The 2016 Kia Optima takes over from a model that set a new benchmark for the South Korean brand. The previous generation Optima proved that Kia could produce a genuinely attractive sedan, with plenty of standard features and functional, usable technology. The interior was also significantly more premium than the price point might have indicated. The outgoing Optima has aged well, too, so much so that this 2016 Kia Optima needs to be a real step forward to remain on the path to sales success – as much success as any manufacturer can eke out of this segment, that is.
Medium and large sedans don’t resonate with Australians these days, and you only need to spend a short time in a properly sorted example to realise that’s a real pity. The rabid rush to SUVs has glossed over the functionality, space, comfort and driving dynamics you can extract from a well-designed sedan that breaches the medium/large segments. Once upon a time, these segments were the staple of the Australian motoring landscape.
So it is with the 2016 Kia Optima. While the outgoing model set the style standard for the South Korean brand, it also delivered in terms of quality, comfort and driving enjoyment. There’s reason to believe, though, before you even drive this new model that it’s a significant step forward just by looking through the specifications list.
That positivity is largely due to the new engine specifications, which include a revised 2.4-litre and a new 2.0-litre turbocharged engine. You can read our pricing and specification guide here, but the basics of the 2.0-litre are impressive. The engine generates 180kW at 6000rpm and 350Nm between 1400-4000rpm, and in concert with the six-speed automatic its performance promise is enough to inject some excitement beyond what the outgoing Platinum’s 2.4-litre naturally aspirated engine could conjure. The new base car's updated 2.4-litre engine makes 138kW at 6000rpm and 241Nm at 4000rpm, which is down rated from the old Si's and SLi's 148kW and 250Nm tune.
Interestingly, the ADR fuel claims are close in theory - 8.3L/100km for the 2.4-litre against 8.5L/100km for the turbocharged powerplant. We saw an indicated 11.0L/100km from the turbo after an enthusiastic country drive, which dropped to 10.2L/100km when we toned things down a bit on the B roads. The NA engine was incredible, though. In ‘ECO’ mode cruising along the highway, the indicated fuel usage dropped to 5.3L/100km and only increased to 6.0L/100km when we hit traffic that was barely moving. You’d expect the turbocharged engine to use more and it does, but it provides way more driving fun, too, so the extra fuel usage is easily dealt with. That said, the fuel efficiency of the 2.4 litre in such a large car is a stark reminder of how far technology has come.
The exterior styling of the new Optima carries on the sense of style and design cues the previous model has become renowned for. While the entry grade Si model is nowhere near as sporty looking as the top-spec GT, it still presents as a stylish sedan and has enough driveway presence to impress the neighbours. The GT, on the other hand, is a genuinely attractive sporting sedan. The styling changes made to the GT ensure it has the visual appeal to match its performance potential. Subtly larger in every sense compared to the current Optima, the new version actually looks smaller, such is the styling trickery at play.
The 2016 Optima’s interior is now a level above the outgoing model as well. Always impressive, the Optima now has an added sense of style, fit and finish and execution. Strangely, Optima doesn’t get Apple CarPlay/Android Auto but the main interfaces between driver and infotainment system are excellent. We loved the optional red leather seat trim in the GT model at launch but even the Si’s cloth trim is comfortable and looks to be hard wearing. Bluetooth is fast to pair and navigation inputs couldn’t be any easier to master.
The GT gets just about every gadget you could wish for, with heated and cooled front seats and a heated steering wheel among them. The cooled seats especially are a masterstroke for Australian summers and make longer drives much more comfortable. Importantly, Kia has retained the sense from behind the wheel that owners have spent a lot more money than they actually have. It’s something the South Korean brands are nailing at the moment and it’s making other manufacturers around the world take notice.
Like the previous model, this new Optima possesses mountains of room in the second row and a huge boot as well. Put tall adults in the front two seats and there’ll still be enough room in the second row for equally tall adults without their knees being forced into the backs of the front seats. The seat bases are generous too so you’re comfortable back there even for longer drives.
Driving the Optima Si reminds us that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the 2.4-litre naturally aspirated engine. Sure, it lacks the acceleration and urgency of the 2.0-litre turbo, but it does the day-to-day job extremely well. Its efficiency is impressive, but the engine is also smooth and quiet, even when you ask it to work a little harder. Right up to freeway speed, there’s never any nasty engine noise entering the cabin - likewise the gearbox, which shifts smoothly and has a sensible spread of ratios.
Step up to the GT grade and you’re immediately impressed by the punch off the mark, roll-on acceleration and linear power delivery of the turbocharged engine (one we’re familiar with from the current Hyundai Sonata). It’s rapid enough to put a smile on your face without being overpowered, which is exactly what this segment needs. The six-speed also works seamlessly with the more powerful engine.
There’s the aforementioned extra thirst that comes with the turbocharged engine and it’s a relevant factor because you’re hardly going to be likely to baby the powerful variant around. You might not drive like a maniac, but you’ll make the boosted engine work for you when the mood takes you. Expect that fuel usage figure we quoted to drop on the freeway and around town when you’re not working the engine too hard.
There’s no doubt that the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine has transformed the Optima and provided it with the go to match the show it’s had for a few years now. While the 2.4-litre has always been a willing performer, it lacks the spark that a smaller capacity engine with a turbo can bring to the table. So much for larger sedans needing big-capacity engines, then.
The new engine isn’t the Optima’s only weapon. Where the Optima really shows its chops is in the hard to master disciplines of ride and handling. The suspension setup is an area we always look forward to experiencing when any new Kia is released due to the wizardry that is now invariably worked by Kia’s chassis engineers. It might surprise you to learn that both variants of the new Optima get quality tyres. The Si rolls on Continental rubber while the GT gets genuinely impressive Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres. Quality rubber, of the Michelin kind, brings a new level of grip and performance to the table, which adds extra handling ability to the overall package.
Si and GT also have subtle differences to the steering systems as well in regard to where and how the assistance is mounted, and the GT definitely has the chunkier, sportier feel behind the wheel. The GT’s system is rack mounted, while the Si has a column mounted motor.
Get up to speed and muscle the GT through some tight bends and its grip levels, balance and composure are well beyond what you expect going in. The tyres bite in hard, and the suspension not only tightens enough to let you have some fun, it also irons out bumps mid corner so the Optima isn’t skipping around. Around town, both variants soak up poor surfaces, speed humps and driveway entrances with aplomb. We even hit some unavoidable, sharp potholes at speed and they barely register a mention in the cabin. There’s certainly not harsh bottoming out or crashing through the chassis.
We reckon Kia has nailed the balance between handling and bump absorption as close to perfect as you could ask for. It means the GT is as much fun as it is comfortable, which is bonus in a segment often criticised for bland offerings.
Cars such as the Kia Optima leave us wondering where medium/large sedans have gone wrong and why the buying public has fallen out of love with them in record numbers. Hugely comfortable, flexible, user friendly and dynamic, they still make all kinds of sense for the average family buyer. Kia has certainly nailed the brief for the segment at the very least, if not exceeded it in impressive fashion. The seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty is merely another compelling reason to consider any Kia product, let alone one as competitively specified as this.
Like the model it replaces, the new Kia Optima will impress buyers with its design, execution and driving dynamics. It’s another milestone in a growing portfolio of accolades for the South Korean manufacturer, and dare we say it, it’s better than the comparable Hyundai. A comparison test awaits.