Kia continues on its course of ongoing improvement with the release of the new Optima sedan. It’s big on refinement and features, but has the drive experience improved?
There’s no easy way around it really; the big sedan is now firmly regarded as the older gentleman’s car in the market. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Those of distinguished status happily say ‘keep your silly SUVs, your crossovers and what have you, I’ve never needed all that stuff, and still don’t.’ And the Optima is prime for the demographic too, being refined, spacious and still reasonable value considering what it offers.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Optima was re-born, landing here mid-2011, and refreshed in 2014 with those ‘ice cube’ quartet of driving lights. It seems a bit early for a new model then? The Optima is a big seller in the US, a market that demands constant updates, and so by using Hyundai bits and pieces, Kia has been able to renew the Optima earlier than usual.
The new-for-2016 Optima is priced from $46k-$49k for the two-model range, which at first seems like a lot. But that’s right in Mazda6 territory, the EX just under GSX money, and Limited undercutting the top spec 6. It’s probably also worth noting that the Limited is $2.5K cheaper than when we last drove the car in 2014. Some will remember that the Kia mid-sized sedan, named Magentis for a while, wasn’t really a star car and yet we named it a COTY category winner one year on the basis of its outstanding value.
Priced in the high forties, Optima might seem expensive but all the competitors are in the same price bracket and in Limited guise the Optima has a stupendous load of kit. There’s a full suite of active safety with smart cruise, collision avoidance, blind spot and lane departure warning and auto high beams, a smart key, powered leather seats with heating and cooling and memory function, sat nav, a reversing camera, front and rear sensors, a wireless device charger, heated steering wheel and Bluetooth audio streaming. Of course, every audio geek knows you should hard wire that ‘hi res’ MP3 player for optimal sound quality from the 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio with external amplifier and dedicated sub which just might blow the bowling hat off the parcel shelf if you crank it up. Optima also
has Kia’s five-year, 100,000km warranty. Given the small difference in price, we say go Limited and get everything. Both models have six air bags and carry a five-star Euro NCAP score, but it’s yet to be ANCAP tested so let’s hope Kia has learned from the Carnival incident and the Optima has been engineered safely for right-hand drive markets too.
That swag of stuff is loaded onto a new chassis that is a little longer, wider and taller. It’s 10mm longer in the wheelbase, and 25mm wider for added interior room, of which there is now plenty in the rear and the boot expands too. The chassis is said to be 50 per cent stiffer thanks to upping the content of high strength, hot stamped steels and reinforcing the rear end around the suspension mounting points. On the refinement front, there are added underbody covers to smooth the air flow and reduce noise, while extra sound insulation has been added. New engine and subframe mounts help reduce NVH, and along with new rear control arms, the suspension mounting points have been relocated to optimise the geometry for a smoother ride and improved responses.
If you think the Optima looks familiar, it is but the styling has been refined. The details have been tweaked which you might either find interesting or fussy, and it has that fastback look that Americans seem to like. The interior doesn’t have quite the same design panache, save for the Jaguar-aping “Riva Hoop” running across the dash top. It does however convey a solid quality feel and it’s practical, as you might hope. The seat is comfortable, and while there’s not a huge amount of adjustment, people won’t mind as it is both heated and cooled. There are few noticeable hard plastics about, save for the edge
of the console which your knee may bump into. There’s good storage and the infotainment system is done by touch and is in a good position for the eyes, if a little bit of a stretch for the fingers. It’s supplemented by drive-related info displayed between the main dials, with a good digital speed readout too if the eyes are getting tired. The panoramic roof proved a bit bright and hot on a sunny, late-summer day, so the shade was closed. These glass roofs are better appreciated in winter, or not at all, as this one eats into rear headroom. But otherwise rear seat space is grand, there’s a heap of leg and shoulder room, with window shades even, and a USB and 12V power supply for all those devices some feel the need to carry around. The boot is XL in size, with a full-size spare under the floor. However, the boot lid has the old goose neck hinges and while the rear seat doesn’t spring forward when you pull the release lever, it does fold flat once down.
In terms of a drive, the chassis honing has improved Optima but it hasn’t quite leapt to the front of the field either. The overriding character is one of refinement; it’s quiet when cruising, and the ride comfort is impressive, Optima consuming all sorts of bumps while still maintaining a reasonable governance on the roll. Grip levels are better with the move to generous 235 cross section Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres and the brakes don’t seem to give up as easily as they used to either. The steering has been revised, now with a rack mounted motor for the EPS and while it’s accurate and responsive, it’s largely mute and too heavy, especially around town and in the car park, requiring too much elbow grease.
There’s only one powertrain for our market, and it’s not a turbo but the familiar 2.4-litre DI four, now with 138kW and 241Nm. That’s less than the old model but it’s better for the world as it is Euro5 emissions compliant. However with a slight reduction in weight, there’s no loss in performance. It’s a little slow on the uptake but once above 3000rpm it gets things moving along better. The auto isn’t the most responsive unit ever, but it’s smooth and if you have to, you can use the paddles to stir it along. Though, like the drive mode button, we suspect few owners will feel the need to fiddle. Unless they want to select Eco mode to help reduce fuel consumption. This rose into the 14s after some peddling, then after a retrip before entering the motorway, went as low as 5.9 before settling in the mid tens after some round town sorties. Here, in the urban environs, the refinement is the stand out feature, the engine quiet as you don’t really probe beyond 3000rpm, while the driveline is smooth and road noise minimal. It’s only that overdone steering heft that annoys. And the overly active lane departure warning, which at least can be turned off.
Despite the segment levelling off in the past few years, there is no shortage of choice when it comes to big front-drive sedans. If you want something sharp looking, refined and comfortable with plenty of kit included, try Optima; we’d pick it over Sonata and Camry any day.
The chassis is said to be 50 per cent stiffer thanks to upping the content of high strength, hot stamped steels
Optima looks familiar, but the styling was right so best not mess with it too much. Plenty on offer in the new car; it’s loaded with things like a heated wheel, and cooled seats. Refinement steps up a notch too.