2021 Kia Optima Midsize Sedan First Drive

Remember when the Kia lineup was a fleet of cheap transportation? If you can’t remember those rented bottom feeders, trust us, you’re not alone. The Korean automaker and its counterpart, Hyundai, have been successfully shedding this stereotype for many years now. It has recently blossomed into two of the most interesting brands out there. Kia introduced new supermodels such as the Stinger four-door sports utility vehicle and the iconic Telluride three-row SUV. Now, the all-new 2021 Kia Optima is going to a higher level with more elegant overhauls that have helped fuel the company’s rapid rise.

Appearance and comfort

It’s hard to believe that the new Optima was built by the same company – let alone wears the same nameplate – as the previous model. (Quick note: To avoid confusion, we’ll refer to the Korean-spec K5 we drove in this review as the Optima.) Sure, the latest generation can be handsome, but its replacement earns more friendly compliments. Do we dare call it sexy, even? Narrow headlights are defined by zigzag lights that merge with Kia’s “tiger nose” grille to give the car a fierce face. The hood and side surfaces have been creased to give extra character without looking too busy. The chrome strip runs congruently with the sweeping roofline before crossing the rear pillar, tracing the top of the boot lid, and attaching to the other side of the vehicle. This helps create a Fastback profile that ends with dramatic taillights that extend from the rear end and resemble a heart rate monitor.

High: Visually appealing inside and out, many high-end features, no CVT offering.

If the Optima’s dramatic exterior wasn’t enough, its cool cabin should do the trick. Kia cleverly avoided overstating the design and opted for an uncomplicated design with rich-looking materials. The dashboard is dominated by a piano black bezel that houses a 12.3-inch digital instrument panel and a 10.3-inch touchscreen. Seriously, the dashboard has beautiful displays, including a Vista-like background or gauges that shift with the driving modes. The infotainment system is great too, and its menus are generally easy to navigate. If there’s anything to complain about inside the Optima, it’s the lack of haptic controls. While the audio system has a volume knob, everything else is controlled via steering wheel buttons or touch-sensitive areas around the screen. The same goes for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Kia claims these functions are more intuitive than traditional switches, but we prefer physical things that are reliable and less distracting.

However, the Optima is great for its luxury-like features and Kia’s apparent attention to detail. The company didn’t reveal what trim level we drove, but it showed what to expect from the finest examples. Our testing included cool ambient interior lighting on the doors and dash, a neat air-purifying system, heated and ventilated front seats (switch-powered, thankfully), a helpful head-up display, plush leather upholstery, and a wireless charging pad. Except for the narrow door pockets, there are plenty of places to stow small items in the center console. The Optima’s large trunk also seemed capable of carrying luggage for all of its passengers. While we wouldn’t pack five adults into the sedan, although with room, four passengers would be very comfortable. The rear seat in particular has ample legroom and a large armrest that folds down. The driving position was very flexible and included a comfortable dead pedal and a floor-mounted accelerator. We only wish we could lower the seat height even more.

Still under development

For those who don’t know, the new Optima is mechanically similar to the all-new Hyundai Sonata. They share less obvious platform, powertrain options, and other equipment, but they have different personalities. Based on our experience driving the Optima on the streets and highways surrounding the South Korean capital of Seoul, we don’t think the Honda Accord or Mazda6s are likely to be usurped as actual driver-sharing options. However, this is more a testament to these manufacturers’ engineering than a shot at Kia. Optima delivers an enjoyable experience that is highlighted by stable handling and quiet driving. There was minimal road noise and no structural vibrations while we were driving. The sedan was easy to maneuver through the tightly packed streets of Seoul thanks to its comfortable yet responsive steering. We didn’t feel confident with the soft brake pedal, which panics when the binders don’t always respond quickly. Kia said this will be resolved before production begins, and there will be steering and suspension tuning changes for the US market as well. That might solve our only other complaint, which was that the tester had a steady ride that was very noticeable on uneven surfaces.

Low: Lots of touch controls, high seating height, less engaging driving than some competitors.

The Optima will offer a variety of different engine options in other markets, but the US models will have two options. This means there are no more hybrids or extra hybrids — at least for now. However, shoppers can turn to the Kia Niro or Soul EV for electric alternatives. The Optima 2021 will also be available with all-wheel drive for the first time. It hasn’t been confirmed for the US, but we’ve been expecting it since competitors like the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry have offered it. The inevitable Optima GT will give Americans a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four, which should produce about 290 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It will be paired with the first eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and a gearbox will also be in the Hyundai Sonata N-Line.

The Optima we drove was powered by the other engine confirmed in the US, the same 1.6-liter turbo that we tested in the 2020 Limited Sonata. It puts out 180 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque, which should apply to Kia as well. . Optima also shuffled the front wheels with an eight-speed automatic gearbox. This is a welcome reprieve from continuously variable automatic transfers (CVTs) becoming more and more popular. The gearbox on the Optima shifted ratios with precise symmetry that can be suspended or accelerated by switching to Sport driving mode or by moving the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. However, it denied violent bearish shifts, and brief inactivity led to bullish volatility. People who are interested in that will not be interested in Optima anyway. Instead, the competent low power and underpowered nature of the Turbo Four will please most drivers. They will just have to be patient when trying to pass slow strokes at highway speeds.

name game

While there is a possibility that the fifth generation Optima will be called the K5 when it comes to the US, that doesn’t matter because it will be almost identical to the Korean version we drove. We’re not fans of the potential name change, but the new car is so much better than its predecessor that Kia could call it a Gangnam Style without compromising its appeal. Not only is it more attractive than its main competitors, but it also offers a myriad of high-end features and – and perhaps – the highly desirable four-wheel drive. This might steal some Sonata sales. Who do you know? What we do know is that the Optima or the all-new K5 or whatever Kia decides to call it should be a great, great value car when it hits US showrooms in the second half of next year with a price tag that could start around $25,000.

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