Review: 2016 Kia Optima is redesigned into a winner

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As a daily-use family car, the Optima has great qualities to go with its standout looks(Credit: Aaron Turpen/Gizmag)

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As with its predecessors, the 2016 Kia Optima remains value-oriented, but this newly-redesigned Optima is anything but cheap. Although bang for the buck was clearly a goal in its design, the 2016 Optima is also fun to drive with smart looks in a compelling package.

From the outside, the most noticeable change to the Kia Optima is its larger size, with the 2016 model adding about an inch (2.54 cm) to both width and height. Under the skin, engineers at Kia have made more use of high-strength steel and added weld points for rigidity and lightweight strength to the body frame and chassis. This means better on-road control and drive dynamics. We certainly noticed that during our week with the car.

The really big changes to the 2016 Optima are inside, with a completely redesigned interior bringing the midsize Kia into the realm of opulence that its contemporaries have made the norm. The interior is spacious and well-designed with a lot of attention having been paid to the quality of materials.

Kia has managed to shed the cheap feeling of its past designs without going too overboard. This is especially true with the very well-done, topmost SXL package with its quilted leather upholstery. Other trim levels include the base LX and mid-level EX and SX for the North American market. An efficiency-themed LX 1.6T is also an option. Base price for the Optima LX begins at US$22,140 plus delivery and our loaded Optima SXL Turbo test model rang in at $35,315 with delivery.

The layout of instruments is straightforward and smart. The steering wheel edges the instrument cluster well, without pinching visibility. The layout of the steering-mounted buttons is also easy to learn for glance-less use. Finally, the T-handled shift lever is an unusual and somewhat nostalgic, but comforting inclusion over the rotary dials and round knob levers that are the norm. Our only complaint is that the central infotainment screen is less driver-canted than we'd like, but it remains visible from the passenger's seat and in most lighting conditions.

For infotainment, Kia uses the Uvo system that has long been a favorite in the industry. For 2016, the Optima gets a larger screen with better graphics quality, which makes buttons and touchscreen access easier. Several physical buttons for standard functions like climate and stereo controls take the load off of the infotainment screen and give the driver less distraction in everyday use. There are controls on the infotainment for those things, but they are less likely to be used.

What is going to get used are the integrated Apple Carplay and Android Auto apps and, for those constantly on the go, Uvo's excellent eServices suite of apps that offer ways to find parking, points of interest, vehicle diagnostics, and roadside help.

The added height and girth for the Optima, which has expanded to 191 x 73 x 58 inches (length/width/height, 485 x 185 x 147 cm), have definitely paid off in terms of roominess inside the car. Especially up front. For the driver and front passenger, head, leg, and shoulder room are all very good in this car and seating is comfortable.

In the rear, though, things get a little less roomy. The added legroom is great, with even tall folks like myself having no trouble with the knee-banging that might be found in other sedans. Headroom, however, is at a premium because of the fast-paced roof line for the Optima. At six feet, three inches (1.91 meters), my head was brushing the headliner while sitting still. Trunk space is good in the 2016 Kia Optima at 15.8 cubic feet (447.4 liters).

There are three engine options and two transmissions offered for the 2016 Kia Optima. The base engine is a 2.4-liter four-cylinder powerplant that offers 185 horsepower (138 kW) and 178 pound-feet (241 Nm) of torque. A six-speed automatic is standard. This powertrain is standard in the base LX and EX trims.

Standard in the SX and SXL trims is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that chugs out 245 hp and 260 lb-ft (352 Nm) through the same six-speed automatic. This engine powered our test model and was efficient and fun, but not as sporty as the next powertrain option promises to be.

The Optima LX 1.6T is powered by a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produces 178 horses and 195 lb-ft (264 Nm) and a lively seven-speed automated clutch transmission. The latter is unusual in the midsize segment.

The EPA-rated fuel economy for the 2016 Optima varies by powertrain choice, beginning at 32 mpg combined (7.3 l/100 km) for the 1.6T and bottoming out at 25 mpg combined (9.4 l/100 km) for the 2.0-liter engine. The 2.4-liter base engine sits in the middle at 28 mpg combined (8.4 l/100 km). In the real world, our 2.0-liter test model, which was rated at 32 mpg (7.3 l/100 km) on the highway, returned a wonderful 27.5 mpg overall after 180 miles of driving during our week.

Speaking of driving, that week also showed that the greatest improvement the Kia Optima has undergone is in drive quality. Body stiffness, engine motivation, and road feel are all improved. Most drivers can expect 0-60 mph (96.5 km/h) times in the sub-7-second range in any of the Optima's powertrains, but the real story is in how it stops. Braking is very precise and quick to respond. This builds a feeling of confidence that often seems to be overlooked in the mostly-cushy midsize sedan market. The updates to the interior are welcome and much-needed, but the overall experience for the Optima is now top shelf.

The 2.0-liter engine feels like a six-cylinder in output and smoothly moves the car along without complaint. The fuel economy numbers returned don't come at the expense of interior luxury or noise abatement either, as the Optima now has a quiet ride that's contemporary to its rivals. In fact, it may be better than most.

Kia's seemingly exclusive use of steering optimization via driver input is present in the Optima, making the experience more tailored to the driver's expectation. Some might prefer "Sport" for the greater feedback and tighter response while others may prefer "Comfort" for its ease of use and forgiveness.

As a daily-use family car, the Optima has great qualities to go with its standout looks. The 2016 Kia Optima is a much more enjoyable car and finally gains what it's needed to become competitive in a very contentious market.

Product Page: 2016 Kia Optima

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