profit-killing repairs would ruin the company. In the past half decade, the Optima’s quality and dependability track record demonstrates an improved outlook, and predictions about the costs associated with owning an Optima are favorable.
Although equipped with a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, I averaged just 25.3 mpg on my standard test loop. That’s not much better than I got with a Honda Accord Touring V6 (24.6 mpg). Nevertheless, the Optima saves a little extra on gas while making what still feels like plenty of power. Plus, if you live at altitude, in a place like Denver, a turbocharged engine is less affected by thinner atmosphere than a normally aspirated engine.
As this review is written, Kia is clearing out remaining stocks of its 2015 Optima models, so no deals are available on the redesigned model. Still, if history is any lesson, it won’t be long before buyers will be able to get rebates, low-rate financing, and lease deals on the new Optima, so be patient.
If you’re able to wait, what you’ll purchase is, in many respects, the new standard-bearer in the midsize family sedan segment. With some additional fine-tuning of the steering, the 2016 Kia Optima will be just about perfect.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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