The 2011 Kia Optima was obviously a revolution. In addition to bringing levels of luxury and technological sophistication that this Korean midsize sedan hadn’t seen during its previous decade of existence, the 2011 redesign brought eye-turning styling that ensured everyone would take notice that the Optima was no longer a forgettable piece of adequate budget-friendly transportation.
The newly released 2016 Optima is also a big step forward in a number of ways. Ride, handling, and quietness have improved markedly. The interior is better finished and has more passenger space. There are new safety and connectivity features. A newly optional 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine offers a class-leading balance of acceleration and fuel efficiency.
Yet Kia showed great caution this time around. The styling changed so little from the 2011-2015 version that it’s easy to mistake this thorough redesign for a minor cosmetic tweak. The two most widely available powertrains are essentially carryovers from the previous model. In short, the 2016 Optima was not penned to turn heads.
And if that means people fail to notice it, that’s a pity. The new Optima is one of the most premium-feeling midsize sedans and one of the sportier midsize sedans, even as it improves its interior space and holds onto its core value of, well, value. You may find that your ideal Optima model doesn’t exist among Kia’s frustrating grouping of options, but this car is at least worth a look.
Why to buy it
The Optima is a slick and polished vehicle that strikes a worthy balance between luxury, practicality, sportiness, and value. Nearly every aspect of the car feels like it was crafted with attention and care, and the ambiance is upscale even in the low-range tested car with cloth seats.
You sit a little low in the Optima relative to most midsize family sedans, but you get comfortable, supportive front seats with plenty of room and good visibility – an improvement over last year’s model. Rear seat space has also improved; it’s not outstanding, and the seat could be a little cushier, but adults are less likely to bump their heads against the roof while sitting normally. The trunk’s volume of 15.9 cubic feet is merely class-competitive, but it’s especially well-shaped.
The dashboard is also a strong point, a sensible design with user-friendly ergonomics and excellent fit and finish. The 2016 Optima offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which let you use some phone apps including map functions through the car’s touchscreen. Android Auto sometimes was at times uncooperative with this reviewer’s aging Moto X phone during the Optima test, though it’s hard to know where the fault lies.
The Optima is mechanically related to the Hyundai Sonata, but the Hyundai has a more basic look and feel to its cabin than the Kia.
For this test, this reviewer sampled the LX-T version of the Optima, which includes the aforementioned 1.6-liter four-cylinder turbo. This reviewer found the same engine and its seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission to lurch and stumble at times while testing a Hyundai Tucson crossover, but it was a gem in this Optima. Small turbos are growing increasingly popular in this market class because you can get zesty power when you gun the accelerator and excellent fuel economy when you drive more gently. The Optima pulls off this combination better than most. EPA ratings are 28 miles per gallon in the city, 39 mpg on the highway, and 32 mpg overall – better than some economy cars. This reviewer achieved an outstanding 36.8 mpg during a week of mixed driving that skewed toward more highway than city.
The Optima is also offered with a less fuel-efficient non-turbo 2.4-liter four-cylinder, a more powerful 2.0-liter turbo, and a gas-electric hybrid powertrain.
Especially when paired with this peppy and quiet 1.6-liter engine, the Optima can be rather fun to drive. There isn’t an overtly sporty driving experience, but the buttoned-down ride and handling give the car a Germanic air of quiet confidence. Indeed, there have been luxury cars in recent memory that didn’t feel this slickly polished in routine driving. This Kia doesn’t have sports-car reflexes, but it handles everyday streets with aplomb – curves and bumps alike.
Prices are reasonable, too: $22,815 for a decently equipped LX model with a standard 2.4-liter engine, eight-way power driver’s seat, Bluetooth connectivity, alloy wheels, and touchscreen audio controls. And you can even add an $1,850 options package to this base car that includes a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert – often something you need to buy a lot more options to get. (This package also includes laminated side windows for reduced wind noise, a 12-way power driver seat with memory, an auto-dimming mirror, power-folding exterior mirrors, and rear parking sensors.) You can also step up to an EX with heated leather seats for just $3,000 more than the LX, a lower price even than some competitors with cloth seats.
The tested LX-T, with its turbo engine and Technology Package, has a sticker price of $27,415, which pricing site Truecar.com suggests that you can haggle down to about $24,663. The 2016 Optima is still relatively new to the market, so discounts may grow further throughout the year. Note too that Kias come with extra-long warranty coverage.
Why to skip it
If only Kia made it easier to love its excellent midsize sedan.
The first frustration is the way certain options are restricted only to certain models. As noted earlier, Kia did generously make the handy safety feature of a blind-spot monitoring system widely available, along with some other luxury and convenience features that you don’t typically find in an affordable car. But this isn’t consistent.
You can’t buy a sunroof in the Optima without getting leather and a navigation system, which brings the sticker price to $30,000. You can only buy the excellent 1.6-liter engine in the LX-T model, which costs $2,000 more than the regular LX and isn’t available with leather. Other safety features, such as a forward-collision warning and automatic braking, are only available on models with the 2.0-liter turbo, which are costlier and come only with a stiffer sport-tuned suspension. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are only offered on Optimas with an optional navigation system, defeating part of the purpose of those systems (a cheap way to get an in-dash GPS). The ingredients are there, but you may find yourself wishing desperately to combine them in a way that Kia does not allow.
Kia’s reluctance to rely on the 1.6-liter turbo as its mainstream engine is understandable, yet it’s finding itself left behind as a growing number of competitors – notably the Ford Fusion and the newly redesigned Chevrolet Malibu – do just that. It’s hard to imagine that many people who want a base-model car also want to spend $2,000 on a nicer engine, even if there is a 2-mpg fuel economy gain.
As noted earlier, Kia was also cautious with the styling of the redesigned 2016 Optima, having changed little since 2011. And the interior, while well-constructed and functional, can come off as austere to a fault when compared to a more expressively styled competitor like the Malibu or the Chrysler 200.
Some buyers will also seek out a different character than the Optima’s. You can get a cushier ride and a roomier interior in a Toyota Camry; livelier handling and, again, a roomier interior in a Honda Accord. Neither of these models have the almost vault-like premium ambiance of the Optima, but if that’s not a priority, the other models are also pleasant and user-friendly. The Optima’s relatively low seating position could also be a turnoff for some prospective buyers.
And you probably wouldn’t skip it just over this, but the Optima’s lone glaring interior quality flaw is worth mentioning: Turning the headlights on exposes a sharp edge on the stalk.
If you just love it
If something about the Optima really resonates with you personally – the way it looks, the design of its cupholder, a particular rare feature, or anything else – you’ll likely be quite happy with it. Just be careful that if you have your eye on some of the features only offered with the 2.0-liter turbo, you’re aware that your ride quality will suffer. And don’t buy it assuming it’s the only game in town for a great deal.
If you just hate it
If something about the Optima simply rubs you the wrong way but you do want a car much like this one, one option is the Hyundai Sonata – which, as noted, is the same as the Optima mechanically and shares its pricing structure and long warranty. However, the Kia feels quite a bit upscale of the Sonata – more polished, solid, and tied-down – and the Hyundai also bundles some features inconveniently. It’s difficult to see picking the Hyundai over the Kia for anything but a personal aesthetic preference.
The Ford Fusion is another option that feels richer and sportier than the class norm, and it also comes at a reasonable price. Its interior feels downscale of the Optima’s, though, visibility is relatively poor, some of its high-end tech features don’t work especially smoothly, and gas mileage is mediocre. The Mazda6 is another upscale, fun, and fuel-efficient midsized sedan, but it has some cheap interior bits and costs more than the Optima. The Subaru Legacy is well-executed mainstream competence that includes standard all-wheel-drive. And a newly launched redesigned 2016 Chevrolet Malibu also shows promise.
For value, the Chrysler 200 has emerged as the class’s budget leader while also bringing eye-catching styling inside and out. It’s not especially roomy, and doesn’t handle with agility, and is noisy and slow with its four-cylinder engine.
And there are also the go-to class standbys: the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, which took first and second place, respectively, in this reviewer’s most recent comparison of midsize sedans, as well as second and first places, respectively, in last year’s sales figures. Neither feels as polished and premium as the Optima, though both are pleasant to drive and offer more room.
The 2016 Kia Optima has the ingredients to be a class leader in the midsize sedan segment. Kia has made tremendous progress in the difficult-to-master field of driving dynamics. But if you want certain combinations of features – especially if you’re interested in arguably the Optima’s best engine, the tested 1.6-liter – you may be out of luck for the time being.
More photos of the 2016 Kia Optima LX-T
Comparison review: Ten 2015 midsize sedans
Comparison review: 11 2014 compact sedans
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More about the 2016 Kia Optima:
Gallery of exterior and interior photos
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $22,815
Version tested: LX Turbo
Version base price (MSRP): $24,815
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $27,545
Estimated transaction price as tested:* $24,663
Test vehicle provided by: Kia Motors America
Length: 191.1 inches
Width: 71.3 inches
Height: 57.7 inches
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Weight: 3,224 pounds
Trunk volume: 15.9 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 1.6-liter I4
– Horsepower: 178
– Torque: 195 pound-feet
Transmission (as tested): 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
EPA city mileage: 28 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 39 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 32 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 36.8 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons
Assembly location: Georgia
For more information: Kia website
* Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.