2016 Kia Optima review

A new benchmark?

2016 Kia Optima SX front view
2016 Kia Optima SX. Photo © Kia

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In my business, I always look for benchmarks—the vehicles we use as a measuring stick to evaluate the competition. For years, the benchmark in the mid-size sedan category has been the Toyota Camry, but Toyota's been trying to move that car away from the center for some years now. It's time for a new benchmark, and I think we've found it: The 2016 Kia Optima.

Pros:

  • Roomy, comfortable, easy to drive
  • Strong value-for-money

Cons:

  • Some turbo lag from the 1.6 liter turbocharged engine
  • 1.6T engine only available on lower trim levels

Larger photos: Front - rear - interior - all photos

Expert review: 2016 Kia Optima

Before we begin, there's something I need to tackle up front: The outgoing (2011-2015) Kia Optima was one of my favorite mid-size sedans, and I don't like the new one quite as much—even though it's a better car.

What I liked best about the old Optima was the styling: Clean, smooth, and contemporary, like a piece of furniture you'd buy at Ikea. The new version of the Kia Optima still looks handsome, but it's not quite as clean and simple as the old car. There's too much adornment, and it has lost the differentiation from its kissin' cousin, the Hyundai Sonata. (Hyundai owns Kia, and the two cars were developed in conjunction.)

And while I may have been a bit disappointed in the outside, inside I have no complaints.

As with other Kias, the Optima's interior feels like it belongs in an Audi more than anything else. (That's probably not a coincidence, as Kia's Chief Design Officer is Audi alumnus and superstar Peter Schreyer.) Sit behind the wheel of an Optima—even the entry-level LX model—and it's easy to forget that Kia was once a deeply-discounted brand for the bad-credit-no-credit-no-problem set.

I was really impressed by the quality of the interior materials, as I have been in nearly every Kia I've driven over the last few years.

Substance as well as style

But a high-zoot interior doesn't make a car a benchmark in the mid-size class; for me it's all about practicality, and here the Kia is nearly faultless. When I think about the Optima's interior, a million auto-review clichés explode in my mind: All-round visibility is good, the gauges are clear and easy to read, and all secondary controls fall easily to hand. There are a few cheap trim bits here and there, notably the passenger's side of the center console. It has hard plastic right in the spot where the passenger's knee will touch if he bends his leg. Ouch. On the plus side, the top-of-the-line SX Limited model has a diamond pattern on its leather seats. Very nice.

I found the back seat to be well-trimmed and comfortable; while it was obvious to me that the Optima would fall short of the class-leading Volkswagen Passat on rear-seat legroom, I was surprised to see how much shorter it was when I read the spec sheet (35.6" for the Optima vs. 39.1" for the Passat; the Kia feels smaller, but not that much smaller). I was pleased to see that even the entry-level LX provides air vents and a USB port for back-seat passengers.

The trunk is massive—15.9 cubic feet—but some of the trim looks cheap.

Under the fascia you'll find seven airbags, including one for the driver's knee, and electronic stability control is standard, as it is on every new car on the market. A blind spot monitoring system is optional on all models, but if you want advanced driver aids—including a collision warning and mitigation system and lane departure warning—you'll have to go to the SX model, which offers it as an option (or the SX Limited, on which they are standard). Unfortunately, adaptive cruise control is not on the Optima's option list.

A plethora of powertrain choices

As with most mid-size sedans, the Kia gets a nice big 2.4 liter four-cylinder engine as its base powerplant, with 185 horsepower and a six-speed automatic transmission.

I spent a week with a Kia EX thus powered, and I found this to be a faultless powertrain that delivered good acceleration and 28 MPG (right in line with the EPA estimates of  24 MPG city/35 MPG highway/28 MPG combined). Instead of a V6, the Optima comes with a 245 hp turbocharged 2-liter, a powertrain of which I am quite fond.

But the one I found most intriguing was the 1.6 liter turbocharged engine, same as the one found in the Hyundai Sonata Eco. Like Hyundai, Kia pairs theirs with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission (DCT). The idea behind this powertrain is to use a smaller engine, which gets better fuel economy, with a turbocharger to boost power when needed. (Turbochargers are on-demand devices; they push in extra fuel and air to give the engine a power boost, in this case up to 178 hp and 195 lb-ft). The DCT is designed to boost fuel economy even higher; EPA estimates are 28 MPG city/39 MPG highway/32 MPG combined, and in my experience drivers will have better luck with highway driving than city driving. Bear in mind that Hyundai only offers the 1.6 liter engine in the basic LX model, and it carries a $2,150 price premium, though it includes some additional extra-cost equipment. (For comparison, Chevrolet's all-new 2016 Malibu offers a small-displacement turbo engine in its $22,500 base model.)

The steering story

Interestingly enough, Kia has used two completely different steering setups, one for the LX and EX models and one for the top-of-the-line SX. I don't mean that they simply re-tuned the steering, as many automakers do; they actually use two completely different systems. The difference is in where the electric motor that provides steering assistance is located (on the steering column for LX and EX, and directly on the steering rack for the SX).

Rack-mounted electric power steering (EPS) is a far superior system, and you can feel the difference in the SX: It steers with far more precision (aided by the larger wheels and superior tires, which also add in some ride harshness and noise).

The EX and LX are less precise, but certainly not bad. I can't fault Kia for trying to give SX buyers a better experience, but considering the economics of car assembly—which dictate that it's far cheaper to make all the different versions as similar as possible—one has to wonder if the extra cost of the rack-mounted steering system is really greater than the costs involved with stocking and building two different steering setups. Why not just de-tune the rack-mounted steering I the EX and LX? (Then again, what do I know? I'm a car critic, not an accountant.) Inferior steering aside, the LX and EX are both comfortable rides, though the mid-line EX model is slightly moreso; it has a more compliant tire gives a slightly smoother, softer ride.

Value pricing remains a strong point

Kia is no longer a bargain-basement brand, but their pricing is competitive, starting at $22,665 for the LX model ($24,815 with the 1.6 turbo engine) up to $36,615 for the SX Limited model. I found great bliss in the middle-of-the-road EX 2.4 model, which includes leather upholstery and heated front seats (with power adjustment for the driver). Add in the Premium Package (sunroof, navigation, and cooled front seats with power adjustment for the passenger) and it lists for $29,415, well under the $34,000 transaction price that the average American pays for a new car.

Kia's biggest problem is that this is a competitive market. The Volkswagen Passat and Honda Accord lead the segment on space, while the Chrysler 200 makes a strong styling statement. The Mazda6 is better to drive, and the Hyundai Sonata does pretty much everything the Optima does, and just as well. The Nissan Altima and the all-new Chevrolet Malibu are the fuel-economy champs.

But what impresses me about the Kia Optima is how well it does everything. It's comfortable, roomy, easy to drive, well-built, and priced to sell. (And it's also built in the United States, at Kia's West Point, GA assembly plant.) The Optima is everything one could want in a mid-size sedan—and for me, that makes it the new industry benchmark. – Aaron Gold

Details and Specs:

  • Kia's mid-size Optima has received a ground-up redesign for 2016
  • Price range: $22,665 - $36,615
  • Powertrain: 2.4 liter four-cylinder/185 hp, 1.6 liter turbocharged 4-cyl/178 hp, or 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cyl/245 hp, 6-speed automatic or 7-speed dual-clutch automatic, front-wheel-drive
  • EPA fuel economy estimates: 24 MPG city/35 MPG highway (2.4), 25/37 (2.4 FE), 28/19 (1.6T)
  • Observed fuel economy: 28 MPG (2.4)
  • Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain (original owner only)
  • Where built: United States
  • Best rivals: Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata

Disclosure: The vehicle for this test drive was provided by Kia. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.