2016 Kia Optima: Subtle Shifts to Sport Sedan

By Frank A. Aukofer, November 21st, 2015

Sometimes you can change a lot without changing much. That's the skinny on the 2016 Kia Optima, a convincing competitor in the midsize sedan set.

At first blush, reviewers have opined that this new Optima doesn't look very new, despite the fact that Kia's designers subtly reshaped the streamlined contours, including minor dimensional changes that made it slightly taller, longer, and wider.

The conclusion was that it didn't appear to have changed much -- unless you viewed it next to the 2015 model. The Optima has been Kia's best seller and the South Korean company was loath to tinker with a proven crowd pleaser.

Sales in 2015 are on a pace to total nearly 158,000, certainly nothing shabby in the car biz, especially for a car that has been around only half a dozen years. Moreover, the Kia brand has shot to the top tier in the J.D. Power initial quality survey, behind only Germany's Porsche.

There's a lot more to the 2016 Optima than styling modifications. The new car has a stiffer chassis thanks to judicious use of high-strength steel, along with suspension and steering enhancements that impart a sports sedan feel to a car that most people regard as a mainstream family vehicle.

There's also Kia's first twin-clutch automated manual transmission, a seven-speed that delivers snappy shifts and is mated to the company's 178-horsepower, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The combination delivers a city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of 28/39/32 mpg.

Twin-clutch transmissions are proliferating among mainstream models, as well as high-performance cars. They operate like two transmissions in tandem, pre-selecting the next gear, shifting up or down instantly as the clutches close and open. Most provide better fuel economy than manual gearboxes.

There are five versions of the new Optima, with three engines and two transmissions: LX and EX, with a 185-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission; the LX with the 1.6-liter turbo and the twin-clutch gearbox; and SX and SLX with a 245-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed automatic.

Base prices range from $22,665 for the LX to $36,515 for the SLX, which is the top-of-the-line model loaded with a full suite of high-tech safety equipment and a luxurious interior that rivals some luxury cars.

The focus of this review was the fresh kid in the garage -- the 1.6-liter turbo. With a base price tag of $24,815, including the destination charge, it is unexpectedly luxurious. In fact, all the new Optima models boast interiors with high-quality materials and workmanship, including satin chrome interior accents.

Standard features on the LX 1.6 includes basic safety equipment, a backup camera (as do all Optimas), cruise control, power driver's seat, manual front passenger seat with height adjustment, keyless entry and pushbutton starting, one-touch up and down power front windows, and Bluetooth connectivity.

Our test car was enhanced with a $2,600 Technology Package that included a navigation system, XM satellite radio with real-time traffic information, LED taillights, and USB charging ports for front and rear passengers.

Despite lacking the leather upholstery and motorized sunroof of more expensive Optima versions, the LX 1.6 has a welcoming, comfortable cabin. Seats are covered in soft and sturdy YES Essentials cloth, which sheds stains and is easy to clean.

Inside, the Optima has supportive front seats with good lateral support for spirited driving on twisting roads. The outboard back seats also are comfortable, though a bit short on headroom because of the stylishly sloping roofline. The center rear seat, as with most cars, is compromised by a floor hump and protruding center console.

On the road, the Optima -- with tuned shock absorbers and electric power steering -- delivers crisp handling around curves. Though not as powerful as the 2.0-liter turbo, the 1.6-liter turbo feels quick off the line with rapid, imperceptible shifts, and is not challenged in passing on two-lane roads.

Kia expects the LX 1.6 to account for only about 10 percent of the Optima's 2016 sales, with the LX and SLX versions splitting 80 percent. Nevertheless, the laurels here go to the LX 1.6 for its sports sedan personality, low price, and exceptional fuel economy.

Specifications

Base price $24,815 (as tested: $27,415)
Curb weight 3,224 lbs.
Displacement 1.6-liter
Engine type turbocharged 4-cyl/ w/GDI
Epa mileage rating 28 mpg city, 39 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 18.5 gal.
Horsepower (net) 178 at 5500 rpm
Overall length 191.1 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 195 at 1500-4500 rpm
Transmission 7-speed automatic
Vehicle type 5-passenger midsize FWD sedan
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