First drive: 2016 Kia Optima [Review]

We take Kia\'s updated Optima on a mountaintop tour.

The Kia brand first launched in the United States two decades ago, but it wasn't until the 2011 model year launch of the third-generation Optima sedan that John Q. Public really started taking the Korean brand seriously. The reason for that sudden public awakening? The 2011 Kia Optima was simply too good to ignore.

At a time when most mid-size sedans were as fashionable as a pair of Crocs, the Optima was an Italian loafer. That fact combined with value pricing and a 10-year warranty quickly turned the Optima into Kia's first model to crest 150,000 annual sales.

Redesigning a best-seller is never and easy task, but Kia has undertaken just that for the 2016 model year. So, does the 2016 Optima live up to its predecessor or has Kia taken a step back? Come with us as we find out.

Familiar faceAdmittedly, the face of the 2016 Kia Optima doesn't look much different from the car that has been on sale for the last five years. Kia says it intentionally kept the mug of the Optima largely the same, citing the notion of not messing with a good thing.

Look closely, though, and you'll notice a few subtle design tweaks. The front grille has been reshaped ever-so-slightly and the headlights feature a few more interesting shapes. The lower bumper has also been revised to include a larger air intake and vertical air vent where there were once fog lights.

The Optima's roof line is largely the same, but a small window has been added to the C-pillar, which visually enhances the size of the car's greenhouse. The rear of the Optima has been totally redone and now includes a ducktail spoiler and taillights reminiscent of the units used on the Hyundai Genesis.

The 2016 Kia Optima is marginally larger than the vehicle it replaces, with total length up 0.4-inches thanks to a 0.4-inch wheelbase stretch. The new Optima is also 0.5-inches taller and 1.0-inches wider than the outgoing car. As those slight dimensional changes would suggest, the 2016 Optima doesn't feel like a bigger car than last year's model.

New interiorUnlike the exterior of the car, Kia decided to significantly alter the interior design of the 2016 Optima. Although the re-do isn't bad, it's kind of a letdown in our eyes.

Whereas the last-generation Optima had interesting lines and driver-focused tilt to the center stack, the 2016 version of the mid-size sedan features a rather plain-looking dash that's similar in design to the one found in the Sedona minivan. Kia says the horizontal line that runs across the Optima's dash was inspired by the horizon line, but we see more conservative German styling influence than anything else.

Kia went to great lengths to include honest-to-goodness double stitching on the Optima's dashboard, but that detail is largely lost in an expansive sea of black plastic. Materials are at least soft-touch throughout the Optima's cabin.

The front buckets of our SXL tester provided all-day comfort, thanks in part to excellent thigh support. We didn't spent much time in the rear bench, but it seemed roomy enough for those six-foot or slightly taller.

The 2016 Optima receives a major boost of the tech front, with available systems including autonomous braking, surround-view monitor and forward collision warning. The Optima's infotainment system is also capable of running Android Auto. Those using an iOS device will have to wait a few months for the rollout of Apple's CarPlay.

Three ways to goAt launch the 2016 Optima will be available with three different drivetrains — a carryover 2.4L naturally aspirated four-cylinder, a new 1.6L turbo and a revised version of last year's 2.0L turbocharged engine.

The 2.4L will stand as the base motor for the entry-level Optima LX and the mid-level EX. It develops 185 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. For base models the 2.4L is good for 25mpg in the city and 37mpg on the highway. Load on heavy options like leather and a sunroof and the 2.4L's mileage dips to 24mpg in the city and 35mpg on the highway.

New for 2016 is an economy-minded 1.6L turbo four. Available on the Optima LX and borrowed from Kia's other global markets, it makes 178 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. It's good for 28mpg in the city and 39mpg on the highway. Unlike the other two engines, the 1.6L comes paired with an in-housed designed seven-speed dual-clutch semi-automatic transmission.

The 2.0L turbo is available exclusively in the Optima SX and SXL models. Although essentially the same engine that was offered last year, Kia has de-tuned the turbocharged mill in the name of economy. Whereas the two-liter used to be good for a stout 274 horsepower and 269 lb-ft of torque, the 2016 version of the four-cylinder can only muster 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. As a result of that drop in power, the six-speed equipped 2.0L returns 22mpg in the city and 32mpg on the open road, improvements of 2 and 1mpg, respectively.

Kia will eventually offer the Optima as a hybrid, but the automaker hasn't detailed that future model yet.

On the open roadWe spent a full day carving up the winding mountain roads just outside of Aspen, Colorado, in an Optima SXL equipped with the 2.0T engine. Our tester was loaded to the gills with all the goodies Kia has to offer.

Our day-long journey took us up to about 14,000 feet where thin air typically results in a noticeable drop off in power. That wasn't true of our SXL tester, with the turbo easily offsetting the drop in oxygen. Tough it's not a speedster, the Optima SXL provides plenty of gusto for the average driver.

The six-speed auto handled its duties well, providing smooth shifts up-or-down through the rev range. The Optima is equipped with paddle shifters, but they weren't as responsive as we would've liked.

Steering is direct but over-boosted. A ‘Sport' mode is available, but it didn't do much to improve the Optima's electrically-boosted steering rack. The Sport mode does, however, noticeably sharpen the car's throttle response.

We found the ride and handling of the Optima to be just OK. The ride in Optima manages to be firm without feeling all that sporty. Even over relatively smooth road surfaces the Optima managed to find rough patches that jittered the entire car.

The Optima remains a good value for money with the LX 2.4L carrying a base price of $21,840, matching the base price of the less-lavishly equipped 2015 model. Opting for the 1.6L nudges the LX's asking price to $23,990.

Those interested in the 2.0L turbo will need at least $29,690 for the Optima SX. The better-equipped SXL with the 2.0L raises the bar to $35,790.

Leftlane's bottom lineNew but not necessarily improved, the 2016 Optima feels more like a lateral step than a leap forward for the Kia brand. Driving dynamics remain an issue for Kia and we miss the more expressive interior of the last-generation car. Still, with better equipment and a more efficient engine lineup, the new Optima should carry on the torch as Kia's best-selling nameplate.

Photos by Drew Johnson and courtesy of Kia.

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