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Why the lame-duck 2020 Kia Optima is still a tasty dish

2020 Kia Optima

What changes will make the 2020 Kia Optima different?

Likely little of consequence because Kia freshened most iterations of its midsize sedan for model-year 2019 – and a fully redesigned Optima is coming for model-year 2021.

The lame-duck ’20 will return as a spacious, surprisingly fun-to-drive four-door available with gasoline, hybrid, and plug-in-hybrid drivetrains.

Optima debuted for 2000 as little more than a rebadged Hyundai Sonata (the South Korean Hyundai and Kia brands are corporate partners). Over the next four design generations, Optima continued to borrow elements of its underskin engineering from the Sonata but it also managed to gain a distinct identity as one of the sportier entries in the competitive set. It also delivers on Kia’s brand promise of lots of features and strong warranty coverage at competitive prices.

That’s helped buoy it as Americans shunned traditional midsize cars in favor of crossover SUVs. Once the segment that dominated sales, midsize-car-class demand fell 16 percent in 2018. Optima sales were down a less-depressing 5.5 percent, one of the mildest declines in the class. Through the first four months of 2019, as segment sales slipped another 16 percent, demand for Optima was actually up, by 11.5 percent, by far the biggest gain in a segment still ruled by the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion, and Chevrolet Malibu.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of the 2019 Kia Optima. In areas where the ’20 might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

No reason to wait for the ’20; it’ll be a rerun of the ’19, only with higher prices. You might, however, consider stalling until early calendar 2020, when details of the redesigned ’21 Optima will likely be revealed.

Some of its basics are already evident in the redesigned-for-2020 Sonata. The two cars will continue to share engineering and structural architecture, although they’ll also continue to have different styling. Expect the next-generation Optima to remain front-wheel drive only but to ride a longer wheelbase (the distance between the front and rear axles) for a more athletic stance and needed increase in rear legroom.

Meantime, count on the 2020 Optima lineup to continue gas-only models in LX 2.4 and S 2.4 trim and in turbocharged EX 1.6T and SX 2.0T grades. The Hybrid and the plug-in hybrid will return in a single EX trim. Kia calls the plug-in the PHEV, for plug-in-hybrid electric vehicle. Both it and the Hybrid will again team a gas four-cylinder engine and electric-motor power, with the PHEV capable of an initial charge from the grid sufficient to travel some 29 miles on battery power alone.

Will the styling be different?

No. Kia mildly updated the styling of the gas-only models for 2019. The Hybrid and plug-in hybrids were unchanged.

While elements of the brand’s signature “tiger nose” grille remain, the tweaked ‘19s suggest Kia is heading in a slightly different direction. The grille now has a more “winged” appearance. It’s a little reminiscent of the logo used by Hyundai’s premium Genesis division. Nothing wrong with attempting to make a car look more expensive than it is, and the freshened ’19 Optimas pull it off. Still, this sedan is upstaged by the dramatically restyled 2020 Sonata.

There’s plenty to like about the Optima in addition to its exterior design. The cabin is a model of functional simplicity. The controls are where you expect them to be, and they’re all easily accessible with a glance and a short reach.

Kia’s excellent UVO infotainment system is the centerpiece. An 8-inch touchscreen with support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto is standard across the board. Imbedded GPS navigation is standard on the SX and optional on the EX. The screen doesn’t protrude out the top of the dashboard so buyers who dislike this design trend will want to give Optima very serious consideration.

Front-seat occupants enjoy generous legroom on firmly padded seats. Headroom is fine, too, even beneath the housing of the available panoramic sunroof. Rear-seat legroom of 35.6 inches, however, is well below the class average. Adults up to about 5-feet-8-inches will have merely adequate leg and knee clearance when sitting behind someone of comparable height.

Trunk volume in the gas-only models is more in-line with the competitive set at 15.9 cubic feet. Intrusion from the battery pack cuts that to 13.4 cubic feet in the Hybrid, with the PHEV’s larger-capacity battery reducing its cargo volume to just 9.9 cubic feet.

Any mechanical changes?

Extremely unlikely. Among gas-only models, the 2020 Optima LX 2.4 and S 2.4 will reprise a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with a class-competitive 185 horsepower and 178 pound-feet of torque. It pairs with a six-speed automatic transmission. This drivetrain provides acceleration that should be sufficient for most buyers. Throttle response is good, and the transmission doesn’t feel as if it needs more gears to extract the most from the engine.

The ’20 Optima EX 1.6T will again have a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 178 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. It uses a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. While we have not evaluated a 2019 Optima EX 1.6T, its powertrain is shared with the Hyundai Kona subcompact crossover, where the engine overachieves, and the transmission delivers smooth, immediate shifts.

The 2020 Optima SX 2.0T will return with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 245 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. That output is among the best in class, but in our testing experience, your enjoyment is likely to depend on which of the four available drive modes you select.

We found the “Smart” setting best for everyday use. It delivered smooth throttle response and prompt shifts from the six-speed automatic transmission. The “Comfort” and “Eco” modes dull performance too much for our liking. “Sport” quickens throttle feel and shift action, handy for livelier movement away from a stop or merging with fast-moving traffic.

Optima’s 2020 Hybrid and plug-in models would again pair a 2.0-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine with a battery-powered electric motor. For the Hybird, combined output will remain 192 horsepower and 271 pound-feet of torque. For the plug-in, it’ll again be 202 horsepower and 276 pound-feet.

The Hybrid recharges its onboard battery by capturing energy otherwise dissipated during braking or coasting. The plug-in’s battery can gain an initial charge from the electrical grid via household power outlet or charging station. It can store enough to propel the car up to 29 miles emissions free, on electric power along. When that charge is exhausted, the PHEV automatically reverts to traditional-hybrid mode.

Unlike most gas/electric cars, those from Kia and Hyundai do not use a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Instead, they have an automatic with six distinct gears that’s closer in design to the EX’s dual-clutch gearbox.

In some ways, the Hybrid and the PHEV are the most enjoyable Optimas to drive. Neither ever feels slow. And acceleration benefits from the instant torque of the electric-motor assist. You’re always mindful that performance doesn’t come at the expensive of higher fuel consumption. If you play your plug-in recharging strategy, the plug-in’s ability to get you around on electric-power only is its own geeky reward.

In general, Optima’s handling should continue at the sportier side of the class. It won’t quite match the moves of the Honda Accord or Mazda 6, but it is more capable than the likes of the Malibu and Camry. Steering feel is impressively firm on the highway, yet not overly heavy at low speeds. Kia has exorcised the demons from its suspension to deliver smooth ride quality, too. The ’20 Optima should remain free of the harshness and unwanted secondary motions over bumps that plagued previous generations of this sedan.

Will fuel economy improve?

Ratings might change by virtue of small changes in the EPA’s testing protocol. Otherwise, count on the 2020 Optima to have the same EPA ratings as the ’19.

That means the LX 2.4 and S 2.4 should again rate 25/35/29 mpg city/highway/combined. Look for the EX 1.6T to return at 27/37/31 mpg and the SX 2.0T at 21/30/24. Our recent SX 2.0T review sample averaged 25.1 mpg in suburban commuting.

Expect the 2020 Optima Hybrid to again rate 39/45/41 mpg. Beyond the EPA-estimated 29-mile electric-only range, look for the ’20 Optima PHEV to again rate 103 MPGe (miles-per-gallon equivalent) factoring in the electric motor and 40 mpg city-highway combined running as a conventional hybrid.

All 2020 Optima models would continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will there be new features?

Unlikely, though it would be nice if Kia tweaked some of its driver-assistance features to make them available across all trim levels. For example, on gas-only 2019 Optimas, pedestrian detection for the standard autonomous emergency braking system and adaptive radar cruise control were included only on the EX and SX trims and was unavailable on the LX or S. Otherwise, this midsize sedan offers a good variety of equipment for each grade’s price point.

Standard driver assists on all grades will again include blind-spot alert, rear cross-traffic detection, forward-collision warning, drowsy-driver alert, and lane-departure alert with automatic steering correction. Other equipment commonality includes an 8-inch infotainment screen, CarPlay and Android Auto, LED daytime running lights, and heated exterior mirrors.

The 2020 Optima S 2.4 model should continue to build on the LX 2.4 by adding fog lights, specific exterior trim, cloth/leatherette upholstery, power driver’s seat, dual-zone automatic climate control, satellite radio with built-in WiFi hotspot, and keyless access with pushbutton engine start.

Moving to the 1.6-liter turbo EX should again net extra sound deadening in the form of laminated front windows, an electronic parking brake, leather upholstery, heated front seats, and extra USB power points.

Expect the ’20 Optima SX 2.0T to again come with LED headlights and fog lights, a sport suspension, steering wheel paddle shifters, ambient interior lighting, driver seat memory positioning, power front-passenger seat, heated steering wheel, imbedded navigation, and Harman/Kardon-brand audio system.

Hybrid and PHEV models will continue to mirror the gas-powered EX 1.6T for standard equipment, though lane-departure warning, forward-collision alert, and adaptive cruise control will again be optional instead of standard.

Will 2020 prices be different?

They’ll probably be higher. If Kia elects to democratize more driver aids, prices may increase by more than just typical year-over-year inflation. For reference, here are 2019 Optima prices; with base prices including the manufacturer’s $925 destination fee. Don’t expect options prices to change much for 2020

The 2019 Optima LX 2.4 started at $23,915. Its Wheel and Tire Package ($500) included 17-inch wheels, up from the standard 16s. The LX Premium Package ($2,000) included the wheels plus a panoramic sunroof, dual-zone climate control, power driver’s seat, auto-dimming rearview mirror, and LED interior lighting.

Base price for the ’19 Optima S 2.4 was $25,915. LED interior lighting and a panoramic sunroof were available as part of a $1,000 package.

The ’19 Optima EX 1.6T was priced from $27,815. It was available with a $3,100 Premium Package that included nearly all the SX’s standard features.

The ’19 Optima SX 2.0T’s base price was $32,915. Its sole factory option was a $3,800 Limited Package that included Nappa-brand leather upholstery, surround-view camera, power-folding exterior mirrors, heated outboard rear seats, rear side window sunshades, and upgraded interior trim.

Hybrid and PHEV models started at $29,015 and $36,315, respectively. Both offered a Technology Package ($5,200 on the Hybrid, $5,000 on the Plug-in) that includes driver assists, ventilated front seats, power passenger seat, panoramic roof, and LED interior lighting. Hybrids add imbedded navigation, which is already standard on the Plug-in.

Assuming no meaningful changes to standard or optional equipment, our pick for best value would be an SX 2.0T without the Limited Package. It delivers solid performance, good fuel economy, and a lot of features at pricing that undercuts similarly powered rivals by thousands of dollars.

When does it come out?

Look for a 2020 Kia Optima release date in the fall of 2019.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima and Maxima, Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Arteon and Passat

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]