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First Drive Review: 2016 Kia Optima SXL 2.0T

by Paul Strauss
First Drive Review: 2016 Kia Optima SXL 2.0Tzoom in

    2016 Kia Optima SXL 2.0T

  • Engine: 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder
  • Horsepower: 245
  • Torque (lb-ft.): 260
  • Transmission: 6-speed automatic with paddle shifters
  • Drive Configuration: FWD
  • City/Hwy/Combined MPG: 22/32/25
  • Curb Weight (lb): 3,594
  • Wheelbase (in): 110.4
  • Total Length (in): 191.1
  • Width (in): 73.2
  • Base Price (USD): $35,790

One could argue that the third-generation Kia Optima is the car that truly reinvigorated the Kia brand back in 2010. Under the watchful eye of design boss Peter Schreyer, the completely redesigned Optima kicked off the brand’s style renaissance, with great looks, and a decidedly more sporty and modern aesthetic than past Kia products. Kia’s overall vehicle quality has also dramatically improved in the last decade or so, moving from the bottom of the quality ranks to the very top.

That winning combination made the last generation of the Optima an excellent car. But rather than rest on its laurels, Kia has launched an updated Optima for 2016 which makes some rather significant improvements, without changing what made the last Optima so great.

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Thanks to the fine folks at Kia, I had the opportunity to take the top of the line 2016 Optima SXL 2.0T out for a full day to take in the gorgeous Fall scenery in and around Aspen, Colorado.

While the new Optima preserves the much of the style of the outgoing model, there are a few notable changes. The front end offers a new look with a more aggressive new grille that appears wider and narrower, surrounded by HID bi-xenon headlamps. These offer the ability to track around corners as well, a feature typically found only on much pricier vehicles.

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The new car has also seen small changes to its size, gaining 1.2″ in width, 0.5″ in height, and 0.4″ in wheelbase and overall length. This results in even more room inside the already spacious cabin, and a gain of 0.5 cu. ft. in the trunk too.

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In addition to the exterior tweaks, the Optima has received some significant changes in its construction. The addition of new high strength steel has resulted in a dramatically more rigid frame, which was immediately apparent while driving through twisty, turny Rocky Mountain roads. This change alone results in more connected and controlled drive than before, along with a reduction in vibration, and improved safety. As an added bonus, these changes cut nearly 40 pounds in overall weight.

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The Optima line now offers three engine choices, a 178 hp, 1.6-liter turbo, a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated 4 with 185 hp, and the most powerful choice being the 245 hp 2.0-liter turbo, with 260 lb-ft. of torque in the car I drove.

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The new engine represents a 29 horsepower and 9 lb-ft. torque decrease from the outgoing model, but the change results in a much smoother and controlled torque curve, and less turbo lag. I found the engine to offer more than enough power to offer an enjoyable ride, though passing power seemed to be down just a bit at the 10,000+ foot altitude of our test route.

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The 6-speed automatic transmission offered up buttery smooth and fast shifts without any noticeable hiccups. Kia also offers a 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox, but it’s only on the 1.6-liter model.

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The new Optima handles beautifully, offering up a very satisfying ride that’s never too harsh or mushy – just right for a daily driver with a sporty attitude. The power steering rack provides good feedback, but is definitely more engaging in sport mode. The cabin is also whisper quiet, with a minimum of noise and vibration. On more than one occasion me and my driving partner found ourselves going faster than we thought we were because it was so smooth and quiet.

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The Optima doesn’t just look good and drive well – it offers a comfortable and upscale cabin that belies its reasonable price. The interior is thoughtfully laid out – its dashboard offering a strong horizontal line that divides visuals elements from tactile controls, making for a very intuitive interface.

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While the interior materials vary between the different models of the Optima, the SXL I drove was tricked out with luxurious quilted Nappa leather seats with 10-way controls and both heat and ventilation. The seats are quite comfortable, and I barely noticed them after six hours of driving – which is always a good thing. The D-shaped, leather-wrapped steering wheel offers heat for cold winter days too. The overall aesthetic is one of sophistication and practicality.

Materials throughout the cabin are nicely finished and offer a soft touch, though I’d rather see a different material used on the dashboard itself. I’ve never really cared for those generic textured vinyls that seem to show up in many cars, and I found that the top glared a bit back onto the windshield as well.

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One thing that’s really notable about the Optima is just how spacious the cabin is. There’s plentiful legroom and headroom for both front and rear seat passengers. This can’t be said for all of Kia’s competitors, especially those who offer a V6 option, which ends up costing valuable passenger space. Given the fact that today’s turbo 4s are so good, there’s little reason to offer a V6 in a mid-size daily driver if you ask me. The Optima’s cabin feels just that much larger when equipped with a panoramic sunroof.

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There’s plenty to like in terms of tech inside the Optima as well. In addition to the 8″ touchscreen infotainment system, there’s a digital information display in the instrument cluster that can provide supplemental driving information, from fuel economy and trip info, to radio and navigation details. Safety tech includes a rearview camera, with an available 360-degree top-down view which makes parking in tight spaces a breeze. Other assistive tech includes a smart cruise control system, blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking sensors, lane departure warning, front collision warning, and autonomous emergency braking. The SXL comes loaded with all of these features as standard.

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Kia also offers an awesome premium audio system developed by Harmon Kardon. This 630-watt, 10 speaker system offers incredibly clean and natural sound. Bells and whistles like Clari-Fi help improve the dynamic range and details of digital music, and QuantumLogic Surround adds depth and dimension to music without the artificial sound often associated with surround systems.

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Anyone who’s looking for a mid-size sedan should definitely test drive the 2016 Kia Optima. It’s a great daily driver, but like all current Kias, it has a great personality and is instantly recognizable. While the SXL model I drove tops out the line at over $35,000, you can get into a base model Optima for as little as $21,840 and still enjoy its exceptional design, space, and handling.


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