A sporty family sedan that bucks the trend of boring.

2016 Kia Optima SX Limited Review

A family sedan alternative that's pretty damned remarkable

By: Amos Kwon

Web2Carz Editor-In-Chief

Published: March 28th, 2016

There's a reason the Kia Optima was the best selling model in the brand's lineup in 2015. It offers fantastic styling in an otherwise snoozer of a segment (that's admittedly improving due to the need for cars that balance family practicality with interesting design). Though it couldn't compete with the sales stats of longstanding family sedan champions like the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord, the Optima is a far more interesting car from a design standpoint.

Kia sought fit to give the car a major redesign for 2016, and the payoff is huge for an already handsome car. Though we doubt the average customer will notice the exterior design changes, everything from tip-to-toe has been given a thorough going over. The body is slicker and more sophisticated, the chassis and steering are now buttoned up properly, and the top-end engine gets improved for more low-end torque. We drove one recently and came away very satisfied with the changes.

  • The Driving Experience

    The Kia Optima SXL Turbo strikes an excellent balance between sport and comfort when behind the wheel. It's more of a sporty sedan than a true sports sedan, but the chassis is taut and the car corners well in most circumstances. The new 2.0-liter engine drops horsepower numbers from last year from 274 to 245, which seems like an awfully huge loss, but the now more noticeable low-end torque makes up for it with better off the line grunt though the 0-60 has increased by about half a second. The good thing is that it feels faster and more controlled, which is a benefit for owners who won't notice the slight loss in actual acceleration time to 60 mph.

    The upside of all the changes equates to an Optima that's actually significantly better than the model it replaces in terms of the driving experience. The car feels more planted, handles better and steers like a sporty sedan should. It also no longer feels crippled by its front-wheel drive setup.

    • Ride Quality: The Optima SXL Turbo strikes a great balance between sporty and plush. It's hard to balance the two well, but the Optima is good for both urban jaunts and highway cruising. Bumps don't offset it like the last generation car, and it outshines its competition beautifully. More expensive cars don't do it this well.
    • Steering: New electric power steering is a nice add for this level, giving the Optima better feel and precision. It doesn't make it a sports sedan, but it makes a difference in this segment.
    • Acceleration: Engine feels torquier despite the decrease in horsepower and lb-ft. Sport mode is noticeably more responsive than normal mode.
    • Braking: Braking was progressive and pedal feel is good. The car stops well.
    • Handling: The Optima's body is controlled, and the car no longer feels vague going in and coming out of turns. The chassis is 150% stiffer than the previous model, and it shows. It's a big difference, one of the first things we noticed.

  • Technology and Safety

    Korean automakers have a way of providing their cars with more amenities than their competition, and the Optima is no exception. The UVO infotainment system comes with an upgraded 8" touchscreen, and the accompanying knobs and buttons on the center console are easy to read and use. We love the fact that you don't have to hunt for controls with an overabundance of buttons.

    On the safety side, every trim level gets a host of features including side curtain airbags, driver's side knee airbag, ABS, Vehicle Stability Management, Electronic Stability Control, and Tire Pressure Monitoring System. This group of feature is expected these days by the best family sedans. We imagine Kia would love to break past half the sales of the other more popular competitors. You can't scrimp when going up against the big boys.

    • Infotainment Screen Size/Quality: The 8" UVO infotainmnet screen is crisp and easy to read. Some functions take time to get to, but the system is easy to use.
    • Bluetooth Phone Pairing: No pairing issues for iOS and Android phones. The Optima SXL recognized our phones easily once initial pairing was done, so no fiddling was necessary on subsequent startups.
    • Sound Quality: Phone call quality was good with no clarity issues for us or the other party.
    • Controls: Kia does this well with most of the major buttons in a single row and knobs for climate and audio volume/tuning. We don't understand why more automakers don't take on this same setup, instead convoluting theirs with too many buttons and bizarre configurations.
    • Safety: The SXL comes standard with every safety feature available for the Optima, including excellent safety measures like Rear Parking Assist, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Forward Collision Warning System and Autonomous Emergency Braking. $36K might seem pricey, but the features are very robust.

  • Exterior Design & Styling

    Everything about the exterior redesign has been improved, despite the fact that the car looks less distinctive than its predecessor. We don't consider that a bad thing (like when the sister car, the Hyundai Sonata took on a less dramatic redesign for the current model) because it's more handsome and more cohesive in its design, albeit less dramatic.

    Cars like the Nissan Maxima get overdone with way too much envelope-pushing, so we laud Kia for taking the route of making the Optima more refined rather than making the car utterly polarizing. The Optima looks good from every angle and finds its best design in the model's history.

    • Front: The "Tiger Nose" grille gets streamlined and loses some visual height, while the headlights get more dramatic with dropped cutouts at the baseline and an L-shaped LED strip at the bottoms, replacing the single horizontal line at the top of the previous model's. It brings a higher-end look to the whole front end, even though the last car's was still quite good.
    • Rear: Kia elongates the taillights and partitions them into top and bottom sections with backup lights at the base. It does a lot to widen the rear of the car and give it more presence.
    • Profile: Most folks would be hard-pressed to see the difference in the new car, but the fastback style is less pronounced in this one with a small porthole-sized window aft of the rear door now occupying part of the C-pillar. The goofy faux-vent on the front fender that says "Turbo" on it simply has to go. It's a chintzy detail we'd rather not have on such a handsome car.

  • Driver and Passenger Comfort

    The SXL's interior just might be the best one in the entire segment. It screams opulence in a way that its competitors simply don't offer. The Nappa leather seats are butter soft and even look exotic in black, thanks to the contrast stitching (that's actually real when some automakers do a simulated version) and the diamond quilted pattern that you find on Bentleys and Audis. Kia's stitching might not be original, but it's a welcomed addition in this segment. That being said, we wouldn't extol the virtues of the interior styling if the seats weren't already quite comfortable.

    • Front Seats: Some of the best seats in the segment with great leather and ample support. The fact that the Optima has almost four more inches of legroom than the Camry and three more than the Accord is almost shocking.
    • Rear Seats: Comfortable for two on long hauls and three for middling distances. Legroom is a bit less than competitors like the Camry and Accord, but six-footers won't suffer too much.
    • Visibility:Good visibility and seating position for front passengers. Rear visibility is improved by the added porthole window in the C-pillar.

  • Storage and Cargo Room

    Why Asian carmakers do a better job with storage cubbies than their European counterparts remains a mystery, but it's true. The Optima provides great, deep door pockets that have functional cupholders, and there are four real storage compartments up front, including the armrest, center tunnel cubby, glove compartment and center console storage -- all of which offer useful capacity.

    • Storage: Ample storage throughout. Nice armrest tray to keep things organized. Though cupholders moved forward would be a bit better, they'd be right next to the shift knob, which could present a problem if you like to carry large drinks. We Americans get thirsty, you know.
    • Trunk/Cargo Room: More room than the already roomy Camry and Accord. 'Nuf said.

  • Final Impressions: The Mazda6 gets good company

    Why some cars stick in the collective mindset and others don't isn't a complete mystery. Mainstream sedans like Honda and Toyota offerings have been popular since forever, and their reputation for such is cemented in our culture. Then there are cars that don't get their due in terms of sales. The Optima and the Mazda6 are two of those cars. Now the Optima occupies a slot where it does the best of both worlds in terms of driving and practicality -- and it adds fantastic styling and interior luxury that seems to escape most of the competition.

    We're thrilled to see the new Optima so fantastically redesigned, and the fact that it's even better to drive convinces us that this car is a champ. If you sat inside the top end SXL and didn't see any brand logos, you'd never know it was a Kia. You might even mistake it for an Audi -- it's that nice inside. Car buyers should absolutely put this on their short list, and we hope to see more of these beauties on American roads.

  • Price & Specifications

    Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged inilne 4-cylinder

    Transmission: 6-speed automatic with Active Eco System

    Drivetrain/Layout: Front engine, front-wheel drive

    Power Output: 245 horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque

    Fuel Economy (mpg): 22 city / 32 highway

    Base Price: $35,790

    As Tested: $36,615 (incl. $825 Inland Freight and Handling)

    Standard Features: ABS, Traction Control System, Electronic Stability Control, Vehicle Stability Management, Hill-Start Assist Control, Tire Pressure Monitoring System, Dual-Zone Automatic Temperature Control with Rear Vents, Harman Kardon WLS Premium Surround Sound, Navigation System wiht 8" Rear-Camera Display, SIRIUSXM Satellite Radio, Bluetooth Wireless Technology, Power Adjustable Driver's and Front Passsenger's Seat, Memory Driver's Seat and Outside mirror position, Nappa Leather Seat Trim, Heated and Ventilated Front Seats, Push Button Start/Smart Key/Smart Trunk, Front Collision Warning System, Blind Spot Detection System, Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Rear Parking Assist System, Lane Departure Warning System, Autonomous Emergency Braking System, Advanced Smart Cruise Control, Surround View Monitor, HID Headlights with Auto-Leveling & Dynamic Bending, Panoramic Sunroof, Sport LED Rear Tail Lights, Black Nappa Leather Interior.

    Options on our test vehicle: None

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