It’d be tempting to describe the 2016 Optima as being “not bad for Kia”, but that would be a false premise and kind of insulting. The Optima is flat-out a nice car, period, and able to go up against anything else in the mid-sized sedan marketplace….including some German brands.
But let’s go back in time a bit. When it was introduced to the Canadian market, in 2002, the Optima was a bland but adequate family hauler…..in fact, it wasn’t the Optima at all, but was badged as the Magentis, an optimal illusion resolved by Kia a couple of years later. It made no pretensions to greatness, and was kind of buried in the middle of the pack. Kia was establishing itself in the Canadian market, after all, and parent company, Hyundai, had yet to make its presence felt.
Fast forward to 2016 and there are now at least six variations of the Optima, including a hybrid model, and it can be had with a variety of drivetrains, including a 245-horsepower turbocharged version – the SXL – which is what I drove this time around.
This engine features Kia/Hyundai’s gas direct injection fuel management system, which injects atomized fuel directly into the combustion chamber of each cylinder….as opposed to sending it to an injection manifold or rail. Diesel engines have been employing a similar technology for years, and as well as providing even, unerring performance, it allows for maximum fuel economy and efficiency. Any car worth its salt these days has a similar fuel management system of one type or another. For those of us who grew up with carburetor-fed engines that would run out of breath and lose power as soon as you started to climb, this is a welcome innovation.
My tester also had a six-speed automataic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. With a couple of quibbles, I found this to be an agreeable drivetrain, and it gives the Optima SXL Turbo decent, but not breathtaking fuel economy.
And it does make the SXL a lovely highway cruiser. I took mine on an 800-kilometre jaunt through the mountains, and at higher elevations, the performance is exactly the same as at sea level.
That said, the turbocharger on the SXL could use some tweaking…. I found power delivery / throttle response to be kind of uneven and turbo lag is one of this car’s shortcomings. Under throttle, no problem at all, but around town, for example, it can be kind of annoying. And I have to whine about the SXL’s NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshness)….it ain’t what it could be and a little more judicious soundproofing wouldn’t be out of place.
While I’m at it, I must complain about the switchgear. The cruise control, for example, is unnecessarily fussy….ditto with the wiper delay control and navi system. These are not major gripes, but they divert your attention away from the important part of the equation: driving the effing car. This is not an aggravation unique to Kia, of course, just about every carmaker has decided to make their high-end models as user-unfriendly as possible, it seems.
And the SXL Turbo is definitely a high-end model. My tester featured heated/ventilated seats, tasteful Nappa leather upholstery, a comprehensive climate control system, a “smart” cruise control system, heated steering wheel, electronic parking brake, and all the other modcons you’d expect to find in a quasi-luxury four-door sedan. No complaints about creature comforts.
Nor about sticker shock. For a just under $38,000 starting price, you get a well-equipped, comfortable, thrifty, and good looking upscale sedan that punches above its weight when it comes to presence and equipment level.
But then, that’s how Kia – and Hyundai, for that matter – have made their way from the middle of the pack to the front. The Sonata – the Optima’s kissing cousin – is one of the best selling models in Canada and the Optima is gaining fast. Driving along the highway in comfort, I couldn’t help but notice how many other cars out there are wearing either a Kia or Hyundai badge.
If Japanese manufacturers weren’t paying attention before, they are now.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 2.0 litre turbocharged four cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed “Sportmatic”
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 245 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 260 ft. lb. @ 1350 – 4000 rpm
Starting Price: $37,795
Fuel Economy: 7.4 L /100 km (city) & 10.9 (hwy.) Regular fuel.
Alternatives: Nissan Maxima, Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, VW Passat, Mazda6, Hyundai Sonata, Chev Malibu, Buick Verano, Chrysler 200.