Fresh faced as part of a midlife update, the 2018 Kia Optima plots a steady course in a declining market segment, but is Kia’s midsizer any better or worse than the rest of its often underappreciated competitors?
Anyone who grew up with siblings can attest to the fact your parents always had a favourite. The automotive world is really no different. Whereas the Kia Optima used to be the golden child, it seems the Stinger now holds that title.
Kia has done what any parent with a favourite does to the poor, less adored siblings and been stricter, harsher and meaner with the 2018 Optima to give the star child room to blossom. But doesn’t every family member deserve a chance to shine?
Okay, maybe that’s being a touch harsh. As part of a midlife update, the entry-grade Optima Si has picked up a few little extras, boasting new features including driver-attention monitoring and lane-keeping assist in lieu of the older model’s lane-departure warning.
Smartphone mirroring (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto) has also been added to the 7.0-inch infotainment system, though it takes the place of integrated satellite navigation. Bluetooth, AM/FM radio, AUX and USB inputs, and six-speaker audio round off the infotainment package.
Specifications carried over from the Optima Si’s 2015 introduction include 17-inch alloy wheels (albeit with a fresh design), cloth seat trim with manual adjustment, dual-zone climate control, autonomous emergency braking, auto lights and wipers, plus distance-keeping cruise control.
That’s not a bad list of highlights for a medium sedan priced from $33,390 plus on-road costs, or $1100 less than the pre-update model. There’s been no heaping of additional equipment additions, though, to give the base-model Stinger room to shine instead.
Styling gets a minor rework to go with the changes. Unlike before, when the Si and turbocharged Optima GT wore distinct front bumpers, the 2018 range wears the same front clip, but with slightly different grille and bumper inserts.
Though it may not be to all tastes, the Si’s waterfall grille certainly attracted plenty of comment, and helps make the entry point to the Optima range look a touch less basic without resorting to the gaping apertures of something like the new Toyota Camry.
And since we’re talking Camry, despite being well stocked and decently priced, the Optima still struggles on value alongside the Camry Ascent Sport, which also includes a powered driver’s seat, sat-nav with an 8.0-inch screen, LED headlights, and digital radio, along with the headline items of the Optima Si, though smartphone mirroring is missing from the Camry’s armoury.
Under the bonnet, Kia has kept things as they were with a 2.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine capable of 138kW and 241Nm. While it’s no powerhouse by any means, there’s enough flexibility to deliver respectable performance for a mainstream family sedan.
To put drivability to the test, a weekend split between monotonous highway cruising, a few stints through the hills, and a week of solid commuting revealed the Optima Si to be perfectly adequate.
There are no dynamic thrills and no performance highlights – not unusual for a car with no sporting intent – but by the same token, there are no real lowlights either. The engine is quiet in most situations, the ride is very comfortable (not something the turbocharged GT model shares), and the steering shows no nervousness. All rather pleasant really.
Kia has kept a six-speed auto, again a transmission that’s absolutely surprise-free, smooth enough to go unnoticed, and with none of the low-speed inconsistencies of dual-clutch autos nor any droning like a CVT.
It’s all familiar, regular and far from mould-breaking. Odd as that may sound, it’s where cars in this class really ought to sit.
In Si form, the Optima also leaves enough room above it to make the more comprehensively equipped GT version an aspirational step up. With a more powerful turbo engine, plusher interior with leather trim, heated seats, larger infotainment, push-button start and much more used to justify the almost $10K upgrade to the flagship Optima GT.
The interior of the Optima Si is similarly pleasant without breaking new ground. As with the exterior, Kia has been subtle with updates, tweaking some of the finishes with added gloss-black plastics, and topping the look off with a new steering wheel in Kia’s latest corporate design.
As for the practical side, there’s plenty of space front and rear. At one point a carload of six-footers were able to pile in and praised the available leg and head room. As a family car, that means there’s room to grow.
After a long stint on the road, both front and rear occupants noted that they could feel the framework through the thinly padded seats – not uncomfortable, just noticeable and a little peculiar for being identifiable.
The cabin itself is otherwise quiet and comfortable. A little noisier in the rear than the front, but hardly enough to force raised voices.
Unfortunately for the Optima, and its medium sedan rivals, times are tough in the face of rising SUV sales. Every advantage, no matter how minor, counts in the play to win public affection.
Against fellow midsizers like the Camry Ascent Sport, the related Hyundai Sonata Active, Ford Mondeo Ambiente and Mazda 6 Sport competition is tight. All are cheaper – Camry by $3400 and Mazda 6 by $200.
Power and torque from the naturally aspirated Camry, Sonata, and 6 are closely matched, but the turbocharged Mondeo edges ahead slightly on power (11kW) and significantly on torque (104Nm).
Equipment becomes a mix-and-match of major features. You do get navigation in the Mondeo, but not distance-keeping cruise control. Ditto the Sonata, which also adds smart key entry and hands-free boot opening.
The Mazda 6 Sport throws in LED headlights, navigation, lane-keeping assist, high- and low-speed AEB, reverse AEB, rear cross-traffic assist, digital radio, speed limiter and dual-zone climate control, but is another to go without CarPlay or Android Auto.
That’s still a fairly close call for equipment regardless of pricing differences (Mazda’s safety kit aside), but after-sales coverage might also be a deciding factor. Toyota’s warranty is just three years, Hyundai, Ford and recently Mazda offer five, but Kia leads the pack with a seven-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty for private buyers.
The Optima’s projected servicing also spans seven years with annual service intervals (or 15,000km, whichever occurs first) set to cost $289, $466, $360, $559, $325, $599 and $345 with each successive visit, or $2943 to the end of seven years.
So, while it’s a neatly balanced offering, spacious, safe (with a five-star ANCAP rating in 2015) and comfortable, the newest Optima is also unadventurous. That’s no bad thing, but the traditional Kia value pricing looks like it needs work.
With almost every other competitor matching or bettering equipment for less money (even if it’s just a little less), Kia’s once-famed value takes a hit. There’s still segment-best after-sales support, of course, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle.
With new cars continuing to advance at each incremental update, it comes as something of a surprise that Kia has perhaps slowed the pace of progress with the updated Optima.
While it doesn’t take any kind of backwards step, fresh models like a new Camry and thorough updates as per the Mazda 6 highlight just how little Kia has advanced the Optima. It’s firmly middle of the pack, free of highlights and lowlights, and perfectly anonymous.
That might be the faintest of praise to bestow upon any car, but for the Optima’s role as supporting cast to the Stinger, which is Kia’s star attraction, it seems to be an ideal position.