2021 Kia Optima first drive review: Funky-fresh standout
As the midsize sedan segment falls out of favor, Kia's bold decisions help the 2021 Optima stand out.
Andrew KrokReviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Over the last few years,
and its kissin'-cousin
have taken a fresh approach to their vehicle lineups, leaning more on unique styling as a way to stand out in ever-busying segments. It's a successful formula, too -- look no further than the
for an example of how this strategy can work to great success.
But these moves aren't reserved for the hottest corners of the auto industry. Despite losing ground to high-riding vehicles, Korea still puts a lot of weight behind its midsize
. The latest Hyundai Sonata debuted with some seriously funky fashion, and now its closest relative, the
(known as the K5 in its home market) is the latest four-door to come out swinging.
Eye on design
The last two generations of Kia Optima have been nicely dressed, but their aesthetics erred on the conservative side. That's not the case with the 2021 Optima, which picks up a look that's less polarizing than the new Hyundai Sonata but is no less handsome. Kia's "Tiger Nose" grille now blends into the headlights, giving the front end a more cohesive look, but it still stands out by way of some unique daytime running light shapes. No matter the trim chosen, the front looks angry, but more importantly, it doesn't look like anything else on the road.
Clever design cues abound out back, as well. My favorite part has to be the chrome strip that starts above the doors and works its way back across the quarter panels to the bottom of the rear glass, something I haven't seen on any car before it. The Optima's new taillight design is equally funky, with dashed running lights spanning the width of the rear end. My only gripe is that the things that look like tailpipes definitely aren't, but that's a growing trend with automakers in the late 2010s.
The interior changes up its look, too, but it takes a far more premium direction than before. While the usual design tenets are there -- separating the driver and passenger areas, dashboard elements focused on emphasizing visual width, stuff of that ilk -- Kia has put way more priority on the quality of materials than in years past. Just about everywhere I touch on my tester feels more expensive than what I might find in the same places from
. I'm especially a fan of the long strip of matte wood trim just below the screens, as well as the knurling just below the center vents.
While Kia has long remained a holdout in the trend of ditching physical switchgear, the automaker has finally made some moves in this direction on the 2021 Optima. The traditional buttons used to quickly move through infotainment screens are now integrated into the screen, and the touch-based bits also extend to the climate control. It's a good look, and they function well, so I doubt anyone will miss the buttons that much. The shifter is now a knob, which won't sit perfectly with everyone, but it's plenty intuitive. The rest of the center console is surprisingly voluminous, offering storage ahead of the shifter and behind, with a dedicated slot for wireless device charging and a center armrest that offers just enough real estate to stash a small purse.
All that design doesn't infringe on my personal space, thankfully. Despite adopting a more aggressive roofline than before, the 2021 Optima still offers suitable headroom across both rows of seats, although I wish the driver's seat could sink more into the cabin than it can. Visibility on all sides is top-notch. Trunk space also feels ample, with more than enough space for whatever families will want to toss back there.
Urban cruising done right
Kia will offer the K5 in a few markets with both standard and hybrid-electric powertrains, but for the time being, the automaker has only confirmed the presence of two gas engines in the US: a naturally-aspirated 2.0-liter I4 and a turbocharged 1.6-liter I4. A beefy 2.5-liter should also arrive in the form of the sporty Optima GT, but that's further down the road.
My time with the Optima is limited to the 1.6-liter variant, which puts out about 178 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. It doesn't have the most beautiful engine note on the planet, but its output is more than suitable for zipping through Seoul's thick urban traffic, getting up to speed with enough gusto for most families. For those looking for a little extra peace of mind, the 2021 Optima will offer all-wheel drive, an increasingly popular move in this segment.
The 1.6-liter mates to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Aside from the knob on the center console, the cog-swapper operates like any other, rattling off unobtrusive shifts in the background. My tester also comes with a start-stop system, but unlike the transmission, it's a little more noticeable, offering a bit of a shudder every time the four-pot comes back to life at a traffic light.
The roads around Seoul aren't exactly the most dynamic on the planet, so I am not quite able to suss out the new Optima's dynamics as much as I'd like -- probably best to save that kind of analysis for the hot-to-trot GT trim, anyway. My time behind the wheel is probably spent in the same way that most buyers will experience the Optima, sitting in traffic and cruising down the highway. In those situations, the Optima feels quite nice, its static suspension transferring an average amount of movement to the occupants inside, rarely getting discombobulated over railroad tracks or recessed manhole covers. Road and wind noise seem about average for the segment.
My biggest issue with the 2021 Optima is the brake pedal, which never feels truly connected to the brakes themselves. The pedal has a weird feeling, offering a dead zone before clamping down on the rotors with authority, requiring more modulation than I need for its competitors. There's time for Kia to tune this out before the Optima reaches the US, which I hope it will.
Tech with a dose of aesthetics
infotainment system has been one of my favorites for years, offering the right blend of functionality and straightforward design. There are a few new tricks in place on the 2021 Optima, but the important takeaway is that the tech is just as easy to use as ever.
My tester piles on the wow factor with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster. It can show all the usual information with a traditional gauge-like design, but there's also a cute layout available that replaces the usual look with a pleasant landscape that puts only the most important information front and center. Both getups are easy to read at a glance, keeping distraction to a minimum, and an optional head-up display further avoids off-road glances.
The infotainment screen can grow up to 10.25 inches, with the only real change from before being a home menu that shows more information simultaneously. There are some clever new design touches in here, like the radio, which shows the station frequency in vacuum tubes, but everything remains easily accessible with just a couple taps to get from, say, navigation to media.
Kia is still working out packaging for the US market, but on a global scale, the Optima will be loaded with safety tech. Available systems include blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist, a surround-view monitor and adaptive cruise control. Some markets will also get a lane-following system that holds the car within its lane on the highway using a forward-facing camera. The Optima can also be equipped with a smart-parking feature that lets a driver pull the car into a space (forward or backward) using buttons on the remote from outside the vehicle, just like the one found on the Hyundai Sonata.
Down to brass tacks
Despite the massive push for utility vehicles, the midsize sedan segment remains full of some serious competition. Stalwarts like the Honda Accord,
have freshened their acts with improvements to styling, dynamics and tech. The 2021 Optima, when it goes on sale in 2020, will quickly thrust itself into the conversation by offering a unique take on all these fronts, and it should give buyers more reason to stick with sedans.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.