The new Kia Optima K5 is more matured and grown up, well-primed to take the next step forward. Here’s how it fares.
About the Kia Optima K5
When the third generation Kia Optima was launched in 2011, it made waves in the car industry with its combination of gorgeous looks and generous interior space, without overly compromising on its driving capabilities. It stuck out like a rare unicorn – a mid-sized family sedan that wasn’t boring to look at. And we rather liked it.
The 2016 Kia Optima is here, but it arrives to a rather different mid-size sedan market compared to five years ago. In recent years, many carmakers have stepped up their design game, with direct competitors like the Toyota Camry and the Mazda6 Sedan having made significant advancements in style. Five years ago, the Optima was the cool kid at the playground rocking the mohawk when all the other kids had centre partings. These days, quiffs and pompadours are par for course.
And that does leave us slightly worried. Having made its name on handsome looks, can the Kia Optima still stand out in the increasingly crowded playground?
On first glance, one may be quick to say no. The new Optima looks remarkably similar to the previous one, from the ‘Tiger Nose’ grille to the sloping roofline. It was cause for argument in the office about just how much of a ‘new generation’ the new Optima is. Choosing not to mess with a good thing, Kia has sensibly kept the silhouette of the Optima familiarly stunning.
However, look a little closer and you will notice some subtle changes that have been made. There is a new window added to the C-pillar, visually emphasising the car’s greenhouse. The rear has also been redesigned, with sleeker taillights and a ducktail boot lid that acts as an aerodynamic spoiler. The Smart Welcome Lighting System, with an array of lights synchronised to the smart key, such as a light behind the door handle, adds a quaint touch.
Combined with its already handsome design, especially that swooping, coupe-like roofline, there is no doubt that the new Optima looks sharper and more nuanced.
What has changed though, is its overall dimensions. The wheelbase is 10mm longer, and the car is 10mm taller and 30mm wider. But short of taking out a measuring tape, these figures are barely perceptible on the outside. The cool kid at the playground hasn’t suddenly decided to go onto a McDonalds-only diet; he’s just had an extra cookie or two.
Stepping into the new Optima, and instantly the ‘new generation’ designation makes sense. It immediately feels different and more grown up. The black one-tone interior has understated style, and offers a generous amount of comfort. The leather seats are sleek and very comfortable. Leather wrapped centre and door armrests add to the overall level of quality and comfort.
The car’s expanded dimensions also mean that there is more headroom and legroom than before, especially in the rear, even with the sloping roofline.
The new Optima is also packed with a lot of standard features. Leather-wrapped steering wheel with remote controls and paddle shifters, an electrochromic rear view mirror, fill automatic dual zone climate control with cluster ioniser, rear power outlets for your passengers to charge their smartphones, eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat with Integrated Memory System, the list goes on. Describing this car as a generously well-equipped one will be an understatement.
The centre console has also been redesigned. While it is still angled towards the driver, it has lost its shouty ‘look-at-me’ chrome trimming, adopting a more sensible and mature design.
Where the new Optima has changed the most is under the skin. The new model uses 150 percent more Advanced High Strength Steel than its predecessor, which makes the car substantially more rigid, improving driving dynamics and crash protection, while offering a quieter ride. While this writer cannot vouch for the improved crash protection, the driving dynamics and NVH damping is definitely noticeable.
Together with an improved all-independent suspension system, the Optima rides smoothly on the roads, yet offers responsive steering around bends. There is a nice balance struck between soaking up small imperfections in the road, and being sharp enough around bendy roads.
Power is proffered by a 2.0-litre 163bhp engine, mated to a six-speed transmission that is efficient, smooth and surprisingly quiet. While there are paddle shifters for manual operation, we suggest leaving the car to its own devices. Manual shifts are noticeably sluggish.
The car also comes in three driving modes – the default Comfort, Eco and Sport. In Sport mode, steering, transmission and throttle characteristics become noticeably sharper and more engaging, but at the obvious cost of fuel. Even in Comfort mode, the steering is well-assured at high speeds, noticeably better than some of its segment competitors that tend towards twitchiness at highway speeds. Impressively, we managed about 13km/L while driving in comfort mode, matching the manufacturer’s fuel economy figures – a very welcome sign.
The one quibble we have with the drive is the transmission’s lack of refinement on downshifts during braking. Upshifts are seamless and quick, but under braking, the car sometimes decides to drop a gear mid-braking, and the unexpected engine braking can be slightly disconcerting especially in mid-corners.
The Optima is like that one friend you have that you don’t see for a long time, yet five years later you run into him again and remark, “Wow you don’t look like you have aged a day!” But spend some time with him and you realise that, despite looking remarkably similar on the outside, he is definitely five years older and five years wiser.
And the new Optima is certainly more mature, and better for it. It has put on muscle and become stronger, and has become smarter as well. Kia has done an excellent job in raising its handsome precocious kid. While more evolutionary than revolutionary, the Optima has grown up well, improving on the inside whilst still maintaining its handsome exterior.
It is an intimation of just how far the brand has come. Kia is now prepping it for the next phase of life, with Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid and Sportswagon models of the Optima having already been announced.
Akin to preparing your child for university specialisation, the new Optima is a well-schooled child primed for the next step. A mid-sized sedan that is practical, comfortable, easy on the eyes and easy to drive, this sedan continues to be an intriguing and value proposition in the segment, remaining well-priced for all that it offers.
And yes, we still like it a lot.
By Desmond Chan, sgCarMart, 26 Februrary 2016