The clean, straightforward design of the 2020 Kia Optima is let down only by the turbo model’s excessive add-ons.

2020 Kia Optima First Drive

The Kia Stinger took the industry by surprise with its combination of good looks, high-quality interior, and lively driving experience, and in doing so it challenged people’s perceptions of the Kia brand. But before the Stinger, it was another four-door that helped reshape Kia’s image. Thanks largely to a sleek, distinctive design penned by then-new Kia design director Peter Schreyer, the third-generation Optima sedan made a big impression when it first arrived on the scene for the 2011 model year. The car was so unexpected and game changing that the follow-up in 2016 just couldn’t live up to the hype of its predecessor despite an improved chassis and revised engine lineup. But the Optima was just updated for 2020, so can it recapture some of what made the last model so special?

For its midcycle refresh, the 2020 Kia Optima receives redesigned front and rear bumpers, revised headlights with Stinger-inspired LED daytime running lights, and revamped taillights with new LED accents. Choose an SX model, like our tester, and you get 18-inch multispoke alloy wheels with black accents. You also have the option of a two-tone red and black leather interior with sport seats embroidered with the SX logo.

The subtle changes help bring the Optima up to date but do little to address the current model’s derivative, rehashed styling. Despite being a new generation, the 2016 Optima looked more like a refresh of the outgoing car than a ground-up redesign. Three years later, it still feels like Kia phoned it in with this model. But even if I remain disappointed with the Optima’s exterior design, buyers clearly haven’t been too turned off by it. The Optima is one of Kia’s best sellers, with more than 80,000 units sold so far this year.

Our 2020 Kia Optima SX came equipped with Hyundai’s turbocharged 2.0-liter I-4 that makes 245 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, which drives the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission. Although that engine has suffered from issues like turbo lag and sluggish throttle response in other Hyundai-Kia products, in the Optima it feels much better sorted. The turbo-four feels peppy taking off from a stop light, with boost kicking in pretty early to deliver usable low-end torque. The engine sounds nice, too, giving off a muted but burly exhaust rumble.

Although the related Hyundai Sonata got a new eight-speed automatic with its refresh, the Kia Optima soldiers on with the old six-speed. It may have fewer gears than most of the competition, but this old gearbox still feels smooth and smart whether you’re stuck in stop-and-go traffic or hustling down a mountain road—especially in sport mode, which holds gears longer. Should you choose to do your own shifting, the paddle shifters are responsive enough.

The Optima’s cabin is a mixed bag. Some aspects like the leather seats and door panel inserts feel upscale, but cheaper-feeling hard plastics are also abundant. Much like the Optima’s exterior, I think Kia missed an opportunity when it designed the interior. It’s not unattractive, but it also doesn’t stand out in any way. One highlight is the revised UVO infotainment system, which is now offered in three tiers. Associate online editor Stefan Ogbac describes the top navigation-equipped system in our tester best:

“The multimedia system is just so well done. It’s easy, uncluttered, and totally intuitive. Shortcut buttons make it even easier to use, and the integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is still one of the best in the industry. You can use the native system and smartphone integration together, unlike other interfaces that force you to choose one or the other.”

Kia has always been about giving customers bang for their buck, and the Optima is no exception. For 2020, Kia added advanced safety features including forward collision warning with automatic braking, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, and Driver Attention Warning as standard equipment across the entire Optima lineup. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility also comes standard, even on the lowest-tier UVO system.

Our tester rang up at $33,315, which is a couple grand less than a comparably equipped Toyota Camry or Honda Accord. There’s also the 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and five-year/60,000-mile basic warranty to consider, both of which top the peace-of-mind programs offered by competitors.

The Optima may no longer be the design star of the Kia lineup, but it’s still strong on value and offers midsize sedan shoppers loads of content in a quasi-sporty package.

The best value in 2020 Kia Optima is a base model with manual gearbox, but it’s still decently priced after adding fancy audio, leather, and a moonroof.

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