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First drive: 2016 Kia Optima

A perennial challenger, Kia’s 2016 Optima is ready for a title fight

Kia has long identified as a “challenger brand,” a perpetual underdog that aims to entice mainstream buyers with quirky marketing campaigns, good value for money, and niche products that stand out from the crowd. Look no further than the company’s TV spots for proof, which have effectively cornered the market on using CGI hamsters to sell cars.

One of those cars is the mid-sized Optima, Kia’s most prolific vehicle in terms of sales. Despite its relative popularity, though, the sedan embodies the role of challenger as much as any other vehicle in the lineup, butting heads with industry veterans like the Honda Accord and the Mazda 6. In order to survive, the Optima must be good and inexpensive, and for 2016, it’s exactly that. To reach this conclusion, I flew to the serene elevations of Aspen, Colorado to put the vehicle through its paces.

New anatomy

When the third-generation Optima touched down in 2010, its European-influenced styling and “tiger-nose”grill gave an aesthetically uninspired segment a bit of a kick in the pants. It was revered as a game-changer by many, which is why for 2016, the looks still haven’t changed much. There’s a few more LEDs and chrome pieces sprinkled around, and the body itself has grown by a centimeter or two, but 2016 looks very similar to 2010 by and large. And that’s ok, because even compared to attractive cars like the Ford Fusion or the Mazda 6, the recognizable Optima still shines brightly.

2016 Kia Optima SXL
Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

But it’s the stuff underneath that is truly worth of praise. The sedan features 150 percent more high-strength steel than its predecessor, making it more rigid, safer, and quieter than before, while also shedding some 40 pounds from the body. There’s a redesigned 2.0-liter turbo under the hood of SX and SX Limited (SXL) models as well, which makes 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. That’s actually less power than it made in 2015, but it’s delivered through the six-speed auto in a much more linear fashion, which is what the majority of Optima buyers are after anyway. With the new setup, peak torque arrives at just 1,350 rpm.

Cues from Bavaria

The car performed beautifully as it twisted through the crisp, cold mountains around Aspen. There’s a touch less top end with the redesigned engine, but the more accessible grunt down low pushed my range-topping SXL 2.0T through the thin air well, its compressor ignoring the effects of high elevation. The suspension felt crisp, smooth, and poised even over rough surfaces, in fact overall driving dynamics felt distinctly … German? That’s partly due to Kia’s acquisition of Albert Biermann — a former VP of Engineering from BMW’s M division. And while the majority of Optima owners won’t spend their weekends tearing through country backroads like I did, in this version, they can. There is a caveat, however.

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During our first drive event in Aspen, we exclusively drove SXL models, which came with the most powerful engine, unique suspension tuning, a variety of tech/luxury packages, and a rack-mounted power steering setup that offers more feedback and less play than its column-mounted alternative. The $35,790 SXL is outstanding to drive, but be warned — trims closer to the $21,840 base model may lack its finesse and polish. 

Interior redecorating

There was a time where Korean cars were known for being loud, clunky, and shoddily built, and if you’re still living in that time, this car is an excellent reason to change your mind. The Optima is surprisingly quiet and comfortable inside, due to the automaker’s increased use of underbody coverings, dashboard insulation, laminated glass, and stiffer engine mounts to reduce vibration. Kia also brought out the hot glue gun for this project, lathering the car with tough structural adhesive to keep road and wind noise from leaking in.

As for the cabin itself, it also has a distinctly German feel to it. Traditional horizontal lines establish a design theme that’s highlighted by a heated flat-bottom steering wheel, real metal trim, and optional ventilated (and quilted!) leather seats. There’s even real double stitching on the doors and dashboard, and the variety of surfaces are soft to the touch. It’s a fairly by-the-book affair if we’re honest, but it is a very nice place to be. In addition, the larger greenhouse gives 45.5 inches of front leg room and 39.8 in of front head room, both of which are more than you get in the Honda Accord or Chevy Malibu. Cargo volume sits at a respectable 15.9 cubic feet, on par with the Accord and slightly less than the Malibu, but rear legroom is 35.6 in, noticeably less than both. 

Rocky mountain gadgets

When I wasn’t catching my breath from walking to the rest stop at 12,000 feet, I was busy in the passenger seat fiddling with the SXL’s toys. For the driver, semi-autonomous features sourced from the Sorento provide Advanced Smart Cruise Control (ASCC) as well as Blind Spot Detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Lane Departure Warning System, a Surround View Monitor, and Autonomous Emergency Braking as part of the $4,800 Premium Technology package (standard on SXL). As they do in the Sorento and in the competitive equivalent from Hyundai, they work quite well here. The ASCC in particular is noticeably refined, as it can bring the vehicle to a complete stop and set you back off to your preferred speed with a light touch of the accelerator.

Related: The 2016 Kia Sorento is one of the best crossovers around

Though I wasn’t able to get behind the wheel in Colorado, the base Optima includes Bluetooth connectivity, satellite radio, and a 5-in screen as standard. LX 1.6T trims and above, however, can upgrade to the new UVO infotainment system with the $3,700 Premium Package (standard on SXL). Is it worth your money? Yes, in a word, as occupants can enjoy Android Auto, navigation, speed alerts, diagnostic services, a “Parking Minder” vehicle locator, and a Driving Score — which is based off smoothness of driving, real-time mpg, and other factors — from the larger 8-in screen. Apple CarPlay will become available later. Oh, and the ”QuantumLogic” Harman Kardon stereo really is brilliant, with crisp tones and clear bass coming from even older songs, a product of the brand’s Clari-Fi restoration technology, which revives lost tones from digitally compressed music.

Conclusion

In the end, the Optima is the definition of an over-achiever. It features one of the most high-quality interiors in the segment, with driving dynamics that not only eclipse the old car significantly, they stack up with cars much more powerful and expensive. Price wise, top-spec models will butt up against V6-equipped competition though, where the new engine’s reduced top end thrust may come into play for some. That being said, fuel economy sits at a respectable 22 mpg city and 32 mpg with the 2.0-liter. With the $23,990 LX 1.6T, 39 mpg on the highway is very attainable.

So while the Optima’s evolutionary styling probably won’t steal too many customers from the Accord, Hyundai Sonata, or Malibu — the looks of which have changed significantly since 2010 — the feeling you get behind the wheel most certainly will. The 2016 Optima is on sale now.

Highs

  • Excellent chassis dynamics
  • Linear power delivery from 2.0-liter turbo
  • Quiet and comfy cabin with more room up front
  • Crisp and clear stereo

Lows

  • Top-spec Optimas will fall short against similarly-priced V6 competition
  • Technically slower than 2015 model