By Steven Cole Smith
July 28, 2011
Perhaps the most astounding story in the automotive world is the success of Kia, which only entered the U.S. market in 1993 with the little Sportage SUV, then the Sephia, an anonymous-looking sedan. In 1997, Kia declared bankruptcy, and a majority of the company was sold to the other major Korean manufacturer, Hyundai. It wasn't until 1999 that Kia vehicles were available in all 50 states.
Kia made modest but steady progress since then, due largely to help from Hyundai. But nothing Kia has built prepared us for the new Optima, a mid-sized sedan so spot-on that it not only matches, but in many ways exceeds, well-regarded competition like the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Malibu.
Much of the Optima's success can be traced to its close cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, with which the Optima shares a lot of components. But Kia and its designers managed to put a premium stamp on the Optima that makes it a head-turner to a much greater degree than its price suggests.
Kia has three basic versions of the Optima, with three separate powertrains – the standard Optima has a 2.4-liter, 200-horsepower four-cylinder engine. There is also a higher-performance version, with a 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with 274 horsepower. Like the Sonata, the Optima has adopted a four-cylinder-only engine lineup, though previous versions of both cars were offered with V-6 engines.
And now comes the Hybrid version of the Optima, with a detuned 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder, aided by an electric motor that adds another 40 horsepower, for a total of 206. The EPA rating is a healthy 35 mpg in the city, and 40 mpg on the highway. The base Optima, with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, which is standard in the Hybrid, is rated at a still-respectable 24 mpg city, 34 mpg highway. The Hybrid began reaching dealers in June.
The Optima Hybrid's transition between gasoline and electric power is pretty seamless, though not quite as smooth as on some other hybrids. This is a "full" hybrid, meaning it can operate on full electric power – some vehicles are "partial" hybrids, meaning the electric motor helps out, but to move under its own power, the gasoline engine must be running. Kia claims the Optima Hybrid can reach 62 mph on electric power alone, but even with very gradual acceleration, I could seldom get over 40 mph before the gasoline engine cranked up. Nor could I match the EPA-rated 35/40 mpg, but my 34 mpg overall mileage wasn't bad. Owners who do a great deal of city driving will benefit most from the technology, since the engine shuts off when the car is stopped, so long as the electrical load doesn't require the engine to be on to recharge the batteries.
The battery pack does take up some truck space, but there is still an adequate 9.9 cubic feet of room back there, compared to 15.4 cubic feet in the regular Optima's trunk. The batteries and hybrid hardware also add weight – the Hybrid weighs 3,490 pounds, compared to 3,223 pounds for the regular Optima.
Inside, you wouldn't know this was a hybrid except for some dashboard displays and a button that says "Eco," which, when pressed, maximizes mileage over power, but it really isn't noticeable. The interior of the Optima isn't quite as well-conceived as the exterior, but for the price, the amount of plastic and thin fabric over the optional panoramic sunroof is certainly acceptable. Front seats are very good, and rear-seat room is as good as anything in the class.
Outside, the car's a knockout. I've had people ask me if Optimas I've driven are BMWs or Jaguars, a genuine compliment to the stylists.
The test car started at $26,500. Shipping added $750, and there was only one option, but it was a big one: $5,000 for the "Premium Technology Package," which added the aforementioned sunroof, leather upholstery, a navigation system, a backup camera, heated and cooled seats and an upgraded Infinity sound system. Since the base Optima is already well-equipped – including all the safety features you'd expect – this package makes the Optima Hybrid an outright luxury car, at a total price of $32,250.
The Optima Hybrid rides and handles quite well, and the highway ride is excellent. On twisting roads, the too-light steering and extra weight make it feel less sporty than the Hybrid Turbo model, but it's still fun to drive under all conditions. Looks, a decent personality and a thrifty nature? Not bad.
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