Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Kia Optima SXL

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

Malibu? Nope. Accord? Nope. Altima? Try again. Fusion? Close, but nope. When it comes to the most daring and distinctive take on family sedan styling today, Kia’s got the market cornered with the all-new Optima.

In all, walking up to your Optima, then opening the door on its new cabin, should easily stir a sense of pride.

When the original launched, it didn’t just push the affordable sedan styling envelope, it gave it an atomic wedgie and popped it in the kisser. For years, shoppers after a sedan that didn’t look like something Maud Flanders would drive gravitated towards the Optima, largely because it looked boss, had lots of goodies, didn’t have an appendage-severing price tag, and, as an added bonus, drove pretty darn good, too.

This time around, Optima’s design team has knocked it out of the park once again. The top-line tester, an SXL Turbo priced a hair under $38,000, was set off with daring sculpts, dual exhausts, piercing bi-xenon headlamps flanking a signature grille, and an angular sharpness and detailing at virtually every edge that was once the stuff of concept cars. From the chrome-lined greenhouse, to the ‘turbo’ badged fender vents, to the protrusion of the forward roof area into a notch at the upper edge of the windshield, many of this machine’s styling touches could do double-duty in a far pricier ride any day of the week.

On board? Pick nearly any part of the cabin for investigation with the eyes and fingertips, and you’ll notice touches of modern flair, quality and attention to detail. Metallic-trimmed window switches. A stitched dashboard. Trimmings of various textures, colors and lusters layered, one over the next. Seats even get quilted leather, which was once reserved mainly for cars owned by people who had money fights. Those seats are heated and chilled, power-adjustable, and memory-linked, too. In all, walking up to your Optima, then opening the door on its new cabin, should easily stir a sense of pride.

Feature content abounds: there’s a massive panoramic sunroof, a vivid and potent Harman Kardon stereo with Quantum Logic processing (ensuring all of your tunes sound killer, no matter their source), and a big central command screen underlined with logical tactile buttons for easy navigation and minimal levels of learning curve–related anger. Control interfaces spill down onto the centre console, with various controls integrated around the shifter plate. Among these is the drive-mode selector, which switches the Optima from an eco-cruiser into a riled-up sports sedan with a click.

Ultimately, here’s a cabin that hits well above its price point, and conveys an atmosphere that’s high-tech, formal, and uniquely modern. It all seems to target a younger and more affluent sort of luxury buff, not the sort who calls their grandkids three times a day for tech support with their iPad.

Highway cruising sees the ‘sport tuned’ suspension offering a layer of softness around some mildly stiff shocks, enabling responsive handling, a comfortable ride on nearly anything, and neither attribute cutting the other’s grass. Around town, Optima doesn’t float over or smash into imperfections in the road, preferring instead to absorb them with minimal drama and a feel of durability. It’s light, eager, and quick on its feet during the daily grind. And though it doesn’t steer or handle with kidney-twisting intensity, it’s unbothered and composed when tossed around vigorously. Push it hard, and you can even feel the stability control system slightly dragging an inner rear brake pad, to help keep the front sharply in line. A little squishy, yes, but still more entertaining than it probably needs to be.

The electric power steering won’t give steering aficionados a feel-gasm, as there’s minimal actual sense of the tires interfacing with the road surface beneath, though the steering is precise, smooth as glass, and totally isolated from any abuse directed at the front wheels by poorly maintained roads. No underfoot unpleasantness is transmitted back through to your fingertips, and if you’re a fan of a steering system that’s relaxing, easy, and light-as-a-feather, you’ll like what’s happening here. Best of all, at highway speeds, the steering stiffens up a measure, helping Optima stay centred within its lane with minimal need to readjust. Like the suspension, the steering supports a laid-back dynamic. Or, click into Sport Mode, where the steering wheel offers a few degrees of easiness in each direction from centre before slamming into a wall of heaviness that enables more confident and stable high-speed corner browsing.

Elsewhere, look for plenty of room for even generously-proportioned adults up front, plenty of at-hand storage, proper cupholders, numerous power and charging ports, and wireless recharging, a newfangled form of electronic witchcraft that juices compatible phones by simply placing them onto a surface, no plugging-in required.

Rear seats are very roomy laterally, and even roomier where leg-room is concerned. The tester’s rear windows even offered pull-up shades to keep the sun off of fussy infants, or to prevent prying eyes peeping in on your business.

Note that, with the panoramic sunroof, rear seat headroom is funny. At 5”10, your writer found enough room above his cranium, and one 6”3 passenger reported headroom that’s adequate, and nothing more-- but only with his head resting against the headrest and beneath a notch in the rear of the roof, behind the lump that accommodates the sunroof hardware. The trunk? Extra deep, wide, largely square, and generous enough to handle a weekend road trip for four, or a $500 Costco run with ease.

Given the luxury look of the cabin, some test-drivers may wish for a quieter ride: Optima’s cabin is sufficiently quiet, though it looks like it should be quieter.

Optima’s top-level engine option is a sign of the times: a two-litre turbo four-cylinder, not a V6. Drivers get 245 horsepower (down 30 from last year’s model), backed by even more torque, all sent to the front wheels via a paddle-shift automatic with six gears. The less powerful engine still scoots things along with authority, though it sees drivers waiting a touch longer for the turbo to really get breathing before full thrust comes online. It sounds more pleasing than the old engine, and passing and merging power reserves are plentiful, with ample hard-hitting thrust available right away, and more piling on as the revs climb. Torque steer? Forget it. Even at full throttle, Optima pulls straight on, with nothing more than an occasional and slight squirm at the wheel.

Other notes? Optima is a confident machine to operate in tight quarters — steering is light, the around-view camera system is high in resolution, and parking-assist beepers and cross-traffic alerts provide added awareness of the driver’s surroundings. Navigation and infotainment interfaces aren’t the segment’s most visually stunning, though they’re logical and easily learned.

The Harman Kardon stereo system is a fantastic travel companion with crisp mids and highs and a kickin’ subwoofer, and finally, the nearly noiseless and very smooth power window motors provide yet another subtle taste of the luxury motoring high-life. The repeating of your wiper and light selection in the driver computer is another little touch that’s all fancy.

Mileage? Look for about 12 L/100km around town if you’re having an awful lot of fun with the turbocharger, about 10.5 L/100km if you’re being more reasonable, and highway cruising landing at (an impressive) 7.8 L/100km. I found my test average of 9.5 L/100km to be pretty thrifty indeed.

Complaints? Keeping context in mind, few presented themselves. Paddle-summoned shifts are executed relatively slowly and without full rev matching, so entertainment value suffers and most drivers just won’t use this function — especially if they’re coming out of a BMW or Volkswagen. The brakes are powerful, but lack any meaningful feel at the pedal, which itself feels like it’s connected to a cinder block.

Still, where feature content, and especially stand-out styling, are at the top of your list of family sedan priorities, the latest Optima should be given your immediate attention.

5 years/100,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km roadside assistance

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Model Tested 2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo
Base Price $37,795
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,545
Price as Tested $39,640
Optional Equipment