The Power To…

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

We love our hybrid automobiles.

We feel the need to ensure that we can hedge our gas pump budget by owning vehicles with batteries on board in hopes of using them when needed. Slow city traffic, assisted starts from idle and even defrosting the car on a cold morning gives the battery-powered motor inside our hybrid a chance for us to snub our noses at the oil companies.

Since the advent of the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight over a decade ago, we have plenty of hybrids to choose from. Yet, we often find ourselves owning one of four Priuses now offered in this market. We get it – we know how well Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive works, how practical the hatchback, the V wagon and the subcompact c are for everyday living. Now, you can get a Prius with a plug-in port to extend your battery range and life.

The Prius is not for everyone looking for a hybrid. We like to feel that we can choose any hybrid we want – one that has a bit of flair and the promise of efficient operation combined into a well-appointed sedan. Hatchbacks and wagons are fine, but there are some of us who really do not need all that cargo room from the onset.

This would describe the larger hybrid in Toyota's lineup – the Camry. Not this time. Actually, this is not a Toyota we are presenting here.

This is a Kia.

Along with its Hyundai partner, Kia offers a competitive level of technologies against its rivals. One such technology is the parallel petrol-electric hybrid driveline that shows up under the hood of the Optima sedan. The presence of this system puts the Optima right in the throes of its primary competitors in the mid-sized family sedan segment. In order to play in this segment, you have to have some form of "green" variant for consumers to choose from. Kia (and Hyundai) chose a hybrid for their variant.

The Optima itself is an interesting study of design and practicality. When I first drove the regular model in early 2011, I liked the overall exterior design evoking cues from Audi and Jaguar. The panoramic sunroof adds more dramatics to the overall design and a lot of needed interior light when the shades are drawn open. Kia's signature "bucktooth" grille is distinctive, even with a different trim denoting the Hybrid from the rest of the lineup.

The one part of the exterior that provided the most puzzling thoughts was the wheels. While other hybrids are starting to install "normal" looking wheels, the Hybrid model is denoted by an aerodynamic design where airflow to the brakes is through five "spokes" per wheel. It is a curious design, but is it still relevant now that hybrids are slowly becoming “mainstream?"

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Once inside, a Kia owner is treated to a driver-focused cockpit. I enjoyed the instrument panel of the prior Optima with its Saab-esque styling. The hybrid adds a few more touches to put it over the top. The center TFT screen is switchable with clean graphics, including hybrid-specific information. Similar to a Ford's hybrid screens, you get a garden indicator as to how green your driving was. The more leafs and flowers it spawns, the greener you are. You can also choose to see your energy flow monitor in-between the speedometer and the left dial or on the larger screen in the center stack. I used this screen to monitor my fuel consumption instead.

The left dial is a curious one. Instead a tachometer, you get an energy gauge that tells you whether you are saving energy or not. A temperature gauge and a HEV – or, battery juice – indicator shares the space to your left of the instrumentation pod. If you are looking for a tachometer, look no further than the left side of the center TFT screen in-between the dials. It is quite small, but useful when needed.

The center stack is chock full of switches crowned with a huge screen for the infotainment system, the navigation system and other hybrid system monitors. Part of the Premium Technology package, the navigation is part of a suite that includes AM/FM radio, Sirius satellite radio and Bluetooth connectivity for the phone and music files. Sound comes from a wonderful eight-speaker Infinity sound system.

Leather seating adorns the sport-tuned seats. Once you settle into a seating position, there is enough bolstering to keep you locked in through the turns. The issue I had with the cockpit was the low roofline and panoramic sunroof cutting into my headroom. To avoid having my head hit something on the way out, the seat was lowered down to the floor. Instead of driving a midsized family sedan, I now felt like I was driving a sports car instead. Even competitive Audis (the A4), Saabs (a pre-owned 9-3) and Jaguars (it is a stretch, but the XF comes to mind) had more headroom for me to work with.

The rear seat is the same – low roofline cutting into headroom for tall passengers. You also lose trunk space thanks to the Lithium Polymer batter mounted between the rear seat and the cargo hold. There is ample room in the trunk for a weekend getaway for four.

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The simple question is whether the Hybrid system enhances the Optima or not. In some respects, it does. There are several plusses to the parallel hybrid system, such as the synergy between the 206-horsepower 2.4litre four-cylinder gas engine and the 40-horsepower electric motor. When cruising, the Optima will go into EV Mode, essentially shutting off the petrol engine and letting the car coast on the electric one. Switching between the two motors was seamless.

On the flip side, the Hybrid system hates cold mornings. The driveline becomes sluggish when having to get up to commute through a combination of obtrusive shifts both affecting the petrol engine and the electric motor. There were other moments of sluggishness, noticeable on several instances after being parked for some time.

The biggest heel of the hybrid system is the six-speed automatic gearbox attached to both motors. Optimally, a continuously variable transmission is a better solution for a parallel hybrid, as it is a better match for the electric motor and more amenable for smoother switching between the two engines. A conventional automatic appeared to the culprit for the reported sluggishness, as it seemed that gearing and shifts are more sensitive to throttle response. For normal driving, this may be a serious concern if one is sensitive to the battle between the two motors and the transmission.

This is not to say the Optima Hybrid was a poor driving experience. It was not. The Optima package itself is a sporting one, though taken down a notch for a proper hybrid drive. Still, the Optima offered a steering set that reacted sharply and induced a tight turning circle. Though it felt somewhat soft, there was minimal-to-no play at center. Handling was near flat in the corners and offered minimal roll through the banks.

Ride quality was pretty good when road surfaces are smooth. If it gets bumpy, you can certainly feel each imperfection as you go along. The Hybrid-grade Kumho Solus tires help when they need it and offered decent amount of traction. Braking is not bad all around in regular and panic stops. They have somewhat if a soft feel at even moderate stops,

The ultimate reward for driving a hybrid is how much less fuel you need for your daily routine. Overall, the fuel consumption in the Optima Hybrid came to 35.7MPG, which is expected for a mid-sized sustainable sedan. It did reach about 41MPG on a rural drive, however. In all, you can get extraordinary fuel consumption in this mid-sized hybrid.

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Just as with most Hybrids, there is a premium to pay for the privilege of being sustainable. If you are looking for an Optima Hybrid, chances are you may be in luck. There are still 2012 models available on the lots. Kia did state there would be a 2013 model, but no such vehicles were available at going to press. The Hybrid does start at $26,450 for a new 2012 base model. This Premium Technology package example rang up the sticker to $32,500.

The Optima is truly an alternative to the hybrid market. It looks as sporty as the rest of the lineup, but Kia made sure to distinguish it inside and out from even the top of the line SX Limited. The thing is, however, would you consider the Optima the right hybrid to choose. If you do, please make to drive every one in its class.

This Kia Optima Hybrid might surprise you, but get one while they last.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Kia Motors America, Inc.

All photos by Randy Stern

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