Test Drive: 2019 Kia Optima SXL

The most challenging reviews to write are the ones about cars that simply do exactly what’s expected of them. If they don’t exceed expectations or fall well short, it’s tough to get a good story rolling.

Instantly user-friendly for just about any driver.

This review is a particularly tricky one to write because the Optima pulls no punches and simply delivers on all its promises.

Styling: 7.5/10

It’s been a decade since automotive design guru Peter Schreyer left Audi for Kia, and seemingly almost overnight the Korean car maker’s lineup became a collection of handsome machinery that subscribed to a cleaner, simpler – dare we say, more German-looking – design language.

The Optima presents a tasteful design that’s sure to age well, thanks to Schreyer’s team exercising restraint against trendy frivolity and excess. We’ll forgive the tacky “Turbo” badge nestled into the fake fender vent, because otherwise, the Optima is a great looking car, improved slightly for 2019 thanks to some sharper lighting features front and rear.

Inside, the Optima has aged very well, too. Again, by sticking to a very simple and traditional design, the interior remains not only functional, but also far less susceptible to fads. Unsurprisingly, the design recalls many cues from Audi interiors of generations of yore, and while not as contemporary as some of the designs of its peers, the Optima’s cockpit makes it look like a more premium car than its badge – and price – suggest.

That said, there are some cheap, shiny, and hard plastics; and the faux stitching on the dashboard is pretty obvious. Likewise, while convincing to the eye, the aluminum-hued switchgear is identifiable as painted plastic the moment a driver touches it.

Features: 9/10

Kia earned a reputation for offering loads of content for modest cost, and that holds true here with the Optima. In top-line SXL trim, the expected features – a slick infotainment system, leather seats, wireless phone charging – are all part of the package. But it’s the Optima’s enormous panoramic sunroof, automatically folding exterior mirrors and the rear-door window shades, that are among the many features typically found on much costlier machines.

User Friendliness: 8.5/10

At 8 inches, the Optima’s infotainment system may not have the largest screen in the class, but it is a touchscreen affair and presents information in a very straightforward manner. The menus are logically structured, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are smoothly integrated into the system, even allowing some functions from the baked-in system to work with the smartphone integration simultaneously.

Beyond that, there are actual physical buttons and knobs to control all the essentials for climate and stereo, as well as a pair of large, easy-to-read primary gauges flanking a secondary information screen within the instrument binnacle.

There are no silly push-button shifters or seat-heater buttons that require double-jointed elbows to reach, nor an instrument cluster with an overwhelming pile of information. Instead, the Optima should prove instantly user-friendly for just about any driver.

Comfort: 8/10

In the Optima SXL, the seats are covered in an up-level Nappa leather, stitched in a diamond pattern and perforated for breathability. It’s a premium touch rarely seen in the mid-size family-sedan segment. They’re reasonably supportive without being too firm or too squishy, and the driver’s seat has 12-way power adjustability. Better still, the front seats are both heated and cooled (the rears are just heated).

Rear-seat legroom is a bit short, compared to the likes of the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, though only those very long-of-leg sitting behind someone else long-of-leg will notice. Head, shoulder, and hip room, front and rear, are very spacious and lead to the Optima boasting an overall passenger space volume of 2,967 L – greater than either Accord or Camry.

Practicality: 7/10

For carrying up to five passengers, the mid-size Optima is, well, optimal. Those requiring more cargo space than the 450 L available, however, may want to join the masses and consider an SUV instead. Or a Kia Stinger GT-Line with its highly functional hatchback design.

Those living in areas that see a lot of snow may also wish to consider a vehicle with greater ground clearance or at least all-wheel drive (like the Subaru Legacy or Nissan Altima – or Kia Stinger), but for most Canadians, the front-wheel-drive Optima with a good set of winter tires should suit just fine.

Power: 7/ 10

The 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine found in our SXL is the top choice for the Optima. Those wanting a V6 will need to splash out a bit more for the larger and more luxurious Kia Cadenza. Most, however, should be more than satisfied with the Optima’s 245 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.

The latter figure peaks at only 1,300 rpm – just a whisker above idle speed – so the diminutive four-cylinder feels more robust than one might expect, especially around town, and it’s not difficult to get a little squawk from the front tires. Acceleration is lively enough to keep drivers entertained, and passing can be accomplished swiftly and safely thanks, in part, to the Optima’s six-speed automatic that provides smooth and swift gear changes.

Driving Feel: 7/10

Here again, the Optima neither shines nor disappoints, but simply goes about its business. Front-wheel-drive, mid-size sedans aren’t typically exciting to drive, and while suitably capable, Kia’s mid-sizer is not an enthusiast’s car.

The steering is decently quick and precise, but it doesn’t transmit much road feel, and when driven hard, the all-season front tires protest in understeer, despite the turbocharged SX and SXL Optimas having a sportier suspension set-up than the more affordable trims.

While not at all uncompetitive in the class, the Accord and Mazda6 provide a more dialled-in handling dynamic, making the Optima a polished, mid-pack performer. Those looking for a more exciting drive should once again consider Kia’s own Stinger.

Safety: 9/10

To stay competitive, Kia has made many of its active safety features standard on the Optima. Thus, even on the base, LX trim (at less than $25,000), one will find lane-keeping assist and forward collision-avoidance assist.

In the top-line SXL, adaptive cruise control is added as well, and helps the Optima earn top safety ratings from both the IIHS and NHTSA.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

The turbocharged Optima suffers somewhat in efficiency due to its antiquated transmission. Proof is shown when looking at the Hyundai Sonata that utilizes the exact same engine, but an eight-speed automatic versus the Kia’s six-speed. The Kia’s corporate cousin posts slightly better efficiency numbers than the Optima’s 11.2 L/100 km city, 7.9 highway, and 9.7 combined. Likewise, the Accord and Camry each have more cogs in their transmissions resulting in greater efficiency.

Where the Kia (and the Hyundai) trump the competition is in fuel tank size. At 70 L, it enables a much greater cruising range than most competitors, despite its relative inefficiency.

The Optima is happy with regular fuel.

Value: 8/10

During my recent Honda Accord review, I was reminded of just what a tremendous value these high-trim, mid-size sedans have become. The technology trickle-down from very premium cars has been surprisingly quick and these machines are chock-full of technology.

The Optima SXL takes the equipment level of most of its competitors and ups it just enough for the Kia to go toe-to-toe in terms of features as many premium brand luxury sedans. Still, some of the interior trim quality and the overall drive experience falls just short of the best in the class, making the Optima no better a value than a few of its costlier competitors that are arguably best in the class.

Conclusion

Those seeking a roomy, comfortable, and very well-equipped sedan may need look no further than the Optima SXL. It’s perfectly and expectedly unassuming and inoffensive, being neither the best nor the worst in terms of driving dynamics and refinement. Neither is it the most affordable or the most expensive. We’ve come to expect solidly built and capable vehicles from Kia, and that’s just what this is, and there’s not much more to say than that.

2019 Kia Optima SXL Turbo
Engine Displacement: 2.0L
Engine Cylinders: I4
Peak Horsepower: 245 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Peak Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 1,350 rpm
Fuel Economy: 11.2/7.9/9.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 450 L
2019 Kia Optima SXL Turbo
Base Price $38,845
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,655
Price as Tested $40,800
Optional Equipment $200 – Lightning Blue paint $200
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.7
8 Styling
7 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
7 Practicality
7 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
9 Features
8 Value