The 2018 model-year was a problematic one for the Kia Optima, what with it facing totally refreshed cars like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry all while the midsize sedan segment continued to buffeted by some pretty insistent headwinds. But 2019 finds the car rejuvenated and newly ready to go into battle. This refined sedan has been modernized and better equipped, and it’s even taken on some airs of the sporty Stinger.
Small changes bring big results
For 2019 the Optima is offered in three trims: the LX (and LX+), the EX (and EX Tech) and the SX (and SXL); our tester for an early-winter week of driving was the EX with the Tech package, which adds things like a panoramic sunroof, 8-inch multimedia screen, ventilated front seats and wireless charging.
From the outside, the 2019 Optima is, as it’s been for years, an elegant, understated sedan with a streamlined roof and well-proportioned body.
Stylistically Kia has given the car an update touching especially on the cowls front and rear, new headlights are in place and the model gets a new design for the wheels. The biggest change has to do with the nose of the car, which has taken on a demeanour closer to that of its stablemate the Stinger. A new choice of 16-, 17- or 18-inch wheels is available to buyers, depending on the version.
Inside, the Kia Optima offers users an impressively large and well-appointed environment. In recent years one of the traits that has distinguished the model from its rivals has been the quality of the interior, which manages to call to mind the cabins of more expensive four-door models that roll of German assembly lines. And while several of those rivals have managed to close the gap in terms of refinement and quality of construction, the Optima once again leads the way in 2019.
Kia’s designers also mildly redesigned the dashboard to make it a touch more contemporary - just to keep it ahead of the Joneses if you will. I found the various commands and buttons pleasingly arrayed and very quick to get used to. All versions get heated front seats, and leather seating is included as of the EX.
I gave all the seats a go, front and back, and I can confirm the level of comfort is of premium quality all around, thus matching the high-end feel of the cabin environment in general that I alluded to earlier. I did find headroom in the back row to be a little limited, though nothing of the sort that should give anyone sitting back there neck pains.
Like sister company Hyundai, Kia has integrated into even its more affordable models and trims functions that were previously mainly restricted to high-end products. This is a major strength for both these Korean brands, and it’s certainly resonating with value-conscious consumers.
No surprise, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration is included, as is push-button start. The suite of safety systems included has also been updated, so you find forward collision alert, automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, driver attention alert and blind spot warning.
Add it all up and the 2019 Optima is one of the safer vehicles you could take out on the road with you, and what’s more, for many of these features rivals are still exacting an added pound of flesh from consumers. By the way, the 2019 Kia Optima earned the IIHS’ top Top Safety Pick + designation, though it should be noted this applies only to the SX and SXL trims with the optional LED headlights.
One of the more significant new features is the UVO multimedia system (which accesses Android Auto and Apple CarPlay). The EX trim of the 2019 Optima gets the UVO Intelligence system that provides on-demand diagnostics of the vehicle and sends maintenance alerts.
Under the hood
The base EX version and the LX next up the ladder are powered by a 2.4L 54-cylinder engine that bestows 185 hp and 178 lb-ft of torque on the car, working in conjunction with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The SX gets to play with more horses (245) and benefits from 260 lb-ft of torque courtesy a 2.0L 4-cylinder turbo engine.
When it comes to fuel economy, the Kia Optima EX officially gobbles up 9.7L and 7.1L/100 km in city/highway driving, respectively. My week of driving the car was spent in below-freezing temperatures and on partially snow-covered roads, and yet I was able to register a figure that got kind-of-sort-of close to that: 11.1L/100 km. Given that 70% of my time was spent in an urban setting, that’s perfectly respectable.
I also therefore expect that driving the 2019 Optima in warmer temperatures on dryer roads will enable fuel economy that approximates the official number, especially if you spend more time than I do on highways. A good sign.
It’s also worth noting that Kia offers the Optima in both plug-in hybrid and straight-ahead hybrid formats, both of which will help save substantially more on gas. Official range for the PHEV version is 47 km, which is a step up from the officially-30-but-really-25-km-at-best range of many similar models currently on the market.
I had wondered if the performance of the 2019 Kia Optima would suffer from the deficiencies of an outdated 6-speed automatic transmission, but in the end the unit worked capably. Shifts were smooth and prompt, making for a smooth drive that befits a sedan of this type. Note that drivers can switch between three different drive modes – Normal, Sport and Eco – though to be honest I struggled to find much of a difference, particularly between the first two of them.
Initial acceleration isn’t the liveliest though to be fair it’s plenty adequate from a sedan whose primary mandate is to move people around in comfort, not to deliver exhilaration. That said, Kia has made much of the increased sportiness of the 2019 edition, even sticking a Stinger-like nose on it, so why not back that up with a bit more oomph? I didn’t try the Optima SX, but maybe the sport suspension and D-shaped steering wheel (complete with paddle shifter) that are available for that trim help provide more spunk.
The competition has been also made over
Kia’s Optima plays in the same sandbox as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Hyundai Sonata, all three of which have also recently been thoroughly updated and upgraded. Whoever places the latest technologies, systems and design trends high on their priorities list is not therefore lacking in choices in this segment. It’s a segment that’s overflowing with talented entrants, at the same time that it continues to bleed market share to crossovers and SUVs.
That’s a daunting combination for a model like the Optima. Will it be able to defend its piece of turf in the segment? There’s no doubt the car has virtually all the tools it needs to succeed. But the last word will go to consumers, and I wonder if the absence of an all-wheel-drive system in the product offering for the model won’t end up inciting Canadian buyers – those that still resist the call of the utility vehicle - to turn to models like the 2019 Altima from Nissan. The new generation of that sedan was recently unveiled and its big new selling point is AWD.
Pricing for the 2019 Kia Optima is as follows: the LX base model starts at $26,595, and that goes to $29,095 for the LX+. The EX can be had starting at $31,295; adding the Tech package brings that to $35,145. The SX Turbo retails starting at $38,045, and the SXL Turbo tops off the range at $40,645.
In the end…
The 2019 Kia Optima gets a substantial though not earth-shattering update which is enough to keep it viable and highly competitive in the segment. No particular aspect of it is likely to blow too many socks off, but this car is very practical, very comfortable and attractive to boot. A high-quality day-in-day-out sedan. It’s as well-endowed as any in terms of safety and standard equipment, and its interior is well-appointed and designed to make life easy and pleasant for occupants.
Comfortable, spacious interior, with premium materials throughout
Smooth and quiet ride
For the price, an impressive list of standard equipment
A feel of solid construction, all around
No all-wheel drive
Taller rear-seat passengers will get a bit too intimate with the ceiling
Acceleration off the line a little ordinary