The midsize sedan segment has been heavily populated for the past two decades.
In recent years, a fast-paced race between almost all mainstream manufacturers to outclass rivals has resulted in some of the best midsizers to ever grace the Canadian market. With bestsellers like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry holding their spots firmly, the average buyer is also given a plethora of alternatives in this segment. Kia sent us their entry, a fully loaded 2016 Kia Optima SX-L Turbo, completely redesigned this year. We took a week to closely evaluate this car and determine if it holds a candle to its faster-selling competitors.
Ever since the third-generation debuted in 2010 as a 2011 model, the Optima has been one of the most sharply-designed entries in this segment. Personally, I like to refer to the mainstream midsize sedan segment as a “sea of beige”, one where the vast majority of entries are average at best, and are easily mistaken for one another. Manufacturers have vowed to change this image for the latest decade, with great design cues, crisp interior styling, and innovations never before seen in this class. At first glance, the new Optima doesn’t look too different from the old one. The reality is, every single part of it is all new from the ground up.
Kia realized that the outgoing Optima was pretty ahead of its time, and decided to stick with the edgy, contemporary design it boasted. New touches such as a more aggressive front fascia, more conservative rear end, and striking new wheel designs reflect the 2016 Optima’s out-of-the-box attitude. On the inside, the trend continues, with an interior that shares cues seen on the most recent Sorento and Sedona. Excellent quilted leather lines the seats, with soft-touch material and stitching throughout the dashboard and door panels. The steering wheel is the perfect size, with convenient buttons for commonly used features.
Overall, the interior ergonomics and driving position are all pretty good. The Optima boasts a gigantic panoramic sunroof, and was one of the first applications in its segment. When the shade is retracted, there’s tons of natural light in the cabin and makes for a pleasant atmosphere. This huge sunroof also cuts into usable rear headroom for taller passengers. Visibility is decent all around too, with the exception of the rear window – it’s fairly short in height thanks to the high trunklid and full-length sunroof. Rear side windows have manually operated sunshades, which are also a great touch, almost unheard of in this class.
Kia’s UVO infotainment is pretty good, and is generally a re-skinned version of Hyundai’s system. The touchscreen is responsive, but not particularly quick, and the graphics are dated. This system desperately needs 3D maps, but implementation of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto means those of us with smart phones have the option of not using Kia’s proprietary maps and audio software. The Optima also had a tendency to freeze my iPod Classic and require a full reset in order to resume playback. Infinity 14-speaker audio on board this loaded SX-L had great sound quality, and reasonable customization within the setup. Bluetooth connectivity was equally effortless, and there were no complaints about call quality.
The 2016 Optima offers three powertrains, and our SX-L tester was equipped with the most powerful of these. The 2.4L naturally aspirated four-cylinder and the 2.0L turbo-four are carryover motors, whereas the 1.6L turbo is a new entry-level option, swiped from the Veloster Turbo and Forté Koup. The 2.0L turbo-four is direct-injected and my favourite powerplant in the Hyundai-Kia family. Detuned from the 270-horsepower number offered in past years, the 2.0T is now good for 247 horsepower at 6,000RPM and 260 lb-ft of torque peaking at 1,350RPM.
Kia’s reasoning for the lower power number is to compensate for a lack of low-end power on previous models. As a result, the new Optima is much peppier when zipping around the city and in general off the line. The only available transmission with this engine is a six-speed automatic (1.6L models get a seven-speed dual-clutch box). The overall drive experience of the car is pleasant and directly in line with other midsized competitors, though it doesn’t have any bragging rights in this regard. The Mazda6 does not offer a V6 or a turbocharged-four, so if power is what you’re looking for, the Optima is a good bet.
The Optima’s six-speed automatic transmission is in-line with the rest of its class, which, save for the odd CVT and the Chrysler 200’s nine-speed, is filled with with six-speed units. “Eco” and “Sport” modes adjust throttle response, gearing, and engine calibration via a button located next to the shifter. In “Sport”, the Optima SX-L came alive, but the paddle shifters on the steering wheel were less than responsive. Their small size also required a reach towards the center of the wheel from the natural “9 and 3” driving position.
After a week’s worth of commuting, I was pleased to learn that the Optima 2.0 T-GDI, despite being a forced induction motor, is tuned for 87-octane regular fuel. My test period consisted of about 80% highway with minimal traffic, and I made decent use of the “Eco” mode. Even still, I averaged 9.8L/100km, which isn’t too far off from Kia’s claim of 10.9L/100km in the city and 7.4L/100km on the highway. It’s also important to factor in that this test took place in freezing temperatures on meaty winter tires. The Optima’s gas tank will hold 70L of fuel, which also suggests a theoretical highway range of over 1,000km.
The SX-L Turbo sits right at the top of the Optima lineup, featuring every single toy available on this model. This includes heated seats front and rear, cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, surround view park assist, radar cruise control, panoramic sunroof, and full UVO infotainment with navigation, Bluetooth, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. The 19” wheels unique to the SX and SX-L are also attractive – especially considering the car comes in at an as-tested sticker of just $37,595.
I didn’t have too many complaints after spending a week with the new Optima. It’s biggest obstacle is going to be overall refinement, which still remains a bit coarse. Despite upscale materials and neat technology packaged, the car does have its rough edges. For example, the front license plate, mandatory in Ontario, is screwed directly onto the bumper, which immediately scratches the paint. A plastic bracket would cost Kia no more than a few dollars per car, and this omission was consistent with my parking garage neighbour’s 2012 Optima. Cost cutting measures are great as long as they aren’t blatantly obvious.
The 2016 Kia Optima SX-L Turbo is a pretty good proposition in its segment. Even before this redesign, I would have said that it’s arguably the best-looking car in its entire segment – the new model dials that up another two notches. The Mazda6 is a better-handling car, but it’s severely down on power, but the bestselling Toyota Camry doesn’t have nearly the character of the Kia. I think the only other car in this class I would consider is the Honda Accord, which matches the Optima with features, and trumps it in overall refinement. Even still, the Optima’s dashing looks and excellent packaging make it an appealing and most of all, an interesting choice for a midsize sedan.