2016 Kia Optima SXL 2.0T First Test Review

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Thanks to five model years of heavy lifting, the stylistically extroverted Kia Optima rests on a cache of persuasive and positive optics. Perhaps you remember the Optima from its Super Bowl commercial, co-starring Adriana Lima, Mötley Crüe, and a very large sub sandwich; or as a Pirelli World Challenge race car; or as Blake Griffin’s personal stunt/dunk vehicle. All that matters is you’ll recall it. “Optima … that Kia that’s always doing cool things?” you’ll vaguely recollect.

Not wishing to squander this goodwill, the new 2016 Optima bears a design that’s unmistakably related to the previous model and definitely less iconoclastic. It’s still a sharp-looking sedan. But the edginess has dulled a bit, and the car’s vibe just isn’t as fashion-forward as the 2011 Optima, especially when compared with current peers. This is Kia protecting its turf in the midsize sedan schoolyard. Visual change is necessary to drum up interest against the Camrys and Accords of the segment, but logic dictates you don’t want to excessively mess with the company’s top seller (by a healthy margin). Long story short: fresh styling needed, don’t go crazy, and keep plugging brand values such as, er, value.

The light-touch philosophy spread to the powertrain and performance, too. The holdover 2.0-liter, turbocharged inline-four is modified from last year (most notably, a smaller turbocharger is employed), and output is summarily rerated at 245 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque. The sacrifice in outright turbo compressor flow for quicker low-end response shaves 29 hp and 9 lb-ft from the all-important spec figures printed in the 2015 model-year brochure. The gearing in the new model’s six-speed automatic is marginally shorter in the first four gears (the final-drive ratio remains 2.89:1) and helps push our SXL test car from 0 to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds and through the quarter mile in 15.6 seconds at 90.3 mph.

Once again, it’s a baffling display from this engine, but in a somewhat good way this time around. Our long-term 2013 SXL, 76 pounds lighter and boasting the full 274 hp and 269 lb-ft, took 7.2 seconds to 60 mph and 15.6 seconds to the quarter mile while trapping 90.4 mph. A 2015 Hyundai Sonata Sport 2.0T with the same 245-hp engine dragged its feet to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds and a quarter mile time of 16.2 seconds at 88.4 mph. (The Hyundai was tested on a hotter day, which could have affected the engine’s preservation measures.)

With basically no drop-off in performance for the 2016 Optima, no one save for the hardiest of bench racers will miss 29 ponies. But the engine continues to be a mystery. It’s seemingly never able to fully translate its rated potential. The performance is more than adequate when lazing from one destination to another or when observed in a vacuum, but it’s a point of mystification considering competitive step-up powerplants in the class (V-6s and other turbo-fours) operate on a completely different plane. Even the optional 178-hp, 1.6-liter turbo-four in the 2016 Optima LX gets the car to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds. But does the revised 2.0-liter at least respond as we’d expect?

“There’s a surprising amount of turbo lag off the line,” associate editor Christian Seabaugh said.

You’d need a micrometer to suss out any difference in straight-line performance between the new and old Optima. The SXL scores well on quietness and comfort on the open road when rolling on 235/45-18 Michelin Primacy MXM4s (10mm wider than last year’s Hankooks), exhibiting a marked upgrade over the 2011 car. Kia has been very aggressive with its ride and handling targets and has made numerous changes over the past five years. The earliest versions of the Optima favored a sportier feel that didn’t prioritize harshness abatement. More recent iterations took comfort more seriously but came sapped of even a modicum of enthusiast flair. The 2016 car still wallows in a purgatory of listlessness. It doesn’t want to be as comfort-focused as a Toyota Camry, Chrysler 200, or pre-2016 Chevrolet Malibu. It doesn’t straddle the ride and handling balance as convincingly as a Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, or Volkswagen Passat. And it certainly isn’t shamelessly forthcoming with its sporting intentions as in a Ford Fusion or Mazda6. The aimlessness is reflected in the test numbers, as the 27.4-second figure-eight time essentially mirrors our former long-term Optimas. However, braking from 60 to 0 mph in 118 feet (versus 123-130) is an outstanding improvement.

The 2016 Optima is left in a strange space. On paper, it does little wrong, seeking to offend few and astonish many with the always-long list of features and content expected of a Kia. The SXL trim comes standard with autonomous emergency braking, bi-xenon headlights with high-beam assist, and a first-for-Kia Harman Kardon premium sound system with QuantumLogic Surround and Clari-Fi technology. EPA fuel economy for the 2.0-liter engine improves to 22/32/25 mpg city/highway/combined from 2015’s 20/31/24. (We’ll Real MPG-test at the next available opportunity.) The cabin—far from a Kia weakness as of late—looks as classy as ever. The back seat is spacious and seems more accommodating than the front row, and the trunk is half a cubic foot more voluminous. It has the nicest and supplest seats installed in any Optima yet. The seat frame is stiffer, and more supportive foam lines the thigh bolsters.

One of the main unanswered questions we have for the Optima (and Kia at large) is whether it can refine the value play. There’s a tipping point where loading cars up with stuff will generate little additional sway on a consumer in the purchase process. Not to mention the mass sentiment is customers are lagging in mastery and understanding of the latest gizmos and features, which could do more harm than good for those very niceties at this moment in time. And because the general population isn’t getting much richer anytime soon, the cost barrier is a continuous struggle. The SXL test car asks for $36,615, and you know there are folks out there who haven’t shopped for a new vehicle in more than a decade and believe no Kia should cost more than $20,000 before incentives.

There’s substantial value waiting to be baked into the new Optima on a more elementary level. It’s a fine-looking (but less adventurous) family sedan with a great interior and utterly unremarkable steering, braking feel, ride quality, and overall response. The car is begging for a strong identity to go with the eye-catching aesthetics. We’ll know Kia has finally turned the page on its brand direction when we’re watching the Super Bowl and a friend of a friend remarks, “Optima … that Kia that’s always doing cool things and drives really well?”

2016 Kia Optima SXL 2.0T BASE PRICE $36,615 PRICE AS TESTED $36,615 VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan ENGINE 2.0L/245-hp/260-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4 TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,575 lb (60/40%) WHEELBASE 110.4 in LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 191.1 x 73.2 x 57.6 in 0-60 MPH 7.3 sec QUARTER MILE 15.6 sec @ 90.3 mph BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 118 ft LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.83 g (avg) MT FIGURE EIGHT 27.4 sec @ 0.64 g (avg) EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 22/32/25 mpg ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 153/105 kW-hrs/100 miles CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.76 lb/mile

 Automaker-provided photos of the 2016 Kia Optima SXL: