Driven First: 2016 Kia Optima SX

Driven First: 2016 Kia Optima SX

Though it may not be obvious from the outside, Kia has completely overhauled its game-changing Optima from the inside. Packed with technology features found on its upscale Sorento SUV and K900 full-size sedan, the Korean brand remains dedicated to keeping its prized mid-size offering neck-and-neck with the competition. And in this segment, the competition is stiff. Every brand has been pouring more and more resources and standard features into their four doors to outdo the other.

Image credit: Kia

Image credit: Kia

Kia flew us out to beautiful Colorado where we drove the mountainous roads along ski towns Aspen and Vail. If you haven’t watched our in-depth video review with MotoManTV, then you should definitely check it out. Of course, it’s difficult to be unhappy about anything when you’re nestled between the majestic Rocky mountains with the sun shining in a clear blue sky.

Kia: the ever-evolving brand

It’s been quite the ride for the Kia brand over the last 14 years. The carmaker has jumped from last on the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study list in 2001 to the number two slot in 2015, just behind Porsche. That is no small feat, as Chief Operating Officer Michael Sprague pointed out to a room full of journalists. Equally impressive is that Kia is well on the way to achieving its best year of sales ever.

Image credit: Kia

Image credit: Kia

Kia has been ramping up efforts in preparation for its next season of growth, including building a brand-new $1 billion manufacturing facility in Monterey, Mexico.

The automaker snagged Audi designer Peter Schreyer several years ago and charged him with livening up the brand. He’s still keeping it fresh, and now, he will have a partner in performance recruited from another German manufacturer, Albert Biermann from the BMW M division.

Needless to say, it remains an exciting time for Kia. And the carmaker doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.

Kia plans to introduce 22 all-new or redesigned products in the next five years, including hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions of the 2016 Optima we tested.

While the retiring Optima was certainly a turning point for the brand when Kia introduced it at the 2010 New York International Auto Show, this new iteration seems equally promising. That model was the first Kia ever to reach more than 150,000 units sold. So the question is, can Kia do it again?

Image credit: Kia

Image credit: Kia

Changes for 2016

Chief Design Officer, Schreyer focused his efforts on the new Optima toward creating a cleaner and more refined exterior while still maintaining the vehicle’s recognizability among a pack of mid-size competitors, such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Subaru Legacy.

Updates include a longer and leaner tiger nose grille (inspired by big brother K900), the returning signature greenhouse chrome accent, and new LED tail lights. Those changes, while important, appear more like a refresh to us when compared to the massive updates found inside the Optima.

Image credit: Kia

Image credit: Kia

Starting with the interior, which VP of Product Planning Orth Hedrick touts as the most improved area of the vehicle, the Optima features a sleek and wide setup with high-end details. A more emphasized horizontal plane stretching across the dash is a point of design pride for Kia; however, we found that it detracted from the clean layout of the controls and center stack that lies beneath that line. The hard plastic dashboard top made that element feel less sculpted and more unfinished in our opinion.

Moving toward the driver’s seat, Kia has stayed true to a cockpit feel with the cluster of instruments angled toward the most important passenger. This not only is practical, but it also gives the Optima a sporty aesthetic.

Premium soft materials rest atop redesigned front seats made from high tensile steel and four-layer foam support. Both driver and passenger get 10-way power adjustable seats with lumbar support and height adjustable seat belts.

We have always liked the seats Kia puts in its vehicles, and this is only an improvement on what was, in our opinion, already a good product. The D-shaped steering wheel added both to our comfort in driving position and the feel of piloting a sports sedan. We did miss the electronic tilt and telescope option for the wheel, however.

Thanks to a body construction of more than 50 percent high-strength steel or ultrahigh-strength steel, riding through tight twists and turns was minimally challenging for the 2.0 Liter Optima SX. We could feel the sturdiness from the 58 percent more torsional rigidity on this car, and needless to say, we were impressed.

Image credit: Kia

Image credit: Kia

The lighter, yet stiffer, chassis shined both in the hills and on straightaways. Kia opted for a 6-speed automatic transmission on all but its newest, smallest engine (a 1.6L co-developed with sister company Hyundai, which gets a 7-speed tranny), and while the 6-speed performed fine, we wished that this version had a few more gears.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the quietness of the 2016 Kia Optima SX on the open road. Our driving buddy, MotomanTV, was shocked to discover at one point we were traveling as spiritedly as we were yet it felt we were going much slower because of the smooth ride. In the old Optima, those speeds would have been completely noticeable. This is where we find the shared DNA with the K900 rubs off in an excellent way when compared to other mid-size sedans on the market.

Each vehicle that Kia introduces to us feels more and more refined, with the right balance between luxury, practicality, and good looks. As we head into 2016, it will be interesting to see how this brand continues to evolve, reshaping public opinion of what a “Kia” really is.

Want more information about the 2016 Kia Optima? Check out these videos with our friend MotoManTV.

VIDEO: Aspen, Vail and the 2016 Kia Optima

VIDEO: MotoManTV previews technology on 2016 Kia Optima

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This article was written by

Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.