Kia Optima — Solid advancement

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Kia Optima was the object of an extreme makeover for the 2011 model year under the direction of chief designer Peter Schreyer evolving from a nondescript ugly duckling mid-sized sedan devoid of emotional attachment into a head-turning automobile, a standout among its large cadre of rivals. The restyling — both inside and out — turned the Optima into a mid-sized segment rock star, one of the most dramatic turnarounds in industry history.

So as the Optima enters a new generation you cannot fault Kia for leaving its ground-breaking design pretty much intact. It's rather difficult to differentiate the 2016 model from the 2015 model. Kia stylists did some nips and tucks — the 2016 looks more streamlined — slightly longer, wider and taller — gaining a more fastback look. The rear taillights are larger and the signature “tiger nose” grille has been widened.

More important, Kia says the new body structure is 150 percent stiffer than the outgoing model through the use of high-strength steel. Kia has also stiffened engine mounts and body panels. The effort goes toward both quelling noise and vibration while improving handling.

We drove the 2016 Optima more than 100 miles in the high altitudes of the Colorado Rockies and another 450 miles on home turf and came away with the feeling we were driving an entry level luxury car, something beyond standard family mid-sized fare. The sedan was composed on the mountain curves, although we found steering on the light side in need, perhaps, of a bit more feedback. Ride quality is excellent and the Optima has one of the quietest interiors in the mid-sized sedan ranks.

Kia has carried over the base 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic, the engine gets the job done as measured by its 0-to-60 time of 7.5 seconds. That's as good as any base engine in the segment although gas mileage, while respectable, falls slightly behind some competitors at 24-mpg city and 35 on the highway.

For the most performance available, opt for the 2.0-liter turbocharged four making 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. It will finish off a 0-to-60 run in about 6.5 seconds while gas mileage is EPA-rated at 22-mpg city and 32-mpg highway.

We also like the all-new 1.6-liter turbocharged four mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that's now getting extensive use in several Kia and Hyundai models across their lineups. You get the best of both worlds in terms of performance and gas mileage. It has been measured at 7.3 seconds from 0-to-60 which means it can surge off the line if necessary, merge effortlessly into fast-moving traffic, and handle those pesky 50 mph passing maneuvers on a two-lane highway. Gas mileage is EPA-rated at 28-mpg city, 39 highway and 32 combined.

There are four trims — LX, EX, SX and SXL — and to get the 1.6-liter engine opt for the LX Turbo, which differentiates it from the standard LX and the base 2.4-liter. To round out a well-equipped sedan add the $2,600 Technology Package for a bottom line of $27,415 including destination charge.

If you are looking for a myriad of luxury features, the Optima can fill the bill with the excellent high-end SXL. Such goodies as the high-performance 2.0-liter engine, heated and cooled front seats and heated rear seats, quilted premium leather upholstery (it looks stunning), window shades, premium 10-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound audio, navigation, adaptive cruise control, a 360-degree parking camera system, a blind-spot detection system, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, frontal collision mitigation with automatic braking, and 18-inch alloy wheels for a bottom line of $36,740 including destination charge. We believe that might be the best fully loaded offer in the mid-sized segment.

Because of the slightly increased body dimensions, the passenger space inside expands in nearly every dimension. There's more hip- and shoulder room front and rear, ranging from an inch to an inch and a half. There's also an inch more rear legroom and a half cubic-foot of additional trunk space bringing it to a generous 15.8 cubic feet.

While the dashboard won't blow you away with space-age styling, it has pleasing horizontal lines, uncluttered with an abundance of storage spaces. Controls are clear and gauges readable. The 8-inch touchscreen features large, easy-to-press buttons and a legible picture. We particularly like Optima's physical buttons for navigating top-tier functions including climate control.

This new Optima is exceptional and while the competition is outstanding we think it will rise to the top of a lot of shopping lists.

Base price, $22,825; as driven, $27,415
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 178 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 195 foot-pounds @ 1,500 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual clutch automatic
Drive: front wheel 
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Length: 191.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,224 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 39 highway, 28 city, 32 combined
0-60: 7.6 seconds
Also consider: Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion

The Good
• Quiet interior
• Fuel efficient 1.6-liter engine
• Loaded with features
• Stylish update

The Bad
• Steering feel lacking

The Ugly
• Sloping roofline limits rear-seat headroom