Times were you could count on Kia being the lowest prices vehicle in its class. Unfortunately, you could also often count on it being the most cheaply made as well. But that was a couple decades or more ago and today, Kia has taken its rightful place among other automakers as a fuel-conscious, yet stylish, option that can hold its own with the competition.
While you can probably get into a Toyota Camry Hybrid for slightly fewer bucks, which indicates Toyota certainly sees Kia as competition, the Kia Optima Hybrid's $26,500 price tag still puts it near the low end of the cost spectrum for its sector and it's hard to dismiss its fuel economy: 35 mpg city and a class-leading 40 mpg highway.
Optima Hybrid: Looking Good
So what sets Kia Optima Hybrid apart from the competition? Do you mean other than economy and fuel efficiency? Call me shallow, but what got my attention? The Optima Hybrid's good looks. It is just plain stylish, from the unique grill to the way its profile seems both lightly aerodynamic and a strong force to be reckoned with. I thought it was interesting how the Optima Hybrid followed the conventional Optima's basic pleasing design, yet there were a few subtle changes that set it apart, namely a hybrid-specific grill and a profile that sits about 5 mm closer to the ground than its standard cousin.
You'll have two configurations available with the Optima Hybrid, a base model and an advanced hybrid premium and technology package. The 2012 premium package includes HD radio and power folding outside mirrors, building on the 2011 platform. Coming either standard or available on both are the front grille and headlamp styling, 16 in. alloy wheels, front and rear lower bumpers and side sills, LED tail lamp design, fog lamps and heated outside mirrors.
I found the interior to be nearly as pleasing as the outside and essentially equipped like the gas-powered Optima EX as far as the center console, dual-zone climate control and infotainment systems easily accessible on the upper area of the dash. Some might feel the interior looks a lot like the Hyundai Sonata, but I found that to only be true from a broad standpoint. The Optima Hybrid truly has a look that is its own.
A nice add-on is the fake leather stitched trim to outline the instrument panel, clearly a step up from plastic components and a bit of a distinction when put up against competitors as well.
Plenty of Power
OK, enough of my infatuation with the Optima Hybrid's good looks. What about power? The 2012 Optima Hybrid comes with a fuel-efficient hybrid power train with 2.4 liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine producing 166 hp and connected by a wet clutch to an Interior Permanent Magnet (IPM) synchronous electric motor producing 40 hp and 151 lb.-ft. of torque up to 1,400 rpm when in full-electric mode.
Let power train meet six-speed automatic transmission and you're on your way to that 40 mpg highway number. Fully parallel, the hybrid system can be driven in zero emission, full-electric drive mode up to 62 miles per hour or combined with gas-electric mode at any speed. The engine will shut off completely when the car's engine comes to a stop.
On the electric side, the Optima Hybrid sports an air-cooled 270V lithium polymer (Li-PB) battery, which Kia promotes as being superior to nickel metal hydride systems, pointing out that it is 20-30 percent lighter and occupies 40 percent less volume while being 10 percent more efficient and holding a charge that Kia says will last 25 percent longer.
Quiet Down the Road
Mentioning that a hybrid or electric car has a quiet ride sometimes seems a bit redundant, but I think it's worth my mention here if only to distinguish a certain feature from other hybrids in its class that probably contributes greatly to this feeling of going stealth down the street. The Kia Optima Hybrid runs all-electric until the battery is partially depleted, then it starts the engine and charges the battery. Nothing too earth-shaking there. But unlike a lot of hybrids in its class, the Kia Optima Hybrid will then shut the engine down again and go back to all-electric power once the battery is fully charged, even at highway speeds.
Fuel Efficiency: 35 mpg city/40 mpg highway