My office is located at one of the most popular intersections in Toronto, which means there are dozens of restaurants within about a three-minute walking radius from me. Like clockwork, every few months an exciting new place will open up, only to fade away months later. See, there are a handful of very well established and consistent eateries on the block, meaning it’s very difficult for someone new to break into the market and establish themselves. The same holds true of the competitive midsize sedan market. There are a handful of really well established cars carrying the bulk of the market share. Many have tried, but few cars have successfully made a lasting impression in the segment. That is, until Kia launched their third generation Optima in 2011. Things changed when Kia launched this new model with bold fresh styling, improved performance and a very impressive list of features.
Now 4 years old and with a redesign on the way for 2016, the Optima is still a strikingly good looking sedan. Some subtle exterior tweaks have been made over the years to keep the Optima fresh, but the biggest factor to me is that it has a much younger style to it. The lower stance, big wheels with low profile tires and the sharp angles definitely give the Optima a youthful vibe. These features helped to attract many younger buyers who might otherwise have ignored the segment completely. Kia didn’t successfully break into the mid-size market by stealing loyal Toyota and Honda buyers, they brought new buyers into the market – well played Kia.
My tester is a loaded up Optima SX Turbo in a very deep metallic grey. The SX trim level adds some tasteful 18” rims and HID headlamps, while the Turbo package includes a rear diffuser integrated into the rear bumper, all of which add to the sporty and youthful looks of the Optima. The same vibe carries into the interior of the Optima, with use of black and silver just about everywhere. Settling into the driver’s seat feels like you could easily be in a proper sports car; the dashboard is very driver-centric and is expertly laid out for ease of operation. The steering wheel is a significant improvement over the standard corporate unit, and has a thick leather wrapped rim and easy to use controls. I did find the seats in my test car a little strange. They’re black leather with silver cloth accents, and while they’re reasonably comfortable, I found them too flat to provide support for any spirited driving. The rear seats are also a little flat and headroom can be tight for taller people; however leg room is plentiful and the rear seats are heated.
Since we’re talking about features; it’s pretty well known that the Optima’s feature set is one of its important selling points to some buyers. With a price just under $35,000, my test car came equipped with a very enticing list of gadgets and comforts. Some of the more notable features include a huge panoramic sunroof, heated and air-conditioned front seats, dual automatic climate control, navigation, a great Infinity sound system and a very slick looking LCD gauge cluster. These features help make the Optima a very pleasant car to spend time in and add a great bit of value at $35,000.
I am also a big fan of Kia’s UVO Infotainment system- it’s very easy to use and is well integrated with the rest of the car. That said, even with all the features there are certain aspects of the Kia Optima that do hint at its value based price point. The doors, for example, feel very light and a little flimsy, and high tough items like the turn signal stalk and interior door handles are made of a rather cheap-feeling hard plastic. Small sacrifices to make for the value offered by the Optima, but little things that could go a long way to improving the overall feel of quality.
Where I was most surprised by the Optima Turbo was out on the road. The Turbo model is a phenomenal car to drive through the daily routine. When cruising on the highway, the car is very well composed and quiet. However, step on the throttle a little and the 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder makes good use of its 274 horsepower to propel the sharp sedan forward at an impressive rate. It’s no sports car, but the Optima Turbo is adequately quick to keep even enthusiasts entertained during the daily commute.
Though often a complaint of mine with turbocharged engines, the throttle response here is quite good and helps the Kia feel even quicker than it really is. While the steering lacks road feel, it is well weighted, especially in sport mode, and very precise. The SX trim level’s low profile tires and sport tuned suspension help keep the car flat through the curves. For a front wheel drive sedan, the Optima is a very competent handler, likely held back a little by lower end all-season tires that come as standard equipment. The bottom line here is that the Optima Turbo displays some driving dynamics that rival those of much more expensive and much more German sedans.
From an efficiency standpoint the Optima Turbo also performs pretty well. The close-ratio 6-speed automatic in the SX Turbo does a good job of keeping the rpm right where it needs to be and isn’t afraid to bounce down a gear or two in a hurry when asked. Highway efficiency is a strong point; I averaged 7.2L/100km on a solid highway run across the city, with my overall average for the week coming in at a thrifty 8.8L/100km on a 60/40 mix of highway to city driving.
The Optima entered the market truly as a dark horse. Its style, performance and value have really helped it capture the attention of younger buyers to earn its place in the segment. If I were in the market for a brand new vehicle and I wasn’t looking to break the bank doing so, the Optima Turbo would definitely be on my list. It’s a great all-rounder and in my opinion is still the best looking car in this class.