The Kia Optima is the largest sedan you can buy from the three-lettered Korean automaker in Australia. A stylish four-door that promises expensive kit and a high-quality product, but for a sum significantly less than what you’d expect for a comparable European marque.
It’s a car that people often overlook, just like the Hyundai Sonata to which it’s very closely related. But buyers aren’t doing themselves any favours by turning their noses at the Korean contenders, as the value for money on offer here is very compelling.
With an elegant and athletic look, improved interior design, revised dynamics, and some stronger engines, the Optima paces along the same sense of progress that has impressed owners and pundits alike about Kia the brand - and Kia the carmaker - of late. This has rolled over translated to other cars in their stable like the Sportage and Rio, but wind back the clock and their newfound stride can be traced to the Optima.
Despite the larger sedan buyers opting more and more for similarly sized SUV, the Optima still gives those high riders a good run, though they’ll ultimately win the fight for relevance. In fact, the Optima is joined by a raft of strong competitors, meaning that it’s fighting on two fronts: for the favour of the would-be SUV buyer on one side and the other against well-regarded sedans in this class.
Specifically, this 4th-generation car (introduced in 2015) runs up against the Ford Mondeo, Skoda Octavia, Volkswagen Passat, Mazda6, Toyota Camry, and Honda Accord. In Australia, Kia has kept the Optima’s spread of variants to a very easily digestible: either the Si or more expensive GT.
It really stands out from the crowd, benefitting from Kia’s bold design philosophy; it’s long, wide and low, so looks suitably sporty.” - AutoExpress
Objectively, what Kia has crafted here is quite a handsome car. It isn’t as big a step forward but rather a more evolutionary take on the well-received third-generation version that first saw Kia take a bold step toward being perceived as an automaker that has ‘arrived’.
It retains the lift back profile but eases up some of the older car’s sharper aesthetic choices and adds the automakers signature tiger nose grille, unifying the efforts of its new design chief that’s transforming the brand’s perception to the world at large.
In GT spec, the larger wheels and added dashes of gloss and chrome do even more to increase the Optima’s curbside appeal. Have the badges obscured and one might be hard pressed to believed it rolled out of a Kia showroom. More and more buyers are prioritising style these days, and while double takes come more naturally to the new B8 Passat, CD391 Mondeo, or the GL Mazda6, the Kia keeps up well on the looks front.
Engine and Drivetrain
“There’s no doubt that the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine has transformed the Optima and provided it with the go to match the show it’s had for a few years now.” - CarAdvice
Since there are only two variants, Kia has also quite logically used this to differentiate the two engine choices. Either one will adequately pull the Optima along without much hassle, but the 2.0-litre turbo motor in the GT is worth the premium.
Before we get to that, though, the Optima Si comes with a 2.4-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 138kW and 241Nm. For a car this size, this will get you going just fine if you’re not expecting fireworks.
Stepping up, the 180kW and 350Nm of the T-GDI four-cylinder in the GT makes a available a good reserve of shove, rarely feeling strained or requiring the 6-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters (standard on both cars) to kick down a cog in order to execute an overtake. Both are relatively quiet too, and impressively economical when settled into a cruise.
Keen observers will also notice that this is the exact same engine and transmission combo featured in the Hyundai Sonata, and that’s because in addition to platform sharing between the two sister companies, both cars also have many mechanical similarities.
Looking at the Optima as another flavour of the Sonata or vice versa might be a bit of a crude summary, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate.
“The quality impression created by the outside is present within the Optima too. It is also, yes, gigantic inside. Truly cavernous.” - Top Gear
Climb into the Optima and the overall layout is one we’ve seen before on other current-generation Kias. Here it’s dressed in places by nicer quality materials for a premium experience at touch points. And there’s that same underlying simplicity to the way its presented.
Kia isn’t biting off more than they can chew here, but they made double sure to not let that be at the expense of a compromised cabin experience. It does feel high quality and, yes, quite sturdily built, and more than comparable to that of its rivals - even trouncing the Mondeo.
It’s deliberately void of fingerprint-attracting glossy finishes, which is refreshing, instead using aluminium to achieve a similarly upmarket aura. Even with its clean lines and neat arrangement of switchgear, the dashboard can feel a little plain and uninspiring next to something like the Mazda6, arguably the Optima’s closest rival.
The seats are comfortable regardless of whether it’s the cloth or leather and the airy cabin just contributes to the relaxed feel of the Optima. Rear passengers will have an easy time getting comfortable, with legroom and headroom to space. On that last point, if the Optima GT is chosen, the powered panoramic sunroof and the ceiling space that occupies does may mean middle seat is best reserved for children.
The boot opens to reveal a commodious 510-litres to store cargo, which is one of the largest for a four-door sedan in this class, though cars like the Ford Mondeo do provide easier access to it via a hatchback. There should be more than enough space to swallow all your lugging needs, but because of the way the wheel arches intrude, long items can be tough to push past the folded rear seats if they are sufficiently wide.
Unfortunately for us, the Optima is only sold here as a sedan. The Sportwagon body style would definitely cater to those looking for more practicality and would mean an interesting tussle between the Mondeo wagon and Mazda6 Touring. In that hypothetical scenario, the Optima’s keener pricing might win it the day.
Behind The Wheel
“The Optima is a relaxed high speed tourer with agile, responsive handling, once again benefitting from local input.” - Practical Motoring
Being in this segment, there’s no real impetus by the manufacturer to make a car particularly thrilling to drive aside from a chance to make it known as being multi-talented. It’s a tough balance to keep, too, since cars like the Optima are bought to be dignified cruisers.
While the Si behaves has a set of mature manners on the road, it’s far from being as engaging as a Mazda6. Rather, it’s quiet and relaxing - more so than the 6 - and is able to isolate occupants from external disturbances more convincingly. Don’t expect too much from it and the Optima will behave exactly as predictably you’d expect, and if you do, it’s fortunate to have above average front-end grip and a competent stability control system to compensate.
The GT’s sportier suspension tune and significantly punchier turbocharged engine naturally lends itself more spirited driving, and those who explore this side of the Korean sedan might be in for a pleasant surprise. While creamier aspects of the Si’s ride isn’t replicated, the penalty is far from severe.
Rather, Kia’s chassis tuners are to be commended for the balance they’ve struck. Grip is plentiful and recalibrate and rack mounted electric power steering motor setup is more involving. Once in the meaty bit of a corner, the springs handle the compression gracefully. Compared like for like, especially against the Mondeo, the Optima could even emerge as the better handler while being only slightly less comfortable.
Safety and Technology
“The GT is the first Kia with wireless mobilephone charging, but suitably enough for a Korean car, only works with Korean LG and Samsung phones for now.” - Motoring.com.au
There’s plenty of safety kit with either variant of the Optima. Six airbags are standard, stability control, a reversing camera, and active cruise control. All come with autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning, front and rear parking sensors, and automatic headlights.
For this reason as well as a good crash test results, ANCAP has given the Optima a 5-star safety rating back when it was tested in 2015. The more expensive GT also gains blind spot detection and rear cross traffic alert.
Kia supplies all variants with a touchscreen infotainment system (either 7- or 8-inches wide) with satellite navigation. The GT, with its larger display panel, is also an aural treat with a 10-speaker harman/kardon sound system. Meanwhile, the Si makes do with a standard 6-speaker setup.
Like the Hyundai Sonata, the Kia Optima offers buyers plenty of value, an impressive amount of standard equipment, and plenty of interior space. Thinking more deeply on the topic, the increasing build and design of these level of car is starting to show up the more ‘premium’ offerings on the market.
The turbocharged engine does give the car a level of urgent performance that older models lacked entirely and, when paired to the Aussie-tuned suspension in the GT, can offer quite a fun rapid drive. The new Volkswagen Passat is still n a league above it, and the Mazda6 is still better to drive than nearly anything in its class, but the improvements made to the Optima make it an strong all-rounder that shouldn’t be ignored.
AutoExpress - 3/5 - “It sits proud in a segment destined for decline, offering space, kit and quality, wrapped up in a reliable Kia-branded package. If you're after an economical and good value family car, the Optima should be on your list.”
CarAdvice - 8.5/10 - “…the new Kia Optima will impress buyers with its design, execution and driving dynamics. It’s another milestone in a growing portfolio of accolades for the South Korean manufacturer, and dare we say it, it’s better than the comparable Hyundai.”
Top Gear - 6/10 - “Kia has always floundered in this sector, but no more. The Optima is good enough to forgive the so-so name…"
Practical Motoring - 4.5/5 - “…a clear indication of increasing confidence from Kia. If intending buyers judge the car on its merits, rather than simply heading off to their local Toyota/Mazda/Ford dealer, they will be tempted by the refinement and overall value, and drive away in something a little different and distinctive.”
Motoring.com.au - 74/100 - “…the Kia Optima GT suffers from the marketing department’s determination to take a reasonably good passenger car and turn it into something it most definitely is not. Put simply, the Kia Optima is not a Grand Tourer.”