It’s been five years since Kia first brought the Optima onto the scene, and during that time the Korean automaker has experienced uninhibited success with this sharp little sedan, as it continues to outsell every other model in their lineup year after year. Long considered “crap” by many Americans, Kia went from being dead last on J.D. Power’s “Initial Quality” list in 2001 to second best this year — only being outdone by Porsche, and I can see why.
Korean cars are a force to be reckoned with nowadays. I’ve written multiple articles about how this phenomenon is one of the greatest success stories in auto-making history, and I have been busy driving them in order to put these claims to the test. From the plucky Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Sport and the track-ready Genesis Coupe R-Spec, to the redesigned Sedona minivan and the $67,000 Kia K900, I can safely attest that there is a lot to be said for Korean cars these days.
So, when I got an invitation to drive the latest and greatest turbocharged 2016 Optima SXL in the mountains of Aspen, Colorado, it was game on once more— except that this time it would be at 12,000 feet above sea level.
The Optima has long been a safe bet for anyone looking for a solid sedan in the proper price range. While the simpler, $20,000 LX model continues to be Kia’s best seller, it’s the $34,000 SXL with the 2.0-liter turbo that gets me all giddy. There’s just something about a turbocharged four-door family car that makes me smile, and in the case of something like the Optima, the innovation behind the build is just half the story.
According to Kia’s PR people, the 2016 Optima maintains many of the same aesthetics of the outgoing model because buyers have responded so well to the car’s styling that there is little sense in screwing with perfection.
The styling changes are quite subtle; for example, the rear taillights now are LED in nature. The car has been widened, lengthened, and raised to accommodate an interior that is now roomier than Accord, Camry, Altima, and Malibu, all while retaining a profile that’s not bulbous in any regard. These new-found proportions not only give the new Optima a larger cabin, but that wider wheelbase is designed to offer better traction than before too.
After an exhausting flight, a relatively sleepless night, and enough caffeine to make me more jittery than Mr. Bean behind the wheel, I set out on my mountainous quest in the all-new Optima. My task: To traverse from Aspen to Vail (along the way bridging the spine of the Continental Divide), have apple cider and pastries at 12,000 feet, and roll back down the other side through boulder-encrusted canyons, abandoned mining towns, and multimillion-dollar winter getaway resorts.
It was an adventure that I was fortunate enough to capture on film, and to this day I cannot recall a drive that was more scenic and scary all at once. But first I have to tell you about this dog I found, and her human.
Aspen is kind of a weird place, so I completely understand why Hunter S. Thompson ran for office here back in 1970 and almost won. It’s this muddled mix of high-end boutiques, dive bars, swanky restaurants, pot dispensaries, and ski shops; where the locals are hip, the tourists are loaded in more ways than one, and the weather is ideal, with Aspen trees trickling into yellow hues ahead of some of the best snowboarding you can ever imagine.
It was while I looked at those golden peaks that a retriever walked by me, unaccompanied by neither leash nor human. I was seconds away from asking a passerby if he knew this animal, when a mailman walked up and said “That’s my girl, Ally. She keeps me company on my route. My girl before her walked my route with me every day for 14 years.”
Being a dog-lover this struck me as an unexpectedly appropriate slice of Aspen, and as some of you may remember we even did a piece on 10 cars for dog lovers a while back, so thoughts of this parcel-delivering duo somehow stuck with me the rest of my stay.
The next day, during my twisty, scenic road trip through the Rockies, an odd master/mutt relationship was formed, for the car I was driving behaved a lot like that trusty old retriever in certain ways. Well-mannered, responsive, intelligent, fun to play with, and just as dependable as the day is long, the 2016 Optima SXL proved to be the perfect companion, following my lead along the day’s route, without a single complaint the entire time.
The engine in the boosted, 2.0-liter Optima is almost identical to the one in the outgoing model, save for a smaller, twin-scroll turbo being in place, which offers more torque, but less horsepower than the old one. This was purposefully done because Kia found that drivers wanted more off-the-line power than top-end pull (For anyone interested in learning the difference between the two, check out the article we did on what makes these forms of force unique to one another).
Driving-wise, the Optima is a fantastic vehicle for everyday drivers. It’s easy to control thanks to its new, mechanically-assisted power steering, and remains spirited enough of a car for performance fans, thanks to the aforementioned turbo setup. This is not some full-blown sports sedan, but a well-crafted car that has just enough kick to keep you smiling when the boost builds.
Reinforced, high-strength steel reduces chassis flex (something I appreciated when 180-degree hairpin turns presented themselves), and doubles as an added level of safety if I missed my turn and went sailing off a cliff. Sport-mode stiffened up the steering somewhat and re-calibrated the transmissions shift points, making the paddle shifters a blast to play with all day.
Turbo lag remained virtually undetectable due to the smaller snail dishing out 260 pound-feet of torque even when there wasn’t a lot of oxygen to be had due to our altitude. Normal mode remained balanced enough, and Eco-mode surprisingly retained some oomph, even though it is still the mildest setting.
The brakes are the same as what is on the outgoing model, and offered precise control without too much nose dive, the suspension — which has been completely redesigned — walked the line between tight and tranquil, and not once did I feel myself wanting more from the car in either of these departments.
But the real winner on the redesigned Optima is its interior, which has to be one of the quietest cabins on the market today. Kia has supposedly upped its sound-deadening structural adhesive coverage from 20 to 120 feet in the Optima, and once you match that with the optional 630-watt Harman Kardon 10-speaker sound system, John Denver will never sound the same again.
Some other noticeables were the power-folding, heated, side-view mirrors; the autonomous cruise control, which can now bring you to a complete stop; surround cameras on every corner; and Android and Apple connectivity. The new Optima also has wireless charging, a USB plug in the backseat, a massive panoramic sunroof, a heated steering wheel, and Napa leather seats that feature a quilted diamond pattern and are heated and ventilated up front.
Visibility is great, no matter what direction you may turn; blindspot monitoring and lane departure warnings work flawlessly; and the steering wheel is a nice blend of D-cut sportiness, balanced proportions, and well crafted familiarity, with hand-stitched leather adding extra flare.
Low points were minimal. The overly reflective dash, sporadically placed pieces of piano black plastics,and brushed aluminum added an odd feel that left the dark interior a bit bland. This lack of continuity was only overshadowed by the gauge cluster, which does have Kia’s clever multi info display (MID), but remains so base-looking everywhere else that it was bordering on being boring.
Outside of that, the fit, finish, and overall quality of the materials inside are fantastic. Small touches like LED lighting, lining the sunglasses holder with felt, and putting grippy, silicone stripped aluminum pedals at my feet were little touches that did not go unappreciated.
So just like Ally had to learn her master’s route, the Optima has picked up on a few new tricks. All of them make the $34,000 SXL a fantastic option for anyone wanting top-tier amenities in a turbocharged, fuel-efficient sedan. For those who don’t feel like they need all that, the base LX is still available for just over twenty grand, and Kia’s new, 1.6-liter turbo model strikes a great balance between the two in regards to amenities, power, and price. But the SXL is still the crown jewel, and for the price it is a tough car to beat.