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2019 Kia Optima Test Drive Review
There’s never been a better time to buy a midsize sedan, and the 2019 Kia Optima perfectly represents the reasons why.
Even though Americans appear to be trading in cars for good, the midsize family sedan looks better than it’s ever been. Nearly every choice in the segment sports impressive design, engineering, and equipment, and the 2019 Kia Optima shows just how good a typical midsize car can be. From its stylish looks and wide range of engine choices to its roomy interior and sophisticated safety technologies, the 2019 Optima is more than just a great value. It’s a great car.
Look and Feel
Although the current-generation Optima's design isn't as groundbreaking as the 2011–2015 Optima, which preceded it, the latest version of Kia’s midsize car is nevertheless appealing. Thanks to its trademark tiger-nose grille, sassy fender-vent trim, available black panoramic glass roof, and variety of trim levels, chances are you can find the right look at the right price.
Getting the right color combination, however, is another story. Except for black, Kia limits the availability of interior colors, which makes it harder to find just the right Optima to park in your driveway.
Prices range from $22,900 for the base Optima LX to $35,790 for the SX Turbo with the luxurious Limited Package. A separate plug-in hybrid model is the most expensive version of the car, topping $42,000 when equipped with every option. Federal income tax credits and state incentive programs can help to lessen that blow.
My test car had SX Turbo trim, but not the Limited Package. Featuring a tastefully blacked-out exterior appearance, machined-face 18-inch aluminum wheels, red brake calipers, and dazzling extra-cost white pearl paint, it looked like a stealthy sports sedan. Black leather with red inserts added to the racy appearance inside, along with a flat-bottom steering wheel and upgraded instrumentation. With the paint job and a carpeted trunk mat, my test car’s window sticker read $33,505, including a $925 destination charge.
As appealing as the standard Optima SX Turbo is, I’d still prefer the Limited Package upgrade. It still features cheap plastic coating the lower half of the cabin, but it also swaps in lots of chrome, plush quilted Nappa premium leather, improved interior materials, and other luxury touches. And at less than $37,000, it strikes me as a bargain.
If we include the hybrid powertrains, Kia offers five different engines in the 2019 Optima. Base LX and sporty S trim get a 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, while the mid-grade EX Turbo employs a fuel-efficient turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder whipping up 178 hp and plenty of usable torque. Hybrid and plug-in hybrid drivetrains are available, too, as separate models. The former returns 41 mpg in combined driving, and the latter gives you up to 28 miles of pure electric range before reverting to gas-electric hybrid operation.
My Optima SX Turbo test car had a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder developing 245 hp and 260 pound-feet of torque. An Optima SX Turbo doesn’t shove you into your seat the way some turbocharged engines do. Instead, it's tuned to provide smooth, linear acceleration across the majority of the engine’s rev range.
A 6-speed automatic transmission powers the front wheels, and it includes a manual shift gate and paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Four different driving programs are available: Eco, Comfort, Sport, and Smart.
Most of the time, I kept the car in Smart mode, which adjusted vehicle behavior depending on how I was driving. Sport mode is better for rousing runs on your favorite roads, but otherwise Smart works well. On my testing loop, the car averaged 23.5 mpg, just short of the EPA’s estimate of 24 mpg in combined driving.
Among Optimas, the SX Turbo trim has a unique rack-mounted (rather than column-mounted) electrically assisted steering system. This approach provides better feel at the wheel, and I agree that, aside from the artificial heft that Sport mode adds, the Optima’s steering is agreeable.
Charging hard on mountain roads, though, it lacks crispness, reducing driver trust and enjoyment. The SX Turbo's brakes feature bigger front discs than the LX and EX Turbo trims, and they work beautifully under typical driving conditions. Punished on a twisty road, they heat up and fade a bit.
Kia installs sport-tuned suspension components in the SX Turbo trim, providing a firm and communicative—but not harsh—ride quality. On the whoops and dips of my testing loop, however, excess body motion reduced confidence while hustling the car across a mountain range. On the flip side of that, the Optima SX Turbo expertly smoothed out the speed humps on the street where my kids’ elementary school is located.
Overall, the Optima SX Turbo is enjoyable to drive. Just don’t expect this car to perform like a legit performance sedan, because it isn’t one.
Form and Function
As a daily driver, the Kia Optima supplies what every commuter wants: comfort, simplicity, and lots of places to stash their stuff.
Controls are laid out in a logical manner, are clearly marked, and work the way you expect them to work. An array of buttons and knobs limit necessary interaction with the touchscreen infotainment system, and they are canted toward the driver for greater visibility and ease of use.
The Optima is a spacious car equipped with a roomy 15.9-cubic-foot trunk and plenty of storage cubbies. The front seats offer a variety of power adjustments, along with available heating and ventilation. The standard leather looks good but feels stiff. Upgrade to the Limited Package for buttery Nappa leather, heated backseat cushions, rear side-window shades, and more.
Backseat legroom is impressive and much better than most competitors. The backseat’s cushion supplies good thigh support, and the backrest sits at a comfortable angle. Kia provides rear air-conditioning vents, too, as well as quick-charging USB ports.
Kia’s Smart Trunk feature, which you can turn off using a driver information display menu, automatically pops the trunk lid if you stand behind the car for a few seconds with the key fob on your person. This is really helpful when carrying lots of items on icy pavement. This is not really helpful when you’re simply standing near the back of the car and the lid opens unnecessarily. Thankfully, Kia provides an interior handle to use to swing the trunk lid shut, keeping your fingertips from getting dirty.
All in all, the Optima is exceptionally easy to live with on a daily basis, providing comfort, practicality, utility, and with the SX Turbo's Limited Package, a little bit of luxury.
Kia is generous when it comes to the Optima’s standard infotainment system. It includes an 8-inch touchscreen display with the latest version of the company’s Your Voice (UVO) technology, Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Siri Eyes Free, voice recognition, a USB port, and a reversing camera.
Choose the Optima S or EX Turbo, and the car includes satellite radio and UVO eServices including 9-1-1 Connect emergency response. Kia’s eServices technology runs on your smartphone’s data plan, so while it is a subscription-free service for the duration of Optima ownership, it isn’t actually free. Also, if your phone isn’t getting a signal, neither is the Optima.
New for 2019, UVO eServices includes a smartphone app that provides remote access to certain vehicle functions and allows you to remotely start the car and set the climate control system.
The Optima SX Turbo adds a navigation system, HD Radio, and a Harman Kardon premium audio system that sounds terrific.
I find Kia’s infotainment system easy to use. While I’m not a fan of the company’s unique font choice, it's easy to find what you want when you want it. Plus, the Optima’s voice-recognition technology offers some wiggle room with regard to commands, even though it isn’t a natural voice-recognition system.
Even the entry-level Optima LX includes important driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems, making this Kia one of the best values when it comes to buying a family-size car with the latest safety technologies. Better yet, Kia’s advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) operate with remarkable refinement, and the car gets top-notch crash-test ratings.
Every Optima has standard forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert systems. Rear parking-assist sensors are also standard, along with a driver-monitoring system that can tell if you’re drowsy or distracted.
Upgrades include adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability—which my test car had—and a surround-view camera system—which my test car did not.
Generally speaking, the Optima’s advanced safety features work well. I picked the test car up at Los Angeles International Airport following a 7-hour flight from Boston, and I was exhausted. Using the adaptive cruise and lane-keeping assist systems, the Optima helped me get home safe and sound. In particular, the lane-keeping assist technology works subtly, the driver aware of the electronic inputs but not irritated by them.
For most ADAS features, drivers can elect to use them or to shut them off. And they offer adjustment in terms of notification type and sensitivity level. The end result is that a driver is more likely to keep them engaged than to shut them off.
If, for whatever reason, you get into an accident anyway, know that the 2019 Optima is an exceptionally safe automobile.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gives the Optima SX Turbo top ratings across the board except for child safety seat LATCH anchor accessibility, which earns an Acceptable rather than a Good rating. Meanwhile, aside from a 4-star rating for front passenger protection in a frontal-impact collision, the federal government gives the Optima 5-star ratings in every test assessment—including for rollover resistance.
With competitive prices, one of the best warranty programs in the auto industry, free connected service offerings, and regularly available rebates, the Kia Optima represents strong value. Simply put, this car is a great deal.
Although its design and engineering date back to the 2016 model year, and a redesign is due for 2020 or 2021, the freshened 2019 Kia Optima is one of the best midsize sedans you can buy. And that’s saying something because its competitive set doesn’t contain any real duds.
That’s why I think now is the best time ever to be in the market for a midsize sedan. Especially since they’re not as popular as they once were. That makes the available deals and discounts even sweeter.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. 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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