The 2016 Kia Optima arrives to a very different mid-size sedan market than what existed five years ago. That’s when the 2011 Optima appeared on the market, truly putting Kia on the map with American mid-size sedan shoppers.
That was a time when several top-selling models in the mid-size market, like the Camry and Accord, in their previous forms, appeared to be under a sort of success paralysis. Now, with the Optima no longer a niche model, and instead a serious contender in its class—a benchmark of sorts for style and value, outselling the Volkswagen Passat and Chrysler 200—will Kia leap ahead again, or will it try to stay in that market sweet spot?
After spending some time with the new Optima, we can say that the answer lies closer to the latter: It doesn’t mess too much with the good thing it has, and it fine-tunes, finesses, and fetters every detail in between—to create a 2016 Optima that’s all-new but keeps close to the form of the much-loved outgoing model.
In design and styling, the last Optima was a resounding success, as it pushed the brand’s mid-size sedan entry from faceless to fashionable. The 2016 remains one of the better-looking sedans on the market today, although it’s no longer at the bold leading edge, like its predecessor. From the outside, the Optima continues to embrace many of the design traits that used to be verboten in a sedan—like the swoopier, coupe-like roofline (elongated just enough to assure some back-seat head room), a greenhouse that tapers at the rear, and proportions that are almost like those of a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan.
In person and out in the real world, off auto-show stages, the 2016 Optima could be mistaken for the previous model on the outside—although sharpen focus and the combination of better front or rear styling plus more softer sheet metal cements its role in having a design that’s evolved and matured into something better detailed, more nuanced.
Inside the change is much easier to see as what it is, which is a complete redesign. As you sit in the front seats, you’ll notice that space has been used a bit more wisely, with the corners somewhat more pushed out. The dash is no longer as segmented and visually canted toward the driver’s seat. Trims, buttons, and switchgear inside improve by leaps and bounds, and you won’t have to look far to see the level of improvement here in the details.
The 2016 Optima is marginally longer, taller and wider than before, and these change add up to a slightly roomier and more comfortable cabin, along with more trunk space. Seats have been improved in front, and for 2016 Kia has brought a height-adjustable passenger seat to the entire Optima lineup. Rear seating isn’t the most comfortable in the class, as we see it, although the long rear doors (and wide cutlines) make getting in and out easier than in most mid-sizers. Trunk space has grown slightly in the 2016 Optima, to 15.9 cubic feet, and a wide opening to the cabin, with split-folding rear seatbacks, is standard for cargo flexibility.
Kia has clearly learned from the introduction of its larger, upmarket Cadenza and downright luxurious K900 sedans over the past several years. The current Optima does away with the outgoing model’s road noise issues, keeps engine noise at bay, adds a smidge more seating space throughout, and offers supple ride quality and impressive cabin trims, no matter which model you choose. In short, it’s one of the most refined interiors in its class.
The 2016 Optima comes in five trim levels—LX, LX Turbo, EX, SX Turbo, SXL—and they correspond to several different powertrains. The three engine choices include a new 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine and two powerplants that carry over from the previous generation, the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder and 2.0-liter turbocharged engine models.
The 2.4-liter GDI engine available on LX and EX models is estimated by Kia to produce 185 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 178 pound-feet of torque, while the 2.0-liter turbo is expected to generate approximately 247 hp at 6,000 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 1,350 rpm. Both engines are slightly down in power over the previous versions, but they’ve been retuned for better drivability. All models get a multi-mode switch for Eco, Normal, and Sport settings for the powertrain, while SX and SXL trims add paddle shifters.
The 1.6-liter turbo available for Optima LX is expected to produce 178 hp at 5,500 rpm and 195 lb-ft of torque at just 1,500 rpm. The new engine mates to a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, which works like an automatic. Kia says the 7-speed DCT delivers a sporty feel without sacrificing fuel economy—although we have mixed feelings about the drivability as it’s tuned and think that the 2.4-liter models are a better bet for most needs.
Ride quality is much-improved throughout the lineup, with suspension mounting points moved outward—on a stiffer body, with new four-bushing mounts. With new tuning, Kia has built an Optima that feels more compliant over the minor bumps yet less bouncy over harsh impacts from potholes and railroad tracks. It’s not one of the sportiest in this class, yet it now has one of the best ride-versus-handling compromises, especially in top SX form.
Kia has for years been one-upping other automakers in terms of features and sheer value for money, and the 2016 Optima is no exception. The new Optima starts below the $23,000 mark and includes, even at the base LX level, a rear camera system, satellite radio compatibility, a six-way power seat, air conditioning, cruise control, and keyless entry. All versions also include alloy wheels, while heated sear seats and ventilated front seats are quite widely offered—not just on the single most expensive model.
On EX and SX models you can opt to get heated outboard rear seats and ventilated front seats, and a safety package with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and available surround-view monitors.
And before you scoff at the nearly $37,000 sticker price of the top-of-the-line SXL, keep in mind that it comes equipped better than many luxury models, with standard advanced cruise control, stitched soft upper door trim, Nappa leather upholstery, and all the aforementioned active-safety features—plus awesome 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio.
The Optima is also one of the first models on the market to offer both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay—connectivity systems that let you interact with your smartphone via the Optima’s UVO infotainment screen. UVO now also includes Geo-fencing, Speed Alert, Curfew Alert, and Driving Score, with music, messaging, navigation, and voice calls all available via the screen, the steering wheel, or voice command.
The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine earns EPA ratings of 24 mpg city, 35 highway, 28 mpg combined, while the 2.0T models at the top of the lineup return 22/32/25 mpg. Go for the 1.6-liter turbocharged models in the middle, and you’ll earn the best ratings in the lineup, at 28/39/32 mpg.