2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

Kia's mid-size hybrid sedan leapfrogs over the competition

Published: April 17, 2012, 6:00 AM

Kia Optima 2011 hybrid

Generally speaking, there are sacrifices to be made when choosing to buy/drive a hybrid vehicle. In return for the increased fuel mileage and decreased exhaust emissions you pay more and give up some drivability, performance and cargo space. The Kia Optima hybrid minimizes all of these, with exceptional fuel economy and performance, next-generation compact batteries and a price that is more than competitive.

It’s also a darned attractive vehicle!

Sharing a platform and mechanics with the Hyundai Sonata, the Optima takes a more sporty approach. Instead of the sculpted and smooth look of its sibling, the Optima is about clean, athletic lines. The lower roofline, stretched headlights, flat-surface alloy wheels and upturned rear end are distinct. From the Kia “face” to the kink in the C –pillar and the distinctive alloy wheels, this is a car people look at, closely and repeatedly.

Noted stylist Peter Schreyer’s team did a terrific job on this one. They also decided to avoid tricking out the hybrid version unnecessarily. The Optima hybrid is distinguished from its normally-aspirated and turbocharged stable mates by unique wheels and headlight covers, a different grill and a number of aerodynamics tweaks, including revised bumpers.

The only detail I question are the fake side vents<photo provided> that look like what they are – non-functional plastic add-ons. 

Transport Canada says the Optima is a mid-size vehicle. You might think differently once inside. There is a great deal of passenger space and a very airy feel thanks to lots of glass and a low beltline. The front seats are wide, supportive, infinitely adjustable and proved comfy after a five-hour stretch. The rear seat comfortably accommodates two big adults, three in a pinch. Some cargo space is sacrificed to make room for the battery pack, but not as much as the competition because the Optima uses smaller and lighter lithium-ion cells.  

The award winning interior is a combination of style and restraint. Fit, finish, material quality and the way switches and controls feel, would be right at home in a car costing a great deal more. The driver-centric instrument panel features a number of changes from “normal” Optimas, including provision to monitor the hybrid system and your performance as a fuel-saver through the Eco Guide to the left of the display. The tachometer is a bar graph instead of the conventional analogue gauge. The navigation system is easy to decipher and operate and there is a vast variety of information available as you scroll through the secondary display. The Infinity sound system and satellite radio help wile away the hours the Optima hybrid can cover between refills. 

The Optima hybrid comes in one trim level with a “Premium” package available trim levels. The base is  less expensive than the Ford and Toyota competition and extremely well equipped, making it great value proposition. Standard equipment includes heated power seats, (with memory and power lumbar adjustment for the driver), power windows and locks, keyless start and entry, dual-zone climate controls, Homelink, auto dimming mirror, and Kia’s voice-activated, Microsoft-developed UVO infotainment and communications system. Our tester had the $5000 Premium Technology package which replaces UVO with a touchscreen navigation system. You also get an upgraded (Infinity) eight-speaker audio system, leather seats, panoramic sunroof, unique 17-inch alloy wheels and HID headlamps.

The Optima hybrid bristles with technology. The subject of more than 300 patents it has a number of industry-first features, including a lithium-polymer battery pack and conventional automatic transmission coupled with an electric motor. Lithium polymer batteries are smaller, lighter and hold their charge 25% longer than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used in other hybrids. The competition relies on the annoying Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) for efficiency, but Hyundai-Kia engineers figured out a way to make a conventional transmission work. A big electric motor replaces the torque converter and decouples from the engine under no and low-loads conditions. You can drive the Optima to almost 100 km/hr. on the 30 kW battery alone with a gentle foot on flat roads. 

The hybrid uses a different version of the 2.4-litre four-cylinder used in other Optimas. Tuned for maximum fuel efficiency and running on what is known as the Atkinson Cycle, it puts out 166 horsepower, down about 40 from the others. But that loss is offset by the added punch of the electric motor. The combination of the two pushes hybrid to 100 km/hr in 8.9 seconds – still well within the class average for regular competitors that can’t play in this league in terms of fuel mileage.  

Transport Canada rates the Optima Hybrid at 4.9 on the highway and 5.6 in the city. The Optima has an “Eco” mode, which softens throttle response and hastens shifts to squeeze out even more mileage if you don’t mind the reduced response. Using that I managed 6.3 in the city and 7.1 on the highway on hilly Canadian roads. Over another 1,000-km test session in Arizona, I achieved 5.8 litres/100 km in the city and 7.56 over a sustained high speed run at speeds that would be highly illegal here at home! 

Other than the occasional judder when it switches between gasoline, electric and/or gasoline & electric power the only other time you notice you are driving a hybrid is when braking – you can sense the regenerative system at work as it recharges the battery. Acceleration is brisk and passing and climbing hills a breeze. The engine shuts down when the car is at rest and restarts instantly when you take your foot off the brake pedal. The power steering and air conditioning pumps are electric. The former saves fuel by operating only when assist is needed and the latter ensures cooling when the engine is off.

I’m not a big fan of hybrids, because you have to drive for massive distances to recover the added cost and modern gasoline and diesel engines are almost as efficient. But, if you want a hybrid this is the way to go. 

While you may not agree with the opinion of an individual, it’s hard to argue with numbers. The 2012 Kia Optima was named Best New Family Car under $30,000 and the Optima Hybrid the Best New Family Car over $30,000 at AJAC’s 2012 Canadian Car Of The Year shootout when more than 70 secret ballots were cast.