A Victory & Reseda review of the 2016 Kia Optima
"Evolution" is a word that does not pack the punch that "revolution" does.
It is a weaker word, connoting that by shaping what is not broke would make it more enticing and inviting. Sometimes, it does. Other times, it lacks the engagement needed to embrace the changes made to the evolved item.
In 2010, Kia introduced a mid-sized sedan that shook up the establishment. Under Peter Schreyer's guidance, the Optima sedan was shaped unlike any car of its kind in the world. It was sleek and sporty with a hint of Schreyer's resume in a few places. The Tiger grille invited one to take the wheel, while it's other influences sealed the deal – a hint of Jaguar, Audi and Saab melded into something not seen as a Kia.
But, you bought them! They came from West Point, Georgia for our consumption. They ended up in your parking lots, driveways and garages. Thousands of them each month found their way to your home. They became the most successful single model sold by Kia to date.
When it came time for a new one, I worried that it would not have the edge the outgoing did. That edge which attracted its owners would become a watered down shell of itself. It would be shaped to attract Toyota Camry/Honda Accord/Nissan Altima owners than establishing its own legacy and leadership. We saw this happen to the Hyundai Sonata – where the sharp-looking sedan (such that it won the V&R Vehicle of the Year Award in 2010) looked simply softened to garner an even wider audience.
I hoped this did not happen to the 2016 Kia Optima.
Then, one showed up for its close-up. So, I began to dissect it. What did I find? Were my fears confirmed?
Let me come back to the word "evolution." It is a weak word, but maybe it has a positive affect in terms of how we view this car. The Optima still offers a lot of the visual cues as the last generation model, which still makes it distinctive and sleek in its own way.
Then, you start to break down the differences between the two generations. The C-pillar glass is new. The Tiger grille is more integrated with the LED-infused headlamp units, but the nose is much flatter than before. Some models, including this SX Limited version, offer a deeper lower fascia with side gills to finish up the front end's overall look. The tail light units offer more LED lighting in a narrower housing, now angled and more aggressive looking. Add a few minor tweaks along the sides and on the hood, and the Optima becomes a complete picture that embodies a mature outlook without compromising its silhouette that marked this car since 2010.
The same cannot be said for the interior. Kia decided to get a little conservative and rely on current cabin design trends seen on the current Sorento, Sedona and Cadenza. In a way, it gave the Optima a bit more class through a straightforward design and the use of higher quality materials throughout. As expected, the instrumentation was flanked by two dials and a switchable TFT screen for vital information dissemination. High on the center stack is a large touch screen for the infotainment system, whereas a cleaner set of switches for audio, navigation and climate controls sit below the screen and the console. The flat-bottomed steering wheel houses a large airbag hub flanked by redundant switches for audio and phone functions, along with the cruise control and information screen controls. Even down to the center console, one theme becomes clear in the Optima – clean functionality.
With a cleaner looking cabin comes space. This is a huge change from before, as the Optima gains more interior volume than before – up to 120.7 from 117.6 in the previous model. The difference is in the back seat, where a tall and wide person – like me – can enjoy a comfortable existence without touching the upper edge of the rear window or rubbing up against the panoramic roof. There is something to be said about rear seat comfort, especially when you can seat two of me behind a driver and passenger of similar size.
Front seat comfort is very good, with plenty of power-assisted adjustments to fit many bodies behind the wheel. In the SX Limited, you get the "quilted" look with a nice grade of leather. This combination of sport and luxury is very desirable and offers a high level of comfort to keep you engaged with the car. Expect things to be as equally comfortable in the lower models, too. Trunk space is also up by a half cubic-foot, which is capable of carrying more than enough bags for a very long trip for four.
Microsoft-based UVO still drives Kia's infotainment suite. It offers plenty of options for audio outputs, including a direct connection via Bluetooth for Pandora, among other apps for music playback. USB and AUX ports are there for better connection to devices, while phone connectivity is superb. The SX Limited's navigation system is also precise with good graphics. Harmon/Kardon offers up a sweet 10 speaker setup, backed by a 630 watt amplifier and surround sound option. This could be the best audio system in its class.
You might not need that soundtrack inside the cabin, however, as the Optima offers a quiet ride and atmosphere to compliment its smooth operation. That smooth operation starts up front from a detuned 2.0 liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Until last year, that engine spewed 274 horsepower of raw power. For 2016, the same turbo four now offers 245 horsepower of smooth power. Turbo lag is undetactable and throttle response is very quick. These are two improvements I noticed in the new Optima over the previous version. A slick-shifting six-speed automatic connects the turbo engine to its front wheels. This combination also delivers decent fuel economy – an average of 24.5 MPG in my care.
You will find the 2.0 liter turbo only on the SX and SX Limited. LX and EX models continue to use the 2.4 liter naturally aspirated engine with 185 horsepower, while a new 178 horsepower 1.6 liter turbocharged engine is available on a special LX 1.6T model. The latter is combined with a 7-speed dual clutch transmission.
The word "smooth" also describes the way the Optima physically drives. The ride is extremely compliant and balanced. Balanced is also the same word to describe the way the Optima handles and corners – especially in the SX Limited. Drive modes also come into play, especially in Sport where not only the transmission shifts at higher revs with a sense of urgency, but you do get a heavier steering feel. In Eco or Normal modes, the steering feels just fine – nothing loose about it, even on-center. There is decent feedback for sharp turns, even if it does feel a but numb and artificial at times. Brakes are fine, with a solid pedal feel and solid stops in normal and panic situations.
Choosing the SX Limited means adding a suite of active safety features. It starts with a standard headlamp system that includes a "dynamic" bending beam and automatic high beams, which make for better vision at night. A rearview camera, as it also includes a 360-degree view around the car for better measurement of parking and obstructions. Also standard on the SX Limited is blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control. These features are not available across the Optima lineup, so inquire before you say "I want that, please!"
The Kia Optima is also a very good value, starting at $21,990 for a LX sedan. The more desirable model is the SX Limited with its high level of content and excellent sport/luxury mix. This tester came in with a sticker price of $36,615.
When you approach the 2016 Kia Optima, consider the idea that "evolution" can be a very good thing. What Kia did for its mid-sized sedan is to make more palatable to the eyes and more spacious inside. It feels better…probably, better finished than before. Even down its more common trim levels, one would not find fault on the execution of this newest Optima sedan.
That is why some successful designs evolve. This is why one should really consider the newest Kia Optima when a mid-sized sedan is considered for the next vehicle purchase.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Kia Motors America
All photos by Randy Stern