Kia has been offering buyers competent, stylish cars at prices that undercut rivals. But that low price came at the expense of refinement. As with the Sorento, the Optima shows that Kia has turned a corner. It still looks great, and now it comes with more substance.
Why is it that some cars fly under the radar? You think more people would know about a certain vehicle and embrace its goodness. And yet, for whatever reason, the model doesn't catch on with the mainstream.
Such is the case with the Kia Optima. It's more eye-catching than other family sedans, but Kia sells half as many Optimas as the safe-bet Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. A redesign for 2016 brings a new air of mainstream opulence to the Optima. It has improved ride comfort, better handling and braking, and a roomier interior. But it's also so loaded with standard and smartly priced optional features that you feel like you got more than you paid for.
We tested a midlevel EX, which has a smooth 185-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, mated to a quick-shifting six-speed automatic transmission.
Its 8-second 0-to-60mph time is about a half-second quicker than the equivalent Camry and is sprightly for freeway merging. Though the Optima's fuel economy is a respectable 28 mpg overall, a few competitors do get 30 mpg or more.
And unlike many family sedans that provide a smoother ride at the expense of precise handling, the Optima strikes a fine balance between comfort and sharp cornering.
There's a firmness to the Optima's ride that's evocative of higher-priced European sedans. However, tire noise becomes noticeable on coarse pavement. The brake pedal has a firm feel, and the Optima has a shorter stopping distance than many competitors have.
Understated competence reigns inside the new Optima. Its large door openings make it easy to get in and out, and the wide and supportive leather driver's seat is tearoom plush, complete with four-way power lumbar adjustment.
The Kia has a sloping, tapered roofline that mimics the shape of other trendy, modern sedans. Such a silhouette can make rear seats seem claustrophobic, but the Optima's commodious cabin has plenty of room.
The array of infotainment and climate controls is well-placed and easy to use, with a businesslike arrangement of familiar knobs and buttons.
Not that everything is perfect. The low dash vents are more likely to freeze your elbow than cool your face. And scrolling through music is irritating on the small, 5-inch radio screen. (The standard screen is increased to 7 inches for 2018.)
Safety systems aren't well distributed across the model line. Beginning with the 2018 model year, blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert becomes standard. But you have to pay over $5,000 to get forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking if you're thinking about even a mid-level EX model.
Aside from that overpriced option array, the Optima is a great value story. The EX has 17-inch wheels, dual-zone automatic climate control and leather seats (heated up front), along with a heated steering wheel. Comparably equipped competitors cost thousands more.
Overall, the Optima offers an enjoyable driving experience, along with considerably more substance and refinement. It may be time to switch away from the easy choice.