First Drive Review – 2016 Kia Optima SX 2.0T – By Ben Lewis

You might have guessed by now, we’re big fans of German cars here at The quality, performance, and balance of these vehicles always impress. On the other hand, we’re glad we’re not a German carmaker right now, because there are a lot of brands nipping at your heels – and they are coming a lot closer –sometimes, even surpassing those hallowed brands.

Take for example, our recent test vehicle the 2016 Kia Optima SX 2.0T. It may just be the best entry level Audi you can buy. Yes, we said Kia, and yes we said Audi.

How did this happen? Well you have sort of a harmonic convergence going on here. It started with the über (over, not the car app) talented Peter Schreyer leaving the VW group to become chief designer at Kia in 2006. Six years later, he was running the Hyundai-Kia Motor Group, and now also oversees Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury brand.

As soon as Schreyer got to Korea, the cars started looking a lot better, especially the Hyundai Sonata, that had Jaguar-esque tones to it – enough to make it a tempting competitor to Camry and Accord.  Unfortunately, the latest Sonata has seemed to get more conservative with age and become a bit of a snooze.2016 Kia Optima

For 2016, we get a new Optima, and we’re thankful that the previous model’s sleek, aggressive style hasn’t been messed with. While it’s slightly larger than the model it replaces, the most notable differences are a fresh look to the front and rear fascias – and if you’re not a Kia-phile, you might not even notice the difference.

We did note that our top-of-the-line SX Limited in Snow White Pearl with 18-inch machine finish alloy wheels had a purposeful, aggressive, look that we like much better than the 2016 Accord, which has really just gotten fussy with new chromey bits. A pity, as last year’s Accord sedan was such a tasteful design.

Part two of the harmonic convergence with the Optima occurs under the skin. After Schreyer got busy with the styling, it was time to address the long-time knock on Kia and Hyundai – the lack of refinement. What you can’t see under the Optima’s sleek shape is a more rigid chassis, thanks to additional high-strength steel. In theory, it should make for less creaks and squeaks and also allow the suspension to work more accurately.

While it’s hard to see those new bits, you can easily see the interior has been taken upscale, and it’s a stunner. Our tester, as you might expect from any Kia (or Hyundai for that matter,) was loaded with gear and features. We’ll get back to that.

The Limited makes the big play right away with quilted leather seats that look like they should be in a Bentley. In a rich Aubergine color, combined with real chrome accents and superb fit and finish, you feel like you’re in one of those high-priced European brands.

Which could really be setting you up for heartbreak if the drive wasn’t good. Luckily romance is not dead at Kia – the Sonata is a sweet drive. The stiffer chassis pays off immediately in a noticeably quiet and composed ride. SX models enjoy Kia’s 2.0-liter, turbo 4-cylinder, which for 2016 has been reduced to 245 hp (it was a mouth-watering 274 before) with torque also down 9 lb.-ft. to 260.

While its always a bummer to lose power, Kia says the smaller turbo spools up more quickly and fattens up the powerband.  Interestingly, the brand new Audi A4 charts out at a similar 252 hp and 273 lb.-ft. of torque.

We haven’t driven the rowdy Audi yet, but the Optima is butter smooth, and the 6-speed auto works efficiently.  When clicked into the highly recommend Sport setting, the shifts are quicker and the turbo wakes up, hustling the sedan along nicely. While it lacks a little of the raw edge of the previous model, the gains in refinement really shine through.

Another advantage of being a member of the SX trim level club comes with a sport-tuned suspension and rack-mounted electric power steering to give more precision. Okay, sport-tuned is a term that’s thrown around a lot, and in the Optima, it’s not going to get you salivating with Autobahn-burning dreams.

But it is very buttoned down and smooth, and the steering has some real feel – a rarity in the current raft of vehicles with electric PS. Combined with the overall quiet composure of the vehicle, it glides along with the refined overall vibe you find in today’s Audi.

Which brings us to a bit of a conundrum. Our loaded to the gills SX Limited tester carried a sticker price of $36,890. Gulp. The new A4 starts at $37,300. Of course, comparably equipped the Audi A4 is north of $50,000.  But it’s pretty unlikely if you really want an Audi; you’ll be shopping at the Kia dealership.

More realistically, the top of the line Honda Accord Touring is $35,515. So in a real-world Apfels to Apfels comparison the Kia stacks up nicely. You lose a little to the V6 in the Honda, but probably gain a little bit back in fuel economy – if you can stay out of the turbo zone.

If you’ve been out of the market for awhile, the days of Hyundai and Kia giving away their products to get you in the store are long gone, though. These cars are as good as any in their class. And priced Accord-ingly.

While we loved all the goods on our SX Limited, You should know that Kia is making some other interesting choices available. Especially tempting is the LX 1.6T. Designed to be the most miserly of Optima’s, with an estimated 28-mpg city/39 mpg highway, it actually reads like  it was built for the enthusiast. The 1.6-liter turbo pumps out a respectable 178 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft of torque.

Adding to the fun is a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, which should be much more fun than the CVT’s that live in most basic-grade gas sippers. Lighter by a significant amount than our SX, performance should be quite close, while providing excellent mpg.

It seems that Kia knows which one it wants to be the top dog, though. The LX 1.6T comes nicely equipped, with goods like push button start, smart key and leather-wrapped steering wheel, but the premium stuff like sunroof, leather – even heated seats – is strictly verboten. Still, starting at $24,140 it sounds tempting.

While our wallet does sometime make the decisions, in this case, our heart would go with the Optima SX. This is a hugely impressive car. Stylish, refined, and beautifully trimmed out. So here’s the secret: they’re selling Audis at the Kia dealer. Don’t believe us? Check it out for yourself. We think you’ll be as impressed as we are.


2016 Kia Optima SX 2.0T – Photos By Ken Glassman / Manufacturer


About The Author

Ben Lewis grew up in Chicago, and after spending his formative years driving sideways in the winter – often intentionally – moved to sunny Southern California. He now enjoys sunny weather year-round -- whether it is autocross driving, aerobatics, or learning to surf.