Classy contender

BY Graeme Fletcher. Jun 30 04:00 am

Since the Optima landed in Canada in 2009, it has been reworked more times than any other mid-size sedan; this is the fourth generation in a very short time frame. The latest takes Kia’s family/sports sedan to a place it has not been before. The cabin treatment and trickle-down of advanced technologies leads the lengthy list of upgrades.

The cabin in the new Optima has much nicer materials, a ton of equipment and in the SXL Turbo, swanky diamond-pattern Nappa leather seats. If you see shades of Bentley in the look, you are not alone. It also comes with the right equipment, ranging from a panoramic moonroof to a 12-way power-adjustable heated and cooled driver’s seat and it touches everything between. In the end, you have to go a long way up the price ladder to get the same sort of pampering and luxury.

One of the pluses was the multimedia interface with navigation. The eight-inch touch screen has large icons and hard buttons on either side, which makes things quick and easy to access. Likewise, the Harman Kardon sound system and its 630-watt amp delivered crystal-clear sound through 10 well-placed speakers. The missing elements, however, are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Given the Optima SXL Turbo’s list of amenities and the fact that much of the competition offers these smartphone extensions, this is an oversight.

The rear part of the cabin has ample headroom and legroom for six-footers, along with heated outboard seats and 60/40-split folding seat backs. The trunk is also up to snuff, with 450 litres of cargo space and an automatic trunk release — when it senses the smart key it pops the deck lid.

Then there’s the lengthy list of driver-assist systems, including a 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitoring, cross-traffic alert and lane-departure warning. The last proved to be annoying, so the off switch was much appreciated.

One of the more impressive technologies is Kia’s Auto Emergency Braking (AEB). It uses radar to recognize other vehicles and a camera to spot pedestrians. Should the system sense a collision is imminent, it warns the driver and dabs the brakes to wake them up. If this does not spur the driver into action the system stops the car before the impact occurs. It works at speeds below 80 kilometres per hour for vehicles and 60 km/h for pedestrians. At speeds over 80 km/h it works to reduce the collision speed through braking. While this technology is par for the course on higher-end rides, it’s a rarity on a sedan costing less than $40K. Automakers have agreed to make AEB standard by September 1, 2022, so Kia is well ahead of the curve.

There are several engine choices for the different trim levels: the base 185-horsepower, 2.4-litre four-cylinder; a new 1.6-L turbocharged four with a handy 195 pound-feet of torque; and the big dog, the 2.0-L Turbo that produces 245 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque at 1,350 rpm. Think about that for a minute; it is producing peak torque at 700 rpm off idle. This means no turbo lag and a run to 100 km/h of 6.7 seconds, which is very quick for a family sedan.

The only transmission with the SXL Turbo is a six-speed manumatic complete with paddle shifters. While not as slick as the seven-speed twin-clutch than comes with the 1.6-L turbo, it gets the job done. The shifts are smooth and when the gas pedal is hammered it kicks down promptly, which puts the engine at the heart of its sweet spot — the Optima’s mid-range is very strong. To handle the beefier torque curve, the SXL Turbo has larger front brakes, which means less fade when pushed to the maximum.

The SXL Turbo arrives with a sportier suspension than the base models. It is noticeably firmer, but no less comfortable. The secret lies in the “high performance” dampers. These things adjust the damping according to the speed of the body’s movement. When on the highway, the shocks deliver softer damping; dial in some steering and the mechanical dampers automatically switch to a firmer setting. It is an inexpensive way of delivering the best of both worlds.

Through a series of sweepers the Optima held a flat attitude and understeer was a long way out, given the front-drive format. The oversized P235/45R18 tires on the SXL Turbo certainly helped the cause. Conversely, on the highway the ride mimicked that of a luxury sedan.

The engine, transmission and steering can be tailored to taste. Drive mode alters the throttle’s sensitivity, transmission’s shift points and steering. Eco is too soft in all areas, Normal works in an urban environment, but Sport is the setting of choice. It brings better throttle response, delayed upshifts and puts more weight in the steering, which brings a crisper response to input. The hitch? It defaults to Normal every time the car is turned off. It should retain the driver’s desired setting. It did become a ritual — seatbelt on, start the car and select Sport — but a pain, nonetheless.

There was little wrong with the outgoing Optima, but the latest car takes everything, including the safety technology and engine choices, to the next level. In short, it now has the wherewithal to give the traditional players a serious run for their money.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

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