2018-2020 Kia Optima review

The Kia Optima is a handsome and very well equipped family sedan, with a sophisticated cabin and the option of a powerful turbocharged engine. Automatic braking is standard.

Kia Optima Review
Score breakdown
Safety, value and features
Comfort and space
Engine and gearbox
Ride and handling
Things we like
  •   Looks
  •   Space
  •   Equipment
  •   GT performance
Not so much
  •   Thirst
  •   GT ride a bit bumpy

What stands out?

The Kia Optima is a handsome and very well-equipped four-door family sedan, with sure handling and the option of a powerful turbocharged engine. A sophisticated cabin looks after rear passengers particularly well. Autonomous emergency braking is standard.

What might bug me?

That your neighbour doesn’t notice you’ve traded in your old Optima. The looks haven’t changed a great deal from the previous model.

Driving on bumpy city roads in the more expensive of the two Optima models, the Optima GT. That will remind you that you pay a price in comfort for its bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres.

What body styles are there?

Four-door sedan only. The Kia Optima drives its front wheels and is classed as a medium car, lower priced.

What features do all Optimas have?

Dual-zone climate control, which allows you to set different temperatures for either side of the cabin.

A colour central touchscreen (7.0-inch in the Si, and 8.0-inch in the GT) that also controls cabin functions.

Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone pairing, and MP3 compatible sound system with an AM/FM radio, Aux and USB inputs, Bluetooth audio connectivity, and at least six speakers.

Two 12V power sockets, and USB phone charging. A driver’s seat with power-adjustable lumbar (lower back) support.

Adaptive cruise-control, which will automatically keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of you.

Controls on the steering wheel for operating the cruise control, the audio system and your phone.

A reversing camera, and front and rear parking sensors.

Bright dual=projection hadlamps that switch on automatically when it’s dark, and dip automatically for oncoming drivers. Windscreen wipers that operate automatically when it rains.

Wheels made from aluminium alloy (which look nicer than steel wheels and are lighter). A full-sized spare wheel and tyre.

Automatic transmission.

Automatic emergency braking that works at city and highway speeds. Lane keeping assist.

Driver attention alert that senses if the car is veering and produces an audible alarm to get the driver's attention should they be getting drowsy..

Six airbags. Electronic stability control, which can help you recover from a skid and is mandatory on new cars. (For the placement of airbags, and more on Optima safety features, please open the Safety section below.)

The Optima comes with Kia’s industry-leading seven-year, unlimited kilometre warranty.

Which engine uses least fuel, and why wouldn't I choose it?

Two petrol engines are available in the Optima: a 2.4-litre four-cylinder drives the Si, and a more powerful, turbocharged, 2.0 litre four-cylinder drives the GT.

The 2.4 litre is marginally the more fuel-efficient, using 8.3 litres/100km on the official test (city and country combined).

The main reason you would not choose it is that you want more fun from your Optima and you are prepared to pay for it. The turbocharged 2.0-litre has significantly more power, accelerates harder and is far more entertaining to drive. And it’s nearly as frugal. But you can get it only in the better equipped Optima GT.

You might also find that in highway use, the non-turbo, direct-injected, 2.4-litre feels lethargic in its response to the accelerator, as though it has been tuned to save fuel but with less consideration for the driving experience. Around town it supplies plenty of go – in fact it feels just as good there as the 2.0 turbo.

Real-world fuel-consumption for the GT varies a great deal with how it is used. Wheels magazine reviewer James Whitbourn averaged 13.2 litres/100km over 3500km in a GT he used mainly for city driving. But he said he was surprised to find consumption falling to 6.0 litres/100km on trips into the countryside.

The Optima GT averaged 11.0 litres/100km in comparison testing for the September 2016 edition of Wheels – slightly less than an accompanying Ford Mondeo and Holden Commodore SV6, but more than a petrol Mazda6 GT (9.6) and much more than a petrol Volkswagen Passat and Skoda Superb (about 8.0).

Every Optima drives through a six-speed automatic gearbox.

What key features do I get if I spend more?

As there are only two models in the Optima range, the options list is short. Choose the more expensive Optima GT and the biggest change is the better, turbocharged, engine.

The GT also has an upgraded steering system that’s more responsive, feels more direct around corners, and makes it easier to position the car at freeway speeds – such as when changing lanes.

On the outside, the GT has unique front and rear bumpers for a more aggressive look, and red brake callipers. Wheels are an inch bigger in diameter than the Si’s at 18 inches, shod with wider tyres of a lower profile (which improve steering response and grip, and contribute to the more sporty appearance).

The GT also satellite navigation, part-leather upholstery, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with paddle shifters, a colour instrument cluster and the bigger touchscreen. The front seats are heated, and the driver’s seat is power adjustable and remembers your settings (so that you can restore them easily after a companion has driven the car).

There is a 10-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, and very bright and long-lived LED headlights that shine into corners when you turn the wheel.

Wireless phone charging allows compatible smartphones to be charged in the space ahead of the gear lever, without the need to plug in a cable.

Finally, the GT augments the Si’s active safety suite with two additional features: a blind spot alert, and a rear cross-traffic alert.

Did any upgrade have a down side?

The GT might cost more to insure because it has a turbocharged engine. However, these are increasingly common and no longer restricted to high-performance cars.

The GT’s bigger wheels and shallower tyres also bring a rougher ride, especially at slow speed, that some people may find uncomfortable (there is less cushioning air between the wheel and the road). The GT’s ride feels quite good on a country road at highway speeds. Around town it’s not as plush the Si or many alternatives.

The Optima Si comes in Clear White as standard. Premium colours cost extra, and include Silky Silver, Platinum Graphite, Gravity Blue and Temptation Red. The GT is also offered in two exclusive colours: Snow White Pearl and Aurora Black.

How comfortable is the Optima?

The Kia Optima is a quiet car to travel in, with a smart and sophisticated cabin - especially on the sumptuous Optima GT.

Seats in the less costly Optima Si are well shaped, but tall passengers may find the base of them short, with under-thigh support compromised.

From the driver’s seat, the steering column offers a broad spread of adjustment, as does the seat itself. However, tall drivers may find the pedals too close.

There’s plenty of space in the front and rear door pockets, the centre console and around the gear lever, with a sliding cover for the centre cup-holders.

The dash layout is excellent, with easy to read buttons laid out in a simple manner. Touchscreens on both models are easy to use, and many of features can also be operated conveniently from the steering-wheel.

The Optima GT brings leather upholstery that adds a more luxurious feel, and pleated sports seats with plenty of side-support. A heated steering wheel is also standard for the GT, while its sunroof increases the feeling of spaciousness.

Cabin refinement is good at modest speeds, but there is a lot of wind noise and tyre noise at freeway speeds in both models.

What about safety in a Kia Optima?

Both Optimas have a very impressive array of safety equipment, beginning with stability control and six airbags. A reversing camera is standard, as is active cruise control, auto emergency braking and lane-keeping alert.

There are airbags directly in front of the driver and front passenger; two outside the driver and front passenger to protect their upper bodies from side impacts; and curtain airbags that protect the heads of front and rear occupants from side impacts.

The autonomous emergency braking assesses the likelihood of your driving into an obstacle (typically a car In front that has slowed suddenly), using radar and a camera. It can initiate a full emergency stop at speeds up to 80km/h – having first warned you, and then applied partial braking. At speeds above 80km/h – all the way up to 180 – you get the warning and partial braking but not the full braking. (Hyundai says the risk of error over 80km/h is too high to justify full braking.)

Then there is the lane-keep assist, which prevents you drifting laterally on a freeway by steering within the lines, and driver attention alert.

The GT adds Blind-Spot Detection, which provides a visual warning in the door mirror of a vehicle in a blind-spot near one of the Optima’s rear corners, and Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, which helps you avoid bingles when you are reversing out of carparks or driveways – warning you if another vehicle is about to cross your path.

The Optima’s body structure uses more high-strength steel than its predecessor, which Kia says has made it much stronger in the event of a collision.

The Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) awarded the Optima its maximum five stars for safety, in July 2016.

I like driving - will I enjoy this car?

The Optima Si is not a car intended primarily to entertain, and its relatively slow acceleration and paucity of driver involvement underline that.

The Optima GT is designed to offer a more satisfying drive – and it does, with its sharper steering and chassis set up.

That starts with bigger wheels and more rubber. The Michelin tyres on the GT are wider than the tyres on the Si, and this gives it the ability to sit marginally flatter in corners (even though the suspension tune is the same). That means you have more grip, and can have more fun with the car.

The steering has been tuned specifically for the GT, and provides more feedback and response. On an engaging piece of road, you might almost call the Optima GT chuckable.

The peachy turbocharged engine in the GT feels much stronger and more responsive than the engine in the Si. Indeed, by family car standards the GT is quite quick.

What the GT lacks is inspiration and finesse. It is quick but not exciting, and until you wind on quite a bit of lock the steering feels rather wooden. On the flipside it is smooth and quiet, with a ride that feels sophisticated and broadly competent, if short on rough-road composure.

How is life in the rear seats?

The Optima has one of the best rear seats in its class, offering a surprising amount of support. The rear seat area is extremely spacious, for both leg room and headroom. There are rear air-vents in both models, map pockets in the front seatbacks, good sized door pockets, and a centre armrest.

The Optima’s long wheelbase makes entry and egress easier than before, too, and while it’s not as tall as an SUV, that will make loading child seats easier. The Optima offers three child anchorage points in addition to two ISOFIX child-seat mounting points.

How is it for carrying stuff?

The Optima has a 510L boot, which is voluminous for a mid-sizer. For more space, the rear seat has a 60-40 split fold.

Where does Kia make the Optima?

The Kia Optima is built in South Korea.

What might I miss that similar cars have?

Not much if you are talking equipment and features. Perhaps voice activation for the sound system and the satellite navigation – as available in the Ford Mondeo, for example. The Mondeo and the Volkswagen Passat also offer automatic parking systems.

What you might miss more is the better controlled ride, more engaging steering and more fluid engine response that you would experience in a Passat or a Mondeo.

And some similar cars use significantly less fuel than the Optima Si while providing as much performance. An example is the Mazda6.

Other cars you might consider include the Subaru Liberty or Levorg, Skoda Superb, Peugeot 508, and Hyundai Sonata.

I like this car, but I can't choose which version. Can you help?

The pick is easily the Optima GT. It has many more features and is more entertaining to drive.

Are there plans to update the Optima soon?

This fourth generation Optima arrived at the end of 2015. About October 2016 Kia replaced the GT’s HID headlights with LED units, and introduced sports front seats with pleated ‘tubular’ leather. The Si was not changed.

The Optima received a minor facelift in June 2018 that included a tweaked front end and the introduction of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto to the infotainment system.

Sadly, Kia Australia stopped importing the Optima during the 2020 model year. While it's a very good car, it never quite resonated with the Aussie public like the Cerato, with its recent low sales also reflecting the general slump in medium car sales as people move to SUVs.

Score breakdown
Safety, value and features
Comfort and space
Engine and gearbox
Ride and handling
Things we like
  •   Looks
  •   Space
  •   Equipment
  •   GT performance
Not so much
  •   Thirst
  •   GT ride a bit bumpy


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