2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo Review - Hey, Remember The Magentis?

2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo
Wayne Gretzky wrote in his 1990 autobiography that, upon moving to Edmonton to play for the Oilers, he was told to keep two sets of car keys. Why? Because it would be so cold in the middle of the winter that he'd want to keep his vehicle running – and locked – when he went into practice. The other set of keys would get him back into a warm vehicle that didn't need to reignite after sitting in a blisteringly cold parking lot.

Wayne wasn't driving a Kia. Nor does Wayne likely drive a Kia now. 

But Korean automakers really know how to defrost and warm a car. It's been cold in Nova Scotia lately, no surprise on the east coast of Canada in January. But when a car is covered in half an inch of ice and nearly a foot of snow, it's wonderful to know that the car underneath all that ice and snow is a Hyundai or Kia. In our experience with around 50 new vehicles per year, an experience which includes former Hyundai ownership, former Kia ownership, and current Honda ownership, no vehicle clears its windows more quickly, melts ice more rapidly, and warms a cabin more expeditiously than a Hyundai-Kia product. 

• Ultra refined

• Loaded with goodies
• Plenty of turbo punch
• Roomy interior
• Prompt and smooth 6-speed auto
• Thirsty engine
• No enthusiasm, doesn't want to be fun
• Previous Optima looked better?
• Hyperactive lane departure warning
• $40,000 for a midsize Kia still stings

It's also nice to know that underneath all that ice and snow is a car with heated seats, front and back. It's comforting, while shovelling a path to the passenger door, to remember that I'll soon be able to take my gloves off and grasp a heated steering wheel. Rather than driving down the road for 10 minutes or so before a sense of warmth pervades the cabin, the 2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo will be almost instantly toasty inside.

Granted, the rate at which the Optima warmed its cabin is impressive to those of us on the Atlantic coast, where the wake-up weather of sunshine, flurries, and -10°C is deemed downright frigid. 

We make no such promises to Edmontonians. 

Go Oilers. 

Kia began selling cars in Canada in 1999. The company's first midsize offering was the troublingly bland Magentis. Kia forged ahead with the Magentis nameplate when their second midsize offering debuted half a decade later in 2005. But in Canada, the car was wildly unpopular. Fewer than 10,000 copies of the Magentis found Canadian homes between 2005 and 2010. 
2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo blue
Base Price: $25,340 *
As-Tested Price: $39,440 *
Drive Type: front-wheel-drive
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Engine: 2.0L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 245 @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 1350 rpm
Curb Weight: 3594 pounds
Length: 191.1 inches
Width: 73.2 inches
Height: 57.7 inches
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Tires: Yokohama Iceguard
Tire Size: 235/45R18
Passenger Volume: 2967 litres
Cargo Volume: 450 litres
EPA City: 22 MPG
EPA Highway: 32 MPG
NRCAN OEE City: 7.4 L/100km
NRCAN OEE Hwy: 10.9 L/100km
Observed: 18.4 mpg
Observed: 12.8 L/100km
* Canadian dollars, includes $1645 in fees.
Then, Kia sold nearly 12,000 Optimas in 2012 alone. That wasn't quite enough to rank the Optima at or near the top of the midsize best sellers' list, but the Optima represented the same kind of paradigm shift that the Hyundai Sonata represented a year earlier. 

Style matters. 

And here's the fourth-generation Optima, the first two having operated in Canada under the Magentis banner, and it looks very, very, very much like the paradigm-shifting third-generation Optima. 

Oh, it's different, particularly inside. And it still looks good, particularly in this SXL Turbo guise. But after succeeding by so sharply differentiating the Optima, Kia quickly became conservative for model year 2016. 

This car, the top-of-the-range SXL Turbo, features the most powerful of the four Optima powerplants. The base 2.4L four-cylinder produces 185 horsepower and 178 lb-ft of torque and is rated at 6.5 L/100km on the highway; 9.4 in the city. 

The 1.6L turbocharged four-cylinder that's only available in one LX trim level produces 178 horsepower but also manages a 195 lb-ft slug of torque. Car & Driver's recent review of that engine is very positive. There's also an Optima Hybrid. We reviewed that powertrain in our recent review of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Finally, there is this 2.0L turbo under the hood of the SX and the SXL, which produces 245 horsepower and nearly all of its 260 lb-ft of torque just off idle. Stated fuel consumption of 7.4 L/100km on the highway and 10.9 L/100km in the city is 26% worse than the 1.6 turbo's official ratings. And we did not come close to matching the SXL's official fuel economy figures.

Historic Monthly/Yearly Kia Optima Sales Figures
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2015 Toyota Camry XSE V6 Driven Review

Dimensionally, the Optima is very similar to its top-selling rivals, as you'd expect. The Toyota Camry is two-tenths of an inch shorter, bumper to bumper. The Honda Accord is four-tenths of an inch narrower, side to side. The Chrysler 200 is an inch taller. 

The Optima is thus a big car, but not excessively so. Inside, there are 2967 litres of passenger space. The trunk is 450 litres large. In its class, only the Sonata's interior volume is greater, and only the Sonata, 200, and Fusion offer larger trunks. 
2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo front

If your last Kia experience was in the 2001 Sephia owned by your now imprisoned cousin's ectasy-dealing buddy, the 2016 Kia Optima is going to be quite a shock to the system. 

Scratch that: if your last experience in any car was in just about anything from 2001, the Optima will be quite a shock.

All the touch points – from the exterior doorhandle to the pushbutton starter to the movement of the shifter and the leather-wrapped wheel and the quilted leather seats and the wiper stalk and the steering wheel buttons – are high quality bits and pieces. 

Even Kia's infotainment unit, prior to Apple CarPlay availability, is intuitive and effective, if not an outright delight. The interior is not a stylistic wonder, but I'm not sure there is a stylish interior in the midsize class of 2016. Mazda 6? Maybe. Chrysler 200? Sort of.

There is a hint of small-displacement buzziness to the engine at low rpm, but the overall sense of a silent cabin, free from vibration, is continually striking. 

Visibility in the Optima is certainly not top of class, as the belt line is too high and the roof too low. The seats could offer slightly more bolstering – these are too Americanized for my slim frame. 

The Optima Turbo is undeniably quick, but mainstream 2.0L turbocharged four-pots continue to lack the pizzazz of the available 3.5L V6s from North America's three most popular midsize sedans: Camry, Accord, Altima. There's a lack of throttle response in the 2.0Ts which, while not offensive, diminishes the thrill. 

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If I pay to option up my car with greater power, I want the full bore adventure. And the 2.0L turbo mills in the Optima, Sonata, Fusion, and Malibu simply haven't delivered on the promise of big-league power. Yet. These are aluminum bats going yard in college ball, and I want an alternatively engined midsize sedan to reach for the second deck in an MLB park with a good ol' wooden bat
2016 Kia Optima SXL Cow Bay
All Photo Credits: Timothy Cain ©www.GoodCarBadCar.net
Click Any Image For A Larger View - Optima Photographed in Cow Bay, Nova Scotia
Power doesn't make the Optima a sports sedan, lest you think the turbo badges on the side of the car invariably make it so. The steering is nicely weighted, the 6-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly, and the Optima rides with a decent amount firmness. Indeed, the 2016 Optima SXL Turbo doesn't feel at all like a big car to pilot down a fun road. But there's no sensation of man-machine connection through the brakes or steering. Sport mode doesn't dramatically alter the car's character compared with Eco, and you're left with a car that purposefully rockets away from the MacKay Bridge toll booth but is far too isolated to tear up the first off-ramp with no regard for the sanctity of speed limits.

For most midsize sedan buyers, that's a good thing. They want lifeless steering, consistently smooth shifts, and far more ride quality than turn-in sharpness. Just don't mistake the promise of the Kia Optima's power with a promise of Kia Optima playtime.

In Canada, Optima volume fell to a four-year low of 6210 units in 2015, a far greater total than Kia Canada used to manage with the Optima's Magentis predecessor, but just eighth among midsize sedans. In a segment which suffered an 8% loss in 2015, Optima sales fell 16% as Kia switched generations. Only 6% of the midsize cars sold in Canada in 2015 were Optimas. 

In the United States, the Optima also ranked eighth in the category but claimed 7% market share with a modest increase to 159,414 sales in 2015, even as the category slid 2%. 2015 was the best year ever for Kia's midsize sedan in America. 
2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo quilted Nappa leather
Your wishlist: a sedan with a spacious back seat, a load of features, abundant torque, and exemplary refinment. We'd suggest you also consider the 2016 Honda Accord Touring V6. If you're willing to sacrifice power but truly enjoy driving, the 2016 Mazda 6 is the enthusiast pick of the mainstream midsize sedan litter.

If you can't decide whether you prefer the Optima's styling over the Hyundai Sonata's, you ought to consider the possibility that you'll score a better deal in a Hyundai showroom. The cars share a platform, and though there are far more differences between these two cars than there used to be between, for example, the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, the powertrains are identical. 

And if you're genuinely interested in spending $40,000 on a sedan, you ought to determine just how important that spacious rear seat is. The Audi A3 2.0T Quattro starts well below $40,000. 
2016 Kia Optima SXL Turbo interior
Kia's Canadian lineup offers the most powerful Optima in two grades: SX and this SXL. The SXL adds $2600 to the SX's price but includes Nappa leather, adaptive cruise control, 360° camera, front collision braking, lane departure warning, and auto high beams. 

In other words, if the most powerful Optima is the one you need, you could sacrifice a few safety features and still benefit from much of the SX's luxury. The 2.0L turbo is an impressive engine, but it's very thirsty if you dip into the thrust too often, and one wonders how often a typical Optima buyer needs to access that power anyhow. The standard 2.4L's 185 horsepower is sufficient, though not enticing, and it brings the Optima into a far more appropriate price range. The nicely equipped Optima 2.4 EX, for example, costs $31,240. 

Refinement, power, and space in spades: that's a winning ticket, right?

I can't help thinking that Kia could further differentiate the Optima from its Hyundai Sonata corporate sibling by supplementing the SXL Turbo's power with a more aggressive suspension set-up, stickier rubber, bigger brakes, and a sportier transmission mode. Theoretically, that's not what the typical midsize car buyer wants, but I'd argue that the typical midsize car buyer doesn't want upgraded power, either. Yet here it is.

Moreover, it appears as though the typical midsize car buyer in Canada doesn't want a Kia Optima. Thus, it may be in Kia's best interest to cater to the anti-establishment car buyer who's willing to consider a more sporting tune. Kia's not the only automaker that aced the quality and refinement portion of this exam. Other more popular pupils did the same. If Kia wants to make greater in-roads, perhaps it's time to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and make the Optima a high-quality, thoroughly refined, fun midsize car.

Then, perhaps, we'd stop saying that the Honda Accord is our favourite midsize car.

Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook. The Optima was supplied by Kia Canada's press office.

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