First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2016 Kia Optima pours on the pressure

Lurking beneath a familiar Optima look is an all-new vehicle based on a new platform

2016 Kia Optima

ASPEN, CO – The Kia onslaught continues. Not satisfied with its 56% improvement in the prestigious J. D. Power initial quality ratings since 2006, putting it into second place behind only Porsche, Kia will introduce 26 new vehicles or full model changes between now and 2018.

The first of these is the 2016 Kia Optima and while it may appear strongly derivative of the outgoing model, lurking beneath that familiar skin is an all-new vehicle based on a new platform. There are numerous trim levels, three engines and two transmissions. They will be joined next year by hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions boasting new generations of those technologies.

Longer and roomier

The new Optima’s overall length and wheelbase are each 10-mm longer and that additional space between the front and rear wheels has been transformed into more legroom in the rear seat. The track is 30-mm wider for improved ride and handling but overall vehicle width remains about the same.

Up front, the new Optima can be distinguished from the current model by the brand’s signature honeycomb grille, which now wraps further around the car. It transitions nicely into new bi-xenon headlights which operate in both high and low beam from a single Xenon bulb.

The “fog” lights on the lower valance are gone, their place taken up by functional air ducts that feed air to the brakes and improve aerodynamics. The front bumper is also new.

From the side, there is a new emphasis on the lower panel with dark finish on some trim levels and alloy wheels all around. No more steel wheels for even the least expensive Optima.

The biggest changes at the rear are slimmer and quicker-acting LED taillights on upper trim levels.

Four trim levels

The 2016 Optima will come in LX, EX SX and SXL trim levels, with various content packages at each point up the trim ladder.

The interior has come under scrutiny to give it a more sculpted and upscale look with increased use of soft touch surfaces and an openness about the whole layout. From behind the thick steering wheel, with the usual array of secondary controls on the left and right spokes, the driver sees a pair of large round gauges that are crisp and clear, even in bright sunshine.

With the centre stack slanted 8.5 degrees off-centre toward the driver all those controls and the full color screen are also highly legible and easily reached.

The standard cloth seats on the base LX model have a spill and stain-resistant teatment. The EX and SX get black leather seats, with light grey an option in the EX and red stitching for the SX.  The range-topping SXL gets black quilted Nappa leather with cabernet red leather available.

Those Nappa leather seats in my tester were wide, supportive and adjustable in a myriad of directions. The cooling feature was much appreciated after the car had been sitting in bright sunlight at 8,120 feet over the lunch hour in Vail.

In addition to the increased rear legroom provided by a longer wheelbase, careful sculpting of the door panels has provided additional shoulder room inside.

The trunk capacity of the 2016 Optima is 13 litres greater than that of the outgoing model. As in the older Optima there are no protruding suspension towers or components – just a well finished and totally useful space.

Three engines

Beneath the hood will be one of three four-cylinder engines, all specifically tuned for maximum torque down low in the rpm range. Kia says customers typically drive their cars at between 1,500 rpm and 3,500 rpm so that is where these engines are at their best.

The LX, LX , EX and EX tech models get a carry-over 2.4-litre engine producing 185 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque, paired with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The new LX tech model gets a new-to-Optima turbocharged 1.6-litre engine, producing 178 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque – with a torque plateau beginning at just 1,500 rpm. It is paired with a new in-house designed and produced seven-speed dual clutch automatic transmission.

The SX and SXL versions get a 2.0-litre, turbocharged engine putting out 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, reaching a plateau at just 1,300 rpm, mated with the six-speed transmission.

On the mountain roads

I had an opportunity to drive jut the SXL model here and several hours spent tackling the twisty roads wrapped around the Rockies here proved how far Kia has come in two specific areas – drivetrain and suspension.

The  2.0-litre engine's ability to laugh off the 8,000-12,000-ft altitudes was exemplary. The turbocharger was able to force more air into the combustion chambers nullifying the loss of oxygen at those altitudes that leaves normally aspirated engine – and this writer out of breath.  

There was a modicum of delay between ask and answer when pulling out of the turns or starting from rest but that was likely due to the extreme elevation. Otherwise the engine pulled with authority from barely off idle proving the advantages of turbocharging , and how refined this engine is. Smooth and silent even when pressed hard, it makes a nice match for the six-speed automatic which was always the right gear and shifted among them seamlessly.

Good moves in the turns

The chassis team did some great work, too, ensuring the new Optima has good moves in the turns. The steering on the LX and EX models is a carry-over design with the electric motor mounted on the steering column. The SX and SXL get a new setup with the motor mounted on the steering rack for improved feel.

There were portions of the drive route where the drop off was so severe your clothes would be out of fashion before you hit bottom. Driving with the same degree of aggression/enthusiasm in a Kia a decade ago, would have been a hair raising experience. In the 2016 Optima it was enjoyable.

Sure, there is understeer as the car approaches the limit, but it comes on gradually and only when having reached a very high cornering load. The car remains relatively flat, even at those speeds.

 All 2016 Optimas will come with Drive Mode Select which adjusts engine performance, shift points and steering feel based on Sport, Eco or Normal settings. A button next to the shift lever makes the choice and an insrument-panel readout confirms it.

I spent most of my time in Sport mode where the system delivers additional fuel to the injection system and adjusts timing to put out more power while holding shifts points until higher rpm.

Technology abounds

As has become common on new vehicles, especially as you climb the price ladder, new technology abounds on the 2016 Optima. There is a wicked Harmon/Kardon audio system available as part of the EX tech package that also includes a 20-cm multimedia interface with voice-activated navigation system.

Once you move beyond the base LX model you get a heated steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, push-button start, a smart trunk that recognizes when the key fob is in close proximity and a rear-view camera. The latter gets a bigger screen on the EX Tech package and a 360-degree monitoring system on the SXL.

On the passive safety front all 2016 Optimas get a new driver side knee airbag and a vehicle stability management system that utilizes selective brake activation on individual wheels to counter under- or oversteer..

At the higher trim levels there are some new advanced active safety features including smart cruise control with auto emergency braking, blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alert, lane change assist and lane departure warning.

Pricing has not been announced, but Kia officials here said they would run from about $23,500 for the base LX to about $37,500 for the top-line SXL when it arrives in Kia stores later this month.

Next up in this string of new models – the next generation Sportage, coming next spring.

SPECIFICATIONS:

Model: 2016 Kia Optima SXL

Price: $23,500 base; $37,500 as tested (estimate)

Engine: Turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 245 horsepower, 260 lb-ft of torque

Transmission: Six-peed automaic

Length: 4,855 mm

Width: 1,860 mm

Wheelbase: 2,805 mm

Weight: 1,630 kg

Competitors: Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Toyota Camry

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