Kia’s last-generation Optima sedan was a masterwork of design led by ex-Audi maestro, and Hyundai Kia design chief, Peter Schreyer. Deft surfacing and chrome windowlines gave the car a sense of sleek gravitas that shone against a backdrop of boring four-doors.
The driver-focused dashboard could have been lifted from a Saab. It drove beautifully and turned in excellent fuel economy. It was special – special enough to transform Kia’s image from fringe to front. A new model arrives for 2016, and the question is, “Can Kia repaint its masterpiece?”
Might as well start with the exterior. From Kia’s tiger-tooth grille to its hunkered lower body and arching greenhouse, the Optima was a visual delight. And, designers strayed far from screwing it up. Lines are more flowing and the rear with LED taillamps has a more exotic stance, but its purity of form remains. Sixteen-inch wheels seem undersized beneath the dramatically sculpted bodysides, but are shod in shock-absorbing sneakers.
The sweeping dashboard is less Saab and more Hyundai, but it’s nicely done and refreshingly simple. It’s not fancy, but looks good with French stitching across the expanse, accenting the thick leather-wrapped steering wheel and center stack with upper touchscreen, dual-zone automatic climate control with rear vents, and audio buttons/knobs. Our car had unheated canvas seats (oh, the sacrifice), but they’re supportive with long lower cushions. Forget about a sunroof that costs extra. Two can ride comfortably in the back.
It’s not all bore and snore. A button in the center console adjusts the throttle and transmission for Normal, Eco, and Sport. Eco makes the powertrain less aggressive to save fuel while Sport keeps everything on high alert for a run at backroads and left lanes. USBs and Bluetooth calling/streaming audio connect smartphones easily. Safety is enhanced with blind spot detection, rear cross path alert, and rear parking assist systems. Check the power mirrors that automatically tuck themselves when parked.
Untucked, base Optimas won’t light your world on fire, but the little 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine puts a pep in its step after you modulate initial turbo lag. The smooth seven-speed transmission can be manually shifted if you prefer playing out racing fantasies over saving fossils. Plant your sneaker to feel the full 178 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, but step lightly to enjoy 28/39-MPG city/hwy.
I’m sure I would enjoy the tighter suspension of Sport models, but there’s something calm about a touring-tuned chassis riding on thick rubber. Our test car rolled over rough pavement like a Volkswagen, which is to say firm, but compliant. Nothing squeaks, creaks, or rattles. As in the past, the Optima feels smaller and tighter than competitors, encouraging you to toss it around a bit more. It may look boring on paper, but I’d be pleased to drive it every day.
If we just looked at the price tag, most mid-size sedan drivers would be thrilled. Yet, the 2016 Optima takes all of the style and poise of the previous generation and advances it incrementally with additional refinement and technology.
So, has Kia repainted its masterpiece? Let’s just say it has given it a thorough cleaning without smudging the paint. A base price of $21,840, and $27,415 as tested, is competitive against cars like the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Chevy Malibu, Chrysler 200, Mazda6, and Subaru Legacy.
Send comments to Casey at AutoCasey@aol.com; follow him on YouTube and Twitter: @AutoCasey.
2016 Kia Optima LX Turbo
- Five-passenger, fwd sedan
- Powertrain: 178hp 1.6-liter Turbo-4,7-spd automatic trans
- Suspension f/r: Ind/Ind
- Wheels f/r: 16”/16” alloy
- Brakes f/r: disc/disc
- Must-have features: Style, Performance
- Fuel economy: 28/39 mpg city/hwy
- Assembly: West Point, GA
- Base/as-tested price: $21,840/27,415