First Drive: 2016 Kia Optima

Like makers of other products, car manufacturers conduct market research to determine what kinds of people are likely to buy their vehicles. When they present the results of that research at a launch event for a new or redesigned vehicle, we journalists are shown photos of beautiful people surfing, browsing antiques, or entertaining friends in their expensively-furnished urban homes. 

The reality, of course, is that no matter how much money someone spends on a new car, they (and it) will probably spend more time stuck in workday traffic or rushing to their kid's hockey practice than they do buying pricey, artfully distressed furniture.

Kia, however, takes a more realistic view of who it expects to buy its redesigned Optima family sedan. People shopping for this type of car apparently enjoy walking and hiking, traveling within Canada, going to movies and--are you sitting down for this?--baking from scratch. 

These are all perfectly fine activities, but certainly more ordinary than what we normally hear from an automaker promoting its newest design which, for Kia, doesn't push boundaries. Styling evolved from the outgoing Optima (introduced in 2011) hides the fact this car has been significantly re-engineered, riding on a wheelbase stretched 10 mm. There's also 10 mm more overall length, but most dramatic is a body 30 mm wider, an increase emphasized by styling that, as one writer in the room said, makes the car look "a foot wider." That is what Kia's designers were going for, said Kia Canada's PR boss: to create a dramatic look that impresses when viewed in other drivers' rearview mirrors. 

There are other elements worth looking at, too: simple taillights effectively link the Optima to other recent Kia designs like the Sedona minivan and Sorento SUV, and all models trade fog lights (which are not offered on any trim) for functional air ducts (they're more obvious on SX and SXL models) to aid aerodynamics and help cool the front brakes. They also make the car look a bit more Camry-esque than Kia would probably like to admit. 

Maybe there's something to that resemblance. Kia names Camry as one of its key competitors here, along with the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, and the Optima's platform twin, the Hyundai Sonata. 

Interestingly, Kia includes a drivetrain choice that its Hyundai parent has not yet built into the Sonata line: a 1.6L turbocharged four-cylinder engine matched with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. The same combo is, however, available in Hyundai's Veloster Turbo and in certain versions of its new Tucson crossover. 

Kia seems aware that this is a bit of a daring choice for a family sedan: for now, that pairing is available in just one trim, called LX Tech (The day after we published this, Kia Canada let us know that, in order to avoid confusion caused by the similar names of the LX Tech and EX Tech packages, they will instead call 1.6L models LX ECO Turbo. --Ed.), found third from the bottom of seven packages available. In this application, the engine makes 178 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, more or less matching the Tucson's output, but giving up more than 20 hp to the Veloster. 

Turbo motors in family sedans aren't news any more, but a dual-clutch transmissions certainly is: Kia is second only to Volkswagen in dropping one into a mid-priced sedan. Sadly, this one's performance doesn't live up to the hype created by the best of the breed: it lacks the seamless shift feel of VW's six-speed DSG, and even with the drive mode selector set to 'sport' (the other options are 'normal' and 'eco'), automatic downshifts don't happen as promptly as they should. 

That's all a shame, because the 1.6L turbo deserves a better dance partner. With peak torque happening from 1,500 rpm through 4,500, it feels stronger from a stop than its horsepower figure might suggest, and more potent overall than the 2.4L four-cylinder (185 hp/178 lb-ft) carried over to power four other Optima trims. 

The one to rule them all, of course, is a 2.0L turbocharged mill also brought forward from the outgoing Optima. It's a bit less powerful than before, with 245 hp and 260 lb-ft, but remains a sweet performer, handily running the Optima up and down the hilly roads around Aspen, Colorado, where Kia staged the Optima launch event. 

Kia left 2.4L models out of the mix for this preview drive, which is no surprise: turbo motors are much better at adapting to the relative lack of oxygen at high elevations like Aspen's 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) than are engines that breathe without forced induction. 

Both 2.4L and 2.0L models get a traditional (rather than a fancy dual-clutch) six-speed automatic transmission that is generally a better performer than the 1.6's seven-speed. Curiously, 2.0L cars are the only ones to get steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. No big surprise, given that the SX and SXL trims using that engine are considered the 'sport' sedans of the bunch, but in that context, the six-speed disappoints with its slow reaction times and lack of a rev-matching function in manual downshifts. Instead, the seven-speed, which does have a rev-match feature, can only be worked manually via the shift lever. 

According to Kia's fuel consumption estimates (calculated using Natural Resources Canada test procedures), the 1.6L is the Optima's most efficient motor, at 8.4/6.1 L/100 km (city/highway), besting the 2.4L (9.4/6.5) and 2.0L (10.9/7.4). Couple that with its satisfying performance, and it becomes a compelling choice. 

Kia says the new Optima's body structure is 50 percent stiffer, a fact we think explains improved over-the-road feel compared to the old car, whose chassis tended to feel unsettled over broken pavement. While it's been a few years since we've driven the last-gen model, this one felt notably quieter at highway speeds. 

Less noise will translate as more refinement in the eyes of most Optima shoppers, but to us (and also presumably, to some of the most enthusiastic drivers reading this) it makes the car seem less involving for a driver who wants an active role in the task of getting from A to B. Also, in spite of revised electric power steering systems (SX and SXL cars get a different setup than the rest of the line) that Kia says transmit more road feel to the driver's hands, we were left underwhelmed by steering that wasn't as well suited to the twisty canyon-side roads on our drive route as the company's reps would have had us believe. 

What we did like was the Optima's suspension: the 'sport-tuned' springs and shocks of the SX and SXL are (for a change) not overly firm, while the softer setup in LX and EX models never felt wishy-washy, as was once the habit of Korean cars. Elsewhere in the chassis, SX and SXL cars get larger front brakes (12.6 inches, versus 12-inchers in lesser-trimmed models), and red painted calipers are a sharp-looking touch. 

We found the Optima's interior comfortable, but we'll wait till we've spent a full week in the car to pass judgement on long-haul comfort. 

Typically for Kia, the Optima comes with a long list of standard kit the company says makes the car a stronger value than its competitors. The base LX package isn't too interesting, with the 2.4L engine, the usual power windows/locks/mirrors/air conditioning, plus heated side mirrors, automatic headlights, Bluetooth, windshield wiper de-icer, cruise, and keyless entry. 

LX+ trim is more appealing, adding 17-inch wheels, heated front seats, heated steering wheel, 12-way power driver's seat, backup camera, intelligent keyless with auto-open trunk, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and power-folding side mirrors. 

LX ECO Turbo is the sole trim that comes with the 1.6L engine and seven-speed automatic, and it arrives equipped similarly to the LX+, but reverts to 16-inch wheels with low rolling resistance tires, and adds rain-sensing wipers, LED running lights and taillights, and dual-zone automatic climate control. 

The 2.4L-powered EX trim builds not on LX Tech, but on LX+, adding a panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, rear cross traffic alert and parking sensors, interior mood lighting, leather seats, heated rear seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, rear seat air vents, and pull-up sunshades in the rear doors. 

Confusingly, there's a second trim with a 'Tech' suffix: where Kia says the LX Tech is all about what's under the hood, EX Tech's extras are inside the car, where you get navigation, upgraded 10-speaker stereo, ventilated front seats, and a power-adjustable front passenger seat. 

Then it's into the SX, which brings mostly cosmetic stuff (inside and out) beyond the 2.0L turbo motor, bigger brakes, and xenon headlights. 

At the top of the ladder, the SXL adds smart cruise control with autonomous emergency braking, lane departure warning, automatic high beam assist, 360-degree view camera, and smart-looking quilted leather seats. 

Notably, there is no hybrid in the new lineup, but with Hyundai having just launched a very good second-generation gas-electric Sonata, we figure that car's tech will find its way into Kia's latest sedan some time next year. 

Kia hasn't finalized pricing yet--or rather, they had, but Ted Lancaster, Kia Canada's chief operating officer, told us he wasn't happy with the numbers, and asked the company's product planners to take another crack at them. 

What he was able to confirm was a starting price in the mid-$23,000 range, and a top tag between $37,000 and $38,000 for the SXL. He said the final prices will be dictated by taking a "strategic look at where we're priced in the segment," adding he's not concerned with the Optima being the least expensive car in its class, preferring to continue the brand's trend of out-equipping the competition. 

We won't have to wait long for a pricing announcement: the new Optima is set to reach dealerships across Canada by the end of October. 

This model’s biggest challenge will be attracting new buyers with a car that shrouds notable engineering improvements behind a subtle styling update. The key will be putting people who weren't sold on the old car behind the wheel once more to see there's more to this redesign than meets the eye. 

Our most pressing question is how the limited availability of the 1.6L engine will affect sales. We see it as one of the car's biggest selling points (notwithstanding the underwhelming transmission), but wonder whether buyers who want the EX Tech's convenience features will end up buying elsewhere because they can't combine them with Kia's latest drivetrain technology. Generally, we think the majority of family sedan buyers will find little to fault in the new Optima--no matter what they like to do in their spare time.

Like makers of other products, car manufacturers conduct market research to determine what kinds of people are likely to buy their vehicles. 10/21/2015 10:32:23 AM