2019 Kia Optima Review

Liz Kim | Jun 12, 2019

Introduction

When it comes to transporting a family, consumers are obsessed with the high-profile station wagons known as crossover SUVs, which offer greater cargo flexibility than a traditional midsize family sedan like the 2019 Kia Optima. This shift in buyer preferences has auto industry pundits questioning whether sedans remain relevant, while some car companies are deeming them unworthy to be built.

Ironically, the golden age of midsize family sedans is upon us. Every one of them is stylish, comfortable, technologically advanced, and enjoyable to drive. But not all of them supply the sheer value you’ll find in the Kia Optima.

2019 Kia Optima photo

For this review, we evaluated an Optima SX equipped with extra cost paint and a carpeted cargo mat. The price came to $33,505 including the $925 destination charge.

What Owners Say

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Kia Optima, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

Compared to the segment as a whole, Optima owners skew female, younger, and less affluent. J.D. Power data shows that women comprise 42% of Optima ownership (vs. 39% for the segment). The median age of an Optima owner is 52 years (vs. 55). The median annual household income of an Optima owner is $74,839 (vs. $86,689). Not surprisingly, 34% of Optima owners self-identify as Price Buyers, whereas 35% of midsize car owners are Practical Buyers.

Optima owners are less likely to strongly agree that a first consideration when buying a new vehicle is quality of workmanship (38% vs. 50% at the segment level). Similarly, they’re less likely to strongly agree that a first consideration is reliability (59% vs. 67%).

Extra-cost safety and environmentalism are not priorities for Optima owners, either. The data shows that 76% of Optima owners agree that they’re willing to pay more to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features (vs. 80% at the segment level), while 50% of Optima owners agree that they’re willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (vs. 58%).

Styling is important to Optima owners. According to the data, 76% of them agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (vs. 71%). In a similar vein, 58% disagree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (vs. 53%).

Buyers say their favorite things about the Optima are (in descending order) the exterior styling, storage and space, interior design, driving dynamics, and visibility and safety. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the Model are (in descending order) the seats, engine/transmission, infotainment system, climate control system, and fuel economy.

What Our Expert Says

In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the Kia Optima measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2018 APEAL Study.

Exterior

Every version of the 2019 Optima is inherently appealing, with a coupe-like profile and handsome lines all around. In SX trim, the Optima gets a decidedly sporty appearance including black 18-inch aluminum wheels with a machined-faced finish, and gloss black trim on key parts of the exterior.

The test vehicle wore Snow White Pearl paint, which costs extra but looks very much like other white metallic paint jobs, only with more glitter. I’m unconvinced of the value of this $495 option. An SX Limited option package is also available, swapping the blacked-out look for a more upscale, chrome-bedecked appearance.

Interior

While I prefer light interior color schemes to all-black ones, the Optima SX’s exclusive seat upholstery pattern and red inserts liven up the cabin. And if you get the SX Limited Package, the car includes plush quilted Nappa leather to increase the zoot quotient.

About the only thing that dulls the party is the hard plastic trim covering the lower parts of the cabin, but this is par for the course when it comes to mainstream midsize sedans.

Seats

The test vehicle included heated and ventilated front seats, the latter providing relief on sunny days during which the mostly black interior and huge panoramic sunroof conspired to capture and retain solar heat. Each front seat offered plentiful power adjustments making it even easier to get comfortable.

The whole point of a family sedan is to carry people around, and in the 2019 Optima, you’ll do so with a minimum of complaints. My daughters reveled in the expansive view through the glass roof, and this car supplies plenty of room in the back. If you’ve got a baby who rides in a rear-facing child safety seat, this car works perfectly.

Just watch your head on the low roofline.

Climate Control System

The Optima’s dual-zone automatic climate control system quickly cooled down the cabin during my time in the car, and the combination of knobs and buttons to make adjustments was a snap to use. My kids always like to have rear air-conditioning vents, which the Optima includes.

Infotainment System

Likewise, Kia’s use of knobs and buttons makes the infotainment system easier to use while driving. It includes an 8-inch touchscreen display, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Dual 2.1-amp USB ports charge your device in short order.

The test car’s software also provided access to connected service functions that are free to use as long as you don’t mind burning through your smartphone data plan. Separately, this year a new smartphone app provides remote access to various vehicle functions, such as remote engine starting, remote door locking and unlocking, and operating the climate system.

Another upgrade in the test car was a Harman Kardon premium sound system with Clari-Fi digital music restoration technology. For a modestly priced car, this system provided rich, deep, clear sound.

Storage and Space

With the Optima, Kia provides thoughtful storage solutions to keep your belongings secure. They include a big center console and glove box, both a cubby and a tray for your phone, and bottle holders in the front and rear door bins.

Pop the trunk to find 15.9 cubic feet of cargo space. The test car had Kia’s Smart Trunk feature, which automatically opens the trunk when you stand behind the car with the key for a few seconds. This is different from most such systems, which require you to stand on one foot and wave the other one under the bumper.

Visibility and Safety

For a car with such a sleek profile, outward visibility is excellent. The exception is directly to the back, where the high rear deck and third brake light conspire to limit the view. Good thing there’s a reversing camera and, in an unusual move, standard rear parking sensors on all trim levels.

Kia is generous and thoughtful in its approach to keeping the Optima’s occupants as safe as possible. Even the base Optima LX is loaded with all kinds of active safety features, such as a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and lane departure warning with lane keeping assist. My SX test vehicle also had adaptive cruise control and a pedestrian detection system.

I find Kia’s driver assistance aids useful, in part because they’re subtle. You’re aware of their operation, but not irritated by them, which means you’re more likely to leave them engaged.

In crash tests conducted by the federal government, the 2019 Optima receives a 5-star overall rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) ranks it a “Top Safety Pick Plus,” its highest commendation.

Engine/Transmission

A 245-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is standard in the Optima SX. Unlike many turbocharged powerplants, turbo lag barely rears its ugly head, all thanks to 260 lb.-ft. of torque coming on strong at just 1,350 rpm. A quick-thinking 6-speed automatic transmission powers the front wheels with little drama.

Optima LX and S trim levels have a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine for 185 horses, while the EX trim uses an efficient turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder supplying 178 ponies combined with a thick wad of torque. You can also get the Optima with a gas-electric hybrid powertrain, and with a plug-in electric hybrid powertrain.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, an Optima SX should average about 24 mpg in mixed driving conditions. Impressively, the test car returned 23.5 mpg on a test loop composed of highways, city streets and winding mountain roads.

As a result of this showing, it’s a bit baffling as to why fuel economy ranked last in terms of owners’ favorite things about the Optima. However, it is worth noting that the points spread between the most favorite and least favorite items was fairly narrow in comparison to many vehicles.

Driving Dynamics

No, the Kia Optima SX is not a rear-wheel or all-wheel-drive sports sedan. Rather, this is a front-wheel-drive midsize family car, which makes its entertaining driving dynamics even more of a surprise.

There is some torque steer under hard acceleration (that’s when a FWD car pulls slightly toward an unintended direction when you’re stomping on the gas), but it’s fairly predictable and easy to get used to.

I was most impressed by the Optima SX’s ability to hug the curves of local canyon roads, displaying a minimum of body roll, good rotational balance, brakes that held up under duress, sticky tires, and commendably precise steering.

Don’t assume that this handling prowess results in an uncomfortable ride quality around town. In my opinion, the suspension is compliant enough to soak up most ruts and bumps without numbing you to what’s happening at the road surface.

Final Impressions

The 2019 Kia Optima is a full-bodied midsize sedan with a fun-to-drive character to keep the driver happy, safety credentials to keep the front passenger happy, and plenty of features and room to keep the rest of the family happy. If you’re shopping for an impressive family sedan, make sure the Kia Optima is on your test-drive list.

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