The verdict: The Kia Optima overcomes a hit-and-miss driving experience with value galore, especially now that Kia has added much-needed standard safety features for 2019.
Versus the competition: Even in a dwindling crowd of mid-size sedans, the Optima faces stiff competition in the form of redesigns from its Japanese rivals, none of which it beats for overall refinement. Still, it’s hard to beat Kia’s value proposition.
As we explain in our Optima video, mid-size sedan popularity has collapsed in recent years, even as major competitors like the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry sport fresh redesigns (compare them here). For 2019, the Optima is midway through its fourth generation, but Kia has issued a raft of updates (read more about them here), including some much-needed additions on the safety and driver assist front. We evaluated the highest of four trim levels, the SX Turbo. Stack up the trims for the 2019 Optima here, or compare the 2019 and 2018 Optimas here.
Got it? Onward.
The SX Turbo is powered by the Optima’s top available engine, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder (245 horsepower, 260 pounds-feet of torque). That’s become a common size in this class — six other mid-size sedans also offer a turbo 2.0-liter — but not all examples are equal, and Kia’s underwhelms. Step on the gas from a stop and the Optima SX has a bit of old-school turbo lag: Power can take a few moments to show up, and it’s comparatively modest even at full bore versus competitors like the quick-revving Accord 2.0T and the potent Camry V-6.
A six-speed automatic transmission (standard on the Optima SX) downshifts with respectable haste when you need passing power, but a couple of more gears and the faster revving they would bring could make the most of this engine. I don’t call for that lightly — more gears often introduces hunting and kickdown delay — but the Optima’s platform sibling, the Hyundai Sonata, successfully upgraded to a responsive new eight-speed automatic one model year ago. (Hyundai and Kia are affiliated automakers.) It’s unfortunate the Optima did not.
Most variants get a 2.4-liter four-cylinder (185 hp, 178 pounds-feet of torque), which also pairs with a six-speed automatic. Though we haven’t evaluated it recently, the same drivetrain in the Sonata is adequate but uninspiring, which stands in contrast to the improbably good base drivetrains of the Accord and Camry.
Higher up the Optima’s trim ladder, there’s an available turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder (178 hp but just 195 pounds-feet of torque) that teams with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. It fared well in our earlier evaluations of the current-generation Optima and makes for the best Optima in terms of gas mileage (excluding the hybrid): 31 mpg combined in EPA estimates versus ratings in the mid- to high-20s for other drivetrains. Still, if mileage is paramount, even the 1.6-liter Optima narrowly trails its most efficient competitors.
Ride and Handling
SX models pair low-profile tires and the Optima’s largest available wheels (18-inchers, versus 16s or 17s elsewhere) with a sport-tuned suspension. The results are, I suspect, too firm for most shoppers in this class: High-speed isolation is OK, but the suspension jostles the cabin over rapid elevation changes and responds harshly to highway expansion joints. The overall experience evokes the Altima, another firm-riding car.
In exchange for that, the SX changes direction reasonably quickly, with limited body roll, and the Kumho Solus tires on our test car provided fairly good grip in sweeping corners before the nose eventually pushed. It’s fun enough, but it doesn’t distinguish itself in a field of rivals — the Accord and Camry in particular — that strike a better ride/handling balance.
Fortunately, the Optima’s three other trim levels have normal suspension tuning, and two of them pair that with smaller wheels and higher-profile tires. Those differences should improve ride comfort, so compare a few of them on your test drives. It’s worth noting that a few years back, a 1.6-liter Optima with smaller wheels drew praise from Cars.com editors for its ride comfort.
Changed minimally since the current generation debuted in late 2015, the Optima’s interior features a towering monolith of a dashboard and lots of simple, trim-free expanses. Most cabin materials are soft-touch where they need to be, but the design lacks much inspiration — and it doesn’t live up to the prior generation’s eye-catching dashboard, which helped it earn our highest award at the time.
Still, the 2019 Optima boasts comfortable seats with good adjustment range up front, plus decent front and rear headroom even with our test car’s panoramic moonroof. All trims get a standard height-adjustable passenger seat — something no Accord or Altima offers. The center console houses two sizable cubbies ahead of the cupholders, which is one more than what most competitors give you. The standard 8-inch touchscreen has straightforward menus and all the essential physical controls, including volume and tuning knobs. You’d be surprised how many cars botch such basics.
Features and Value
Automatic emergency braking, a critical safety feature that’s widely standard among competitors, was only an option on top trim levels of the Optima last year. Kia wisely made it standard for 2019, along with an array of driver assist features, including stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, automatic high-beam headlights, blind spot detection and, above 40 mph or so, lane-centering steering. (Like Hyundai, Kia won’t call it lane centering, but in our experience it can do just that when programmed for maximum intervention.) For around $24,000 including destination — about $1,000 less than a 2019 Accord, Altima or Camry — the Optima comes standard with all of that, plus Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Kia’s class-leading warranty.
Check all the boxes and you can get Nappa leather upholstery, power-adjustable seats with heating and cooling up front, heated rear seats, keyless access, Harman Kardon premium audio and the panoramic roof. Loaded up thus, the Optima will set you back some $37,000.
Strong crash-test ratings bolster the Optima’s case: The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rates the halogen headlights on most trims poorly, but the well-rated LED headlights on the SX earn it a Top Safety Pick Plus designation. All trims get strong scores in the agency’s new passenger-side small overlap test.
Fresher rivals are all-around better cars, to be sure, but the Optima’s value proposition should land it enough shoppers to keep it relevant. The relative deficits mount as you climb the trim levels, and any mid-$30,000s Optima begs spending your money elsewhere. But most Optima shoppers aren’t buying such cars: As of this writing, 90 percent of Optima inventory on Cars.com is listed below $30,000. That’s where Kia makes a sound case.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.