2016 Kia Optima First Drive: It’s all uphill from here

Optima lead

Up until now, Kia’s had it relatively easy climbing the ladder and picking off manufacturers one by one on its rise to the top. Now that’s it’s the eighth largest automotive brand by volume, it’s going to be all uphill from here. Keep in mind we’re not saying that Kia hasn’t put in a monumental amount of effort getting to this point, because it has. But now that it’s nearing the acme, the rungs are getting farther apart, and the guys above are kicking hard trying to keep you off their steps. If anyone thinks Ford, Toyota, and Honda are going quietly, he’d be in for a big surprise. Which is why the redesign of the Optima, Kia’s best-selling model, is so important to the brand. Get it right, and your path up continues. Get it wrong, and you’ll quickly slip a few notches. For Kia, we believe it’s still on the right track.

The Kia brand has seen more growth that even Kia expected. For 2016, it’s Kia’s best first half ever in sales, its best third quarter ever, and possibly the best all-time yearly record as well. A short 14 years ago (short in automotive terms), Kia was dead last in JD Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. For 2015, they’re second, only behind Porsche. The Optima ranked highest in total quality index for midsize sedans from Strategic Vision, and is number six for Consumer Reports reliability ratings. Not bad for a company that didn’t even exist a few decades ago.

2016 Kia Optima SXThe Optima plays in the extremely competitive midsize sedan segment with the likes of the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima, to name a few. Just about every manufacturer has a horse in this race, and the reason is sales. Almost two million units are up for grabs, and Toyota’s Camry is leading the pace with over 300,000 vehicles sold. Combined, the aforementioned four account for more than half the total sales in the segment. The Optima is holding its own, with close to 120,000 year to date September, and is the last manufacturer on the list to sell over 100,000 units a month.

Yes, we know this is a first-drive impression of the vehicle, so why all the sales background? Because today you can’t have one without the other. Just like the way moneyball is taking over baseball, sales and statistics matter in the automotive industry. So the question remains, did Kia make the all-new 2016 Optima better than before, enough so to keep current customers as well as conquest sales from others?

Starting with the design, and depending on who you ask, the answer here is maybe. When redesigning a popular vehicle, is it smarter to go evolution or revolution? Kia chose to go with the evolution choice. The midsize sedan segment is no place to go crazy. These are mainstream buyers who tend to lean more toward the conservative side. Ford stepped out a bit with the Fusion’s front end, but still stayed within the design lines.

2016 Optima SX 2.0 turboThe Optima remains instantly recognizable, even though there are changes to the exterior. This was the intention of head of Kia design Peter Schreyer and the team working from Frankfort, Germany. The tiger-nose grille and headlamps are more integrated, and narrowed quite a bit from the 2015 model, and now more in line with other models from Kia. HID headlamps are available, and adaptive lamps with auto high beams are optional as well. The lower front fascia also is more integrated and cleanly styled. The focus is on refined surfaces, a muscular stance, and a contemporary look. We really like the chrome spear that continues over the DLO (daylight opening) of the greenhouse and trails off at the C-pillar.

Overall the Optima has grown, but only slightly. Overall height is up a half inch, wheelbase larger by a little less than a half inch. Same for the overall length. The width gets bigger by an inch as well. Not enough to add bulkiness, but enough to add a stronger presence. In back, the LED taillamps give the Optima a nice finish as it sprints down the road. We think the styling updates not only are subtle but effective, and current buyers happily will sign up again based on looks, while those going after more style than their current rides will be pleased. One minor gripe we had was the feel of the doors. Open the door of a Ford Fusion, and it feels heavy and solid, giving a first impression of great quality. Same when you close it. The Optima door, upon opening and closing it numerous times, felt a little light and somewhat flimsy. Kia is so good at benchmarking other vehicles and adopting what works, we suggest the engineers should open and slam a Fusion door a few times; it might give them a better idea (sorry, that pun was for older folks).

2016 OptimaInside, Kia has kept the familiar details found in its other products, which we think is great; we drive a long-term Sedona, so we instantly knew where everything was on the Optima. We can see how keeping the controls the same is a plus. In this case, familiarity breeds contentment, not contempt.

The overall design goal was to strengthen the horizontal plane to add a feeling of spaciousness. The designers split the dash into an upper and lower area, with the upper part focusing on visual information, while the lower part covering any controls used by hand. The interior also focuses on more premium materials, including soft-touch areas on the dash and doors. Kia interior designers obviously learned from more upscale vehicles, and included a few of those here, such as detailed stitching on the steering wheel, a flat-bottom steering wheel on turbo models, and quilted Nappa leather on SX or SXL trim. While we like the upscale feel, we’re not crazy about the quilted seats. They remind us more of a pimpin’ 1970s ride than an upscale sedan. To be fair, we don’t like this quilting in any car, regardless of price. It seems contrary to keeping clean lines inside and outside the vehicle.

2016 OptimaRegardless of the pattern, the seats were comfortable, another area where time was well spent in development. More thigh support, adjustable lumbar, and deeper lateral bolsters are the result of a redesign with commuters in mind. But the biggest plus goes to the addition of a passenger-seat height adjustment feature, something we have complained about and asked for on previous sedans. Really good to know that Kia listens when customers talk. For the higher trims, there’s even a 10-way power passenger seat available. Other interior highlights include an available panoramic roof, heated steering wheel, rear passenger sunshade, and a first for Kia, a rear passenger USB port.

Because the dimensions changed, Kia was able to provide a little more interior room. The Optima has more front leg room than the competition, but the previous model already set that target. It’s mid pack when it comes to rear-seat leg room, but it’s does well in the front-seat head room wars, with only the Altima beating it there. In back, second-row occupants will be comfortable on both long or short drives.

[], [], []