2016 Kia Optima SX Limited
With the 2011 Optima, Kia immediately became synonymous with cool and cutting edge, not unlike the way the sixth-gen Sonata wowed the mid-size class when it debuted in 2009, and thus caused us all to look at Hyundai in a different light. Still, while the new 2016 Optima design is sleeker and seemingly more aerodynamic, it’s lost some of the previous version’s unique character, and that may hurt sales, but Kia had to do something.
After all, over the past four years the Optima went from a respectable seventh in the mid-size family sedan segment with 152,399 sales in 2012 to eighth with 159,414 sales in 2015. But an all-new model should boost sales up again, right? Normally that’s the case, but after 10 months of 2016 the Optima has only sold 99,301 units, which pushes it back up to seventh place, but with a much wider margin to the next bestselling mid-size model. To make matters worse, the all-new Chevrolet Malibu has pushed the Optima’s platform-sharing Hyundai Sonata out of fifth place with 186,540 sales compared to 170,251 (see what I mean about a wide margin from sixth to seventh?), while 229,148 Ford Fusion sales still lag behind 262,578 Nissan Altima deliveries, and 284,170 Honda Accord sales still look lackluster compared to overall popularity of the Toyota Camry that once again rose to first place with 327,015 buyers.
There are worse sellers than the Optima, mind you, with VW’s Passat falling to 59,320 units over the same 10-month period, Subaru’s Legacy staying about even with 53,532 sales, and Mazda’s 6 on comparable life support with a mere 38,786 buyers so far this year, but being the best of the losers isn’t likely what Kia had in mind when they redesigned the Optima.
While the styling leaves me a bit flat, Kia appearing to be playing it safe like Hyundai did with its Sonata redesign, the new Optima is an improvement over the one it replaces in every other way. Kia increased its wheelbase to allow more interior room, especially in back and in the cargo compartment. Despite its longer wheelbase the redesigned Optima’s body structure is 150 percent more rigid, which means that its optional panoramic sunroof doesn’t creak and groan like the previous one did, and generally the car delivers better, more confidence inspiring handling, lower NVH levels, and improved crash test results. Taking advantage of that stiffer body, Kia modified the suspension tuning to enhance road holding as well as ride comfort.
Kia has some inside help when it comes to premium design and execution now, that being the K900, and even the new Sorento pulls cues from the luxury sector, some of which it’s applied to the new Optima’s instrument panel. The dash top, IP, center stack and door panels are given the luxury treatment via soft touch surfaces made from top-tier materials. The leather-like dash of my SX Limited even included genuine stitching, while all the roof pillars, including those in the very back, and the headliner were finished in an ultra-rich pseudo Suedecloth.
Along the same opulent theme, all four of the car’s door inserts and armrests were done out in stitched, padded leathers, while the seat upholstery was finished with ultra-luxe perforated Nappa leather stitched in a stunning diamond-pattern. I’m not going to reference Bentley, as that would just be silly, but such was my first thought upon entering the cabin. It’s just so rich looking and over-the-top that your friends will think you hit it big time in Vegas or won the lottery, or maybe they’ll want to get in on whatever you’ve got going on the side. Kia didn’t go so far to soften the lower part of the dash or glove box lid with high-end pliable plastics, nor for that matter the lower center console, only giving the stitched leather treatment to the center armrest overtop the storage bin.
All of this luxury surrounds a fully up-to-date set of features, with items unique to the SX Limited including that quilted Nappa leather upholstery, dark-silver stitching, and psuede headliner, plus premium-level auto high beams, LED ambient lighting, a 360-degree surround parking monitor, superb sounding 10-speaker 630-watt Harman/Kardon audio, a 10-way powered passenger seat to go along with the 12-way powered driver’s seat pulled up from EX trim, three-way front seat cooling that joins the same EX model’s three-way heating, that near mid-grade trim also adding the heatable steering wheel, while additional SX Luxury trim includes heatable rear seats, a panoramic sunroof, rear parking sensors, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, emergency autonomous braking, forward collision alert, and lane departure warning.
The SX Limited builds on the lesser SX, even pulling up that model’s sport-oriented styling and performance features such as the more powerful 2.0T engine, larger front brake rotors with red calipers all-round, rack-mounted electric power steering, sport-tuned suspension, HID headlamps, LED taillights with black accents, sport front and rear bumpers, satin-metallic and glossy black front air ducts and rear diffuser, chromed “Turbo” garnished faux engine vents on the front fenders, machine-finished multi-spoke 18-inch alloys with gray painted pockets, rear deck lid spoiler, and dual stainless steel exhaust tips, while the cabin gets stainless steel sill plates, aluminum and piano black lacquered trim, a flat-bottom leather-wrapped sport steering wheel with aluminum paddles, sport alloy foot pedals, an electromechanical parking brake, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a 4.3-inch color LCD multi-information display in the primary instrument cluster, a high-resolution 8.0-inch color infotainment display with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and navigation, wireless device charging, rear side sunshades, and more.
Yes, I know it sounds like I’m talking about something made by Lexus, Infiniti or one of the German premium brands, although those don’t always offer such forward technologies, at least not until they reach more than twice the price of this totally affordable $36,040 mid-size model, but really I’m only getting started naming off features. I hate to bore you, but without telling you about everything the SX Limited model also pulls up from the EX you won’t begin to appreciate the value Kia is offering mid-size buyers, with that list including LED DRLs, driver-side memory for the seat and mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control with rear ventilation, along with all the features already noted.
Additionally, some key highlights pulls up to SX Limited trim from the second-rung LX 1.6T include proximity keyless access with pushbutton start, a hands-free powered trunk lid, power-folding heatable side mirrors, welcome lighting, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob; and finally auto on/off headlights, power-adjustable side mirrors with integrated turn signals, solar tinted glass, illuminated vanity mirrors, tilt and telescoping steering, Eco, Normal and Sport selectable driving modes, cruise control, filtered air conditioning, a backup camera with active guidelines, AM/FM/CD/satellite audio with USB and aux ports, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, 60/40 split-folding rear seatbacks, an alarm, and more from the base LX model.
That entry-level Optima LX starts at just $22,140, plus freight and dealer fees, whereas the not-yet-mentioned LX 1.6T begins at $24,140, which incidentally features a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic instead of the conventional six-speed auto used with all other trims, the EX starts at $25,140, SX at $29,940, and you already know the price of the SX Limited. Good luck finding better value with any of the Optima’s peers, but there’s more to this car than just loads of features packed into a high-quality cabin.
I could go on talking about the way all of the features work, the quality of the switchgear, the comfort and support offered by the multi-adjustable quilted leather driver’s seat, which even includes true four-way lumbar support, not even available with a full-load Lexus ES 350 and many other supposed luxury cars that cost thousands more, or I could go on further describing smaller details like the sunglasses holder in the overhead console, which is easily one of the nicest I’ve ever found in any car thanks to a padded felt liner designed to ideally pamper your high-priced Persols, Maui Jims and Ray-Bans, but it’s the way this car drives that deserves more attention.
This is where Optimas past have missed the mark, but not so with the updated 2016 SX Limited. First off, the direct-injected 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is wonderfully quick off the line and totally engaging thanks to 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. This is a big step up from the base model’s naturally aspirated 2.4-liter four that makes 185 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque, or LX Eco Turbo’s smaller 1.6-liter turbocharged direct-injected four’s 178 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque, although some might be disappointed that the top-line engine is down on performance from last year’s version that made 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque.
The big gain is fuel economy, which is now EPA rated at 22 mpg city, 31 highway and 25 combined compared to 20, 30 and 24 last year, while the base model is good for 24 city, 34 highway and 28 combined, the 1.6T powered model gets an estimated 28 city, 37 highway and 31 combined, and yes there’s still a hybrid available, albeit still the older generation, which delivers a claimed 35 city, 38 highway and 37 combined.
Despite less power the top-line Optima is more fun to drive than the outgoing model, the aforementioned paddles adding real connectivity to the six-speed automatic, which feels a lot sportier than most in this class with quick yet smooth shifts, this direct control really appreciated when an uncluttered road starts to wind and the new Optima’s stiffer body shell and suspension upgrades start to shine. This new car feels light and lively through the corners, a big improvement over the outgoing model. It’s stable through fast-paced tight corners, responding with mild predictable understeer when pushed hard. It continues to be an excellent highway cruiser as well, its compliant ride never uncomfortable, although those looking for a cushy, overly soft luxury car should take into consideration this Optima SXL is targeting those who really like to drive.
On that note, my only complaint is a little too much eagerness off the line causing easy wheel spin at take off, which was ok when I was 16 and didn’t know any better, but it’s not the kind of attention I like to attract now that I’m well into my 50s. It takes a delicate right foot to extract the most from the throttle, but when you get it right it’s a joy to drive. Truly, this is an ideal car for the young, as well as the young at heart that still need to be practical.
By practical I mean pulling up to your parents or grandparents for a quick drive to Sunday brunch and having them rave about how nice and accommodating the back seats are. They’ll be going on and on about all the features mentioned earlier, especially if it’s cold outside and they’re enjoying the heated cushions, but more so they’ll appreciate how much room there is to stretch out and relax.
I’m not the tallest at five-foot-eight, but I still had an easy 10 inches ahead of my knees when the driver’s seat was set for my height, plus plenty of room for my feet, while I can’t see anyone having problems with hip and shoulder room either. As for headroom, Kia has hollowed out the roofliner above the rear positions for extra space, which left about three and a half inches above my head. The rear outboard seats are carved out bucket-style like those up front, which means the majority of rear passengers will be both comfortable and supported if you decide to show off your Optima’s performance, although anyone seated in the middle won’t be too happy with their slightly elevated, less comfortable seat.
If only two are onboard in back, a large, leather covered armrest flips down from the middle exposing twin cupholders. What’s more, LED reading lights can be found hidden within the folding grab handles overhead, the one on the driver’s side also including a pop-down coat hanger. Lastly, nice leatherette pockets make the otherwise hard shell front seatbacks more attractive and useful to rear passengers.
As noted earlier the trunk is larger and more accommodating than its predecessor too, now at 15.9 cubic feet compared to 15.4 cubic feet in last year’s Optima.
Back up front, I really like the way the gauge cluster’s multi-information display communicates with the driver. Set the memory seats, for instance, and you immediately get prompts directly in front of you, while the same goes for pretty well any other feature. Push the dash illumination button on the left side of the instrument panel and an associated graphic shows up in the MID. Even the wipers display auto, slow and fast settings.
As you can likely tell I enjoyed my week with the new 2016 Optima SX Limited. It’s a cut above most in this class, and should definitely be considered if you’re planning on buying a mid-size family sedan. Even though I prefer the previous generation’s styling, the new model offers more visual excitement than most competitors, blows the majority away when you get inside, and delivers such an unbelievable level of premium-like features you’ll be scratching your head at the price of any similarly sized luxury branded offering.
Kia delivers it all with one of the better comprehensive warranties in the business at five years or 60,000 miles and one of the best powertrain warranties at 10 years or 100,000 miles, although if the Korean brand’s most recent 2016 J.D. Power Initial Quality scores are to be believed you won’t need that warranty, as Kia ended a 27-year premium brand monopoly by achieving the number-one position in the third-party analyst’s study. To be totally transparent the Optima was beaten in its mid-size class by the Camry, Altima and Accord; the Soul and Sportage were highest in their categories, while the Rio, Forte, and Sorento placed among the top three within their respective segments. Likewise Kia achieved a much higher standing than average in Consumer Reports’ most recent 2016 annual report card on brand reliability and road test performance, managing fourth out of all mainstream volume brands.
Projected reliability aside, 2016 Optima models fitted with my tester’s front crash prevention upgrades received the IIHS’ best possible Top Safety Pick Plus rating, while all Optima trims earned the NHTSA’s highest five-star rating, with a full five stars in each of its three categories (it’s possible to earn a five-star rating with four stars in some).
In other words, the Optima should sell a lot better than it does. Only time will tell if this much better redesign helps pull in more customers to Kia’s cause, although it should be noted that most cars are losing ground to crossover SUVs. Still, we should see progress for this model within the mid-size sedan segment, although for some reason the new Optima hasn’t eclipsed cars that really shouldn’t be outperforming it on the sales chart.
The 2016 Kia Optima certainly deserves better. You should consider it seriously.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press