A standout in the crowded midsize sedan segment, the 2014 Kia Optima touts a surprisingly sophisticated design, a smooth, quiet ride and able driving dynamics. It's the best-selling Kia in the U.S.
For 2014, Optima gets a refresh, including redesigned front and rear ends and a new wheel design. Inside, the updated interior includes a redesigned instrument cluster with larger TFT display, a redesigned steering wheel, and additional standard and optional features.
Optima LX and Optima EX models use a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder that makes 192 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. This engine is short on excitement but fine for most drivers. Quiet at highway cruising speeds, it delivers enough power to keep up with fast traffic on the freeways. The 2014 Kia Optima rates an EPA-estimated 23/34 mpg City/Highway. (Note that fuel economy has been adjusted from the 2013 EPA estimates of 25/35 mpg City/Highway.)
The upper-level Optima SX comes standard with the 2.4-liter inline-4, or an optional 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-4, easily our favorite engine on the 2014 Kia Optima. With 274 horsepower and 269 pound-feet of torque, it boasts first-rate performance, stability and agility. Silky smooth, the turbocharged engine propels the Optima SX from 0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds, on the quicker side of average for the class. Fuel economy suffers compared to the naturally aspirated version, with an EPA rating of 20/31 mpg City/Highway.
A top-of-the-line Optima Limited model includes the 2.0-liter turbocharged engine, plus many more included standard features. The SX and Limited models also get a sport-tuned suspension.
Every Kia Optima is front-wheel drive and is equipped with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
Interior appointments and materials in all Optima models are handsome, generous, and of high quality for the class. Beautiful leather adorns the dashboard and seating, comfortable with firm support, including the rear. The design and layout of the instrumentation reflect thought and employ the latest technology. The expected conveniences are all there, plus bonuses such as a cooled glove compartment for keeping beverages cool.
Optima uses front-wheel drive and a four-wheel independent suspension that is athletic and responsive. We found the ride quality compliant over rougher pavement, filtering out harshness, while the suspension accurately communicates smaller bumps and ripples. The chassis is good, and although Optima is no performance sedan, its handling has a sporty glimmer.
Competitors to the Kia Optima include well-known midsize sedans such as the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata (the Optima's sister vehicle) and the Toyota Camry. Overall, the gasoline-powered Optima, with its sleek design and plethora of features, makes it one of the stronger choices in its class.
Changes to the 2014 Kia Optima are subtle, yet sophisticated. The front bumper is slightly redesigned, with a new mesh insert inside Kia's signature tabbed grille opening. LED positioning lights (and LED fog lights on the top-of-the-line SXL Turbo) give it an updated appearance.
The racy wraparound headlamps, and low wide stance, imply athleticism. The front air dam is low enough to scrape in surprising places for a so-called sedate sedan like this, and gives the nose an aggressive look while helping fuel mileage. Scraping can be annoying if your driveway or a nearby intersection you use is severe enough to cause the nose to drag.
The sides of the car are admirably clean, with three horizontal character lines giving them form and flow. Handsome flared fenders add muscularity to the Optima's flanks.
Redesigned taillights complete the dynamic look, with LED lamps. The Optima keeps its dual chrome exhausts, one on each side, although these are purely cosmetic and not functional. Rear diffusers, as well as the sweeping decklid, are also updated.
More upscale features make it onto higher-end Optima models. Optima SX models and above get a new, 4.3-inch TFT instrument cluster that looks sharp and modern. These trims also get a new, D-shaped sport steering wheel, and the optional navigation system has a new 8-inch screen.
Optima's interior concedes nothing to its European or American competitors, except for its black plastic trim. The dashboard uses pebble-grain black leather, handsomely stitched with French seams. Optional leather spreads to the seats, trimmed with fabric.
The instrument panel is clean, including four handsome horizontal climate vents. Instruments use a clear font. The lettering on the tachometer and speedometer is organic white with a red needle.
The leather-wrapped four-spoke steering wheel is thick, feels good in the hands. It tilts and telescopes, and contains controls for audio, cruise control, phone and a big green button for Eco. Heating is optional.
The five-passenger seating is excellent, with a full range of adjustability available in the driver's seat. Front seats are redesigned this year, which Kia says are more comfortable than before. We found even the Optima's previous seats to be firm, well-bolstered, and able to deliver snug lateral support for more vigorous driving. However, the center-rear passenger must ride the camel's hump, and the rear legroom is on the low side of average, at 34.7 inches. Heated front and rear seating is available, as is front cooling and a cooled glovebox for drinks.
The panoramic sunroof, on cars so equipped, is huge, airy and truly bright. When closing it, the sunscreen panel closes automatically. A separate function opens only the screen and tilt roof. Nice, as with the controls on the center console, angled slightly towards the driver.
Navigation is fairly easy to set, and you can operate it while the car is moving, though we recommend your co-driver perform this duty. The display for the Hybrid is slightly strange, with growing flowers in Eco mode, that get bigger as you drive more efficiently. In the center of the speedo a display shows average and instant fuel mileage, with blue bars that move with the throttle position. It also scores your efficiency. There's a big round instrument on the left that's an Eco guide, with white, green and red zones. You can see energy flow back and forth between the wheels, battery, and engine.
A Virtual Engine Sound System (VESS) plays an engine sound during electric-only operation up to 12 miles per hour, to help notify people outside the vehicle that it is approaching. We would have liked to hear this mock buzz, but we couldn't get the Hybrid to run on electric only. It took the internal combustion engine just to back downhill out of our driveway. Nothing new with hybrids.
The Hybrid's air conditioning system uses an electric compressor, reducing the losses in belt-driven systems and allowing cool air to flow, even with the engine off in Idle-Stop mode. We didn't test it because it was freezing outside. So far, we've found that when they say cool air, they mean exactly that, as in not hot. Don't expect air-conditioning cold, in summer.
Cargo space is vast in the Optima EX and SX (15.4 cubic feet), but not so vast with the Hybrid (9.9 cubic feet) because of battery placement. We also noticed the right side B-pillar creates a blind spot over the driver's shoulder.
Optima LX and EX use 192-hp 2.4-liter four cylinder engine, which we found flexible, very quiet, and reasonably powerful. As the engine most Optima buyers will choose, it is well suited to family duties both in daily traffic and at highway and commute speeds.
Even at middle throttle, accelerating from a stop, the engine is only distantly audible. Only under full acceleration does this engine remind you that it's a small four-cylinder, with an agonized yowl. At the more common task of accelerating away from an intersection, the Optima EX excels, smoothly and predictably gaining speed with no drama. In other words, throttle tip-in at slow speeds is linear and without surges; many cars nowadays jump off the line with overly sensitive throttles.
Ride quality is good, and the suspension soaks up roughness while delivering necessary road information to the driver. Chassis dynamics are excellent for a family mid-size car. Steering is accurate, firm and provided good feedback over twisting terrain. Pushing harder, there is good front-wheel grip, and when we hit a long curve at high speed, the multi-link rear end hooked up nicely. The usual ride responses experienced in vigorous driving, such as body roll, dive and squat, are well controlled, thanks to the car's rigid chassis.
The Optima SX Turbo is a sweet performance star with a classy ride, with a generous 274 hp and 269 lb.-ft. of torque. The engine's stability and agility are first rate. The sport suspension adds grip and cornering stability without being too rough.
The standard 6-speed automatic transmission is smooth.
The Kia Optima is well suited to family duties, with decent acceleration, a good ride, and generous creature comforts. The turbocharged Optima SX and SXL are impressive underdogs against European sports sedans.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents Laura Burstein, Sam Moses and Ted West contributed to this report.