Change is GoodMay 01, 2016 ● By Ben Johnson
For years, the Korean auto market has been booming, giving manufacturers like Kia their tenth consecutive monthly sales record. This, coupled with the rate at which their developments in performance, luxury and tech grow, has brought them to be one of the fastest-growing car brands in the world, yet, 90 percent of the population thinks the company makes cheap tin cans that will die the Thursday after purchased. They still struggle to get the traction of what the Japanese market did in the early 1970s. The previous generation Optima laid a pretty solid foundation by punching above its weight class in power and luxury, but I think the new Optima could be the car to really get the ball rolling for Kia.
First, the car looks the part. With modern, smooth lines and a cleaner cut design, it is more in line with brands like Lexus and Acura. I prefer the outgoing model with its increased aggressive styling, but the redesign is not a step backwards. Instead, it looks more sophisticated. The interior is a revelation over the outgoing model. The center stack looks more akin to Audi than anything else to come out of Korea, and it offers intuitive controls for every feature. Everything is ergonomically placed, and within 30 minutes of familiarizing myself with its system and controls, the menus were a breeze to navigate. There is more information than you know what to do with between the main dials, but it is all still neatly placed and does not feel cluttered. The fit and finish of the interior sets the bar high with extensive uses of soft-touch materials and leather. I did not hear a single squeak, bump or rattle over the course of the week. I tested the SX Limited trim, which came with goodies like 12-way power heated and vented seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel and the best sound system I have ever heard in a car. The 10-speaker, 630-watt Harman/Kardon system envelops you in crystal clear sound with its quantum logic system. The sound system also has this ingenious program called “Clari-Fi™” that restores highly-compressed audio files and makes them sound fuller and richer. It makes vocals streamed though Bluetooth® sound like they are coming straight out of the artist’s mouth.
Power comes from a turbo-charged, 2.0-liter DOHC four cylinder, making 245 horsepower and 260-pound-feet of torque mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. That is good enough to get you from zero to 60 in around 6.7 seconds, or quicker than a new base Audi A3. Peak torque comes in early, but tends to drop off near the top of the rev band, like many small turbo engines today. It is no tire smoker, but it is also not a slouch and has plenty of power for passing in day-to-day driving. With a steady foot on the highway, you will get 32 mpg. With solid power and great fuel economy, it is hard to ask for more in this category. The transmission is not the most precise or quickest thing. The paddle shifters seem to be more of a suggestion than anything else because it takes a bit for it to change gears once a paddle is pulled. It would be a huge improvement if this could get a dual-clutch transmission, like those found in German vehicles.
The Optima’s handling is geared more toward the 40-mile, everyday commute than weekend blasts down back roads. It loses its sense of liveliness, due to the pursuit of comfort, and tends to turn fans of BMW and Audi away because of it. The steering feels relatively numb in every situation, making it difficult to feel grip and placement on the road. The feedback and pressure from the steering wheel feels uniform in any turning position. In addition, the overall lightness of the steering puts off a lazier vibe than that of something like a GTI. With that being said, it has comfort you can write home about. Even on some of the most cracked, cratered and gravel-covered roads, it finds a way to take away every imperfection. Long journeys become a breeze with suspension this supple and sound-deadening galore, making the hours fly by. On top of that, it has a soft bump with good rebound stiffness, making it feel planted and less like a Buick from the 1980s. Body roll could be controlled better, but seeing how this will not see many autocross weekends, I can understand. Every panel on the vehicle seems to be loaded with sound-deadening material because I have not experienced a quieter car since the Kia K900. The lack of noise makes my mother’s A3 feel like I am in an operating steel mill.
When it comes to tech goodies, the Optima does not leave you wanting for more … far from it. Everything a driver could ever want is found in one vehicle. Radar-guided cruise control, collision mitigation system, Bi-Xenon headlights with automatic high beam assist, rear cross traffic alert system, blind spot monitoring, 360-degree camera view, parking sensors, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, satellite radio and driver seat memory all come on the SX Limited trim, and every single item performs flawlessly. Honestly, if you can wreck this car, you must have a special gift or you just flat out are not paying attention. The 360-degree view is extremely helpful when trying to navigate tight drive-throughs or trying to parallel park right up to a curb on a narrow, busy street. Just as it did in the K900, the radar cruise control system scans the road ahead for cars in front of you and either follows, slows down or speeds up, depending on what you set your distance and speed at. I was surprised by how sensitive the rear cross traffic alert system was. It picked up a car that was flying through a busy parking lot about 40 feet before it would have hit me, which was a huge relief. I do not understand when people say they do not want to pay for safety systems like that. My mother says, “I have been backing up for 40 years without a camera and I do not need one now.” The fact is, if it prevents just one accident, it has already paid for itself. The same thing goes for the radar cruise control. Do I drive just fine in my current car without it? Sure, but if it saves me, just one time, I do not have to go through the hassle of swapping information, getting repairs done and my insurance premiums rising.
The bottom line is, you can get a safe, reliable, comfortable, spacious and feature-ridden vehicle that competes with cars well beyond its $36,600 tested price. If you have to have something with four rings or a three-pointed star on the front to be able to sleep peacefully, then by all means, empty your wallet. The Optima will vastly exceed 90 percent of the population’s expectations for a luxury car. In my opinion, I wish it was sportier and more of a canyon carver, but I understand that most people just want something that can handle the daily grind and not be filled with squeaky, cheap, plastic bits. Kia understands and delivers exactly that package with an industry-leading, 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. Not even Honda or GM offers that kind of warranty.
People say that if you do not vote in elections, you are not allowed to complain about the outcome. I believe the same concept should be applied here. If you have not driven one, you cannot discount its credibility. Does it matter that it says “Kia” on the front and rear? That is up to you, but if you do not like the badge, remember, that is your problem. I, for one, have no issue saving $10,000-15,000 by not being a brand loyalist.