2011 Kia Optima Hybrid Review

Kia makes being green look smart

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid Review
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It has been just over a decade since Honda and Toyota first introduced the hybrid drivetrain in a production vehicle. Then Ford, GM and to some extend Chrysler followed suit, offering hybrid vehicles in their respective lineups. And now you can even buy hybrid models from Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

FAST FACTS

1. Making 206-hp the Optima Hybrid gets a 36/40-mpg rating.

2. Priced at $26,500 the Optima Hybrid is roughly $7,000 more than a base Optima, although it does come better equipped.

3. A $5,000 Hybrid Technology Package includes features like HID headlights, 17-inch wheels, heated and cooled power front seats, a heated steering wheel, leather, illuminated door sills, an upgraded Infinity audio system and a panoramic sunroof.

Until recently, the only mass car producing nation that had not caught on to the hybrid game was Korea, but that has all changed in 2011. First came the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, and now it’s followed by the Kia Optima Hybrid.

We recently spent a day driving the new Optima Hybrid on the Pacific Rim Highway between Nanaimo and Tofino in beautiful British Columbia, Canada to find out how the latest offering from Kia stacks up against the established players in this segment.

SAME GREAT LOOKS

From a styling point of view, it’s already a winner. The Optima recently won a design award for its stunning shape by the German Design Council, and the hybrid version of this car looks just as good. In fact, it’s styled just like any other Optima model. If not for the slightly different front bumper and a hybrid badge on its trunk-lid, you wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from any other Optima model.

That was probably done intentionally, so the car blends in rather than shout about its hybrid credentials. It is the same story inside. It looks and feels just like any other Optima model, and that is no bad thing because this is one of the most smartly styled and spacious sedans in its category.

Kia didn’t skim on features either, as the list of standard stuff is quite lengthy. You get push button start and automatic climate control as standard. Spend the extra coin on the “Premium” model and you’ll get heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel, upgraded Infinity sound system, satellite navigation, and a panoramic roof that covers both the front and rear seat occupants.

So as a stylish and comfortable family car, it scores well, but what about its mechanicals, are they any good?

40-MPG PLUS A SPORTY DRIVE

Well the Optima hybrid gets a 2.4-liter, inline four-cylinder engine, plus a 30 kW electric motor. It produces a combined power output of 206-hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic gearbox. This last detail sets it apart from most other hybrids on the market, because most other manufacturers use CVT (continuously variable transmission) gearboxes with their hybrid drivetrains. Kia and Hyundai opted to use the six-speed automatic because they feel drivers prefer the feel of a normal automatic transmission over a CVT, and we agree with them on that.

This six-speed auto is a smooth and responsive gearbox, and even offers a manumatic mode for some spirited driving. However, if you are buying a hybrid, you’re probably more interested in mileage numbers than driving fun, and it does well in that category also. Kia claims 36-mpg in the city and 40-mpg on the highway. We managed 35.6-mpg on our test, however the roads we used had plenty of elevation changes, which isn’t ideal for economy numbers. Unlike some hybrids, which give a better economy number in city driving over highway driving, the Optima Hybrid is the other way around, partially because at speeds over 60 mph, a flap in the grille closes to make the car more aerodynamic. For comparison’s sake, the 4-cylinder Optima gets a 24/34-mpg rating.

Added weight on the other hand is not ideal for a car’s handling, and at 3490 lbs. the Optima Hybrid is roughly 270 lbs. heavier than its non-hybrid sibling. However, the Optima Hybrid handles its bulk with ease. We pushed it around some off-ramps and also on the twisty Pacific Rim Highway and found it has a lot more grip and poise around corners than we were expecting. Despite the low rolling resistance tires, the car hangs in well and on the road never feels inadequate around bends. That just goes to show that Kia has done a great job with this car’s chassis and suspension set-up from the get go.

Any drawbacks? Well it’s not what you’d call a fast car. The 0-60 mph run takes 9.2 seconds (which isn’t exactly bad), but given its acceleration at speed, you have to plan your overtaking moves with a bit more care.

Another complaint is the trunk. It is not as huge as in other Optima models, and you lose the folding rear seats. There is, however, a ski pass opening, which was possible because of the size of its lithium polymer battery, which is lighter and smaller than the more conventional nickel metal hydride battery used in other hybrids.

You do have to pay extra to get into the hybrid though. A base Optima with the gas engine and an auto-box starts at $20,700. The base Optima Hybrid starts at $26,500. That does sound like a big leap in price, however, you are getting more standard equipment and also a little bit extra power.

THE VERDICT

Costing a premium, when you factor in how much of a value the regular Optima is, then compared to some other mid-size sedans on the market the Hybrid doesn’t seem like such a stretch. Apart from the lack of a true 60/40 folding rear seat it’s in every way a practical family sedan, with both fuel economy and style far beyond what you expect in this segment.

LOVE IT
  • Attractive styling
  • Spacious, comfortable interior
  • Excellent handling
LEAVE IT
  • Only a ski pass through to the back seats
  • Premium price

RELATED READING

2011 Kia Optima Review – First Drive
2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Review – First Drive
2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid Review

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