Little did we know when we took the keys to our vehicle for the week that we would be driving the 2012 Best Family Car over $30K, according to the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada. Now that another annual TestFest has gone by, we expect to see sales of Korean cars to soar based on their five collective category wins, with the Optima sedan taking two categories; the Optima also took home Best Family Car under $30K for the non-hybrid sedan. Illusions of such grandeur weren’t dancing in our head when we tested the fuel-sipping Optima, but we can understand why it was chosen. Our tester was a 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid finished in Bright Silver Metallic with Black Leatherette interior. What did the AJAC journalists see in this car that made it stand out above all the rest?
As manufacturers turn their eyes towards greening their lineups, new midsize hybrid sedans are popping up on the landscape on a regular basis it seems, and now the Koreans have joined the fray. As the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata share platforms and many technical bits, so do their hybrid variants. Toyota has just released their latest Camry, complete with hybrid option, and with Toyota’s leadership in the hybrid game, the Camry Hybrid should prove to be a popular entry for those looking to save on fuel. Ford has their hat in the ring with the Fusion Hybrid, and GM is soon to follow with the Buick Regal e-Assist. Of course, as the Chevrolet Volt isn’t a true electric vehicle, perhaps you could toss it into this mix as well. In the non-hybrid midsize sales race, Ford has led the way through 2011 with the Fusion, and Hyundai has been nipping at their heels all year with their popular Sonata. The Kia Optima has not yet made any big waves on the sales charts, but we expect their recent AJAC category wins should bring awareness to the consumer and help that situation.
While most companies choose to differentiate their hybrids in obvious ways to shout out that they’re hybrids, Kia has chosen a more subtle approach to the Optima. There are several features that set the Optima Hybrid apart from the standard issue Optima, but they are tasteful. As with many hybrids, the first initiative in body modification relates to streamlining for lower coefficient of drag. The Optima Hybrid takes a few plays from a well-used book, implementing lower bodywork all around, including a front air dam and active shutters that close at high speeds to improve air flow. The car also rides a little lower, and employs low rolling resistance tires on unique 16-inch wheels designed with a reverse 5-spoke appearance. A silver strip, which doesn’t stand out on our silver tester, surrounds the lower air dam on the front bumper and remains silver on other colour choices, serving as another visual differentiator of the Optima Hybrid. Otherwise, the Optima retains its sleek styling and good looks, reminding consumers that hybrids don’t have to look ridiculous to achieve great fuel economy.
At its base MSRP of $30,595, the Kia Optima Hybrid packs quite a few standard features into the cabin to coddle its occupants. The media is handled via Kia’s new Uvo system, which like Ford’s Sync, is built in collaboration with Microsoft. The six-speaker stereo has satellite radio and USB/AUX inputs to allow you to enjoy your music from any source. Other features include dual-zone automatic climate control, heated seats, keyless start, and a reverse camera. Moving up to the Hybrid Premium will cost you a further $4,900, but the interior receives further upgrades, including heated rear seats, cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof, and a navigation system.
Our tester had to make do with leatherette and cloth seats, which are attractively styled with nice stitching all around. Two-position memory seating is also standard for those who share the car with another regular driver. As we only spent a few days with this car, we didn’t spend too much time behind the wheel, but the seats were very comfortable when we did. One complaint, however, is the comfort access, which automatically moves the driver’s seat back when the car is shut off. This feature might be useful for older buyers who have difficulty with ingress/egress, but we were unable to find any option to disable this feature. This becomes a nuisance when a passenger is sitting behind the driver, as they will find themselves getting squished by the driver’s seat if they fail to exit the vehicle before the driver shuts off the engine.
In the gauge cluster behind the steering wheel, the traditional tachometer is replaced by a so-called Eco Guide. In this gauge, the left side shows whether you’re charging or draining the battery, and the right side shows the level of charge available for use. In between the gauges, an LCD display has several screens to cycle through for trip and vehicle information, but our favourite was the Energy Flow screen, which displayed in real-time what was happening between the engine, the electric motor, and the wheels.
Being a hybrid, the Optima employs two types of power generators; a traditional combustion engine and an electric motor. The engine is a 2.4L inline-four cylinder, which on its own produces 166 horsepower and 154 lb-ft of torque. The electric motor is powered by a 30 kWh lithium polymer battery, which is different than the typical nickel metal hydride batteries used by many other manufacturers in that it is lighter and more compact, and supposedly will hold its charge up to 25 percent longer. The electric motor, when running solo, provides 40 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque between 0 and 1,400 rpm. Combined, the gas and electric motors create 206 hp and 195 lb-ft which is slightly better than the standard Optima’s direct injected 2.4L, but much more fuel efficient.
The most impressive part of this powertrain is how seamlessly it transitions between electric and gas modes, and even at highway speeds on level or downhill stretches, you’ll see the tach drop to 0 and suddenly you’re gliding along on electric power! We became addicted to maintaining electric mode for as long a stretch as possible, which is difficult at times. The Optima Hybrid will go from a complete stop to city speed on pure electric, but only with the slightest of throttle inputs, guaranteeing that you’ll upset any traffic behind you.
Kia is one of the first manufacturers to pair a hybrid with a conventional step-ratio transmission which goes a long way to making you feel as though the hybrid you’re piloting is no different from any other vehicle you’ve ever driven. The Optima Hybrid uses the same 6-speed automatic transmission used in many other applications throughout the lineup.
After spending a few days with the Optima Hybrid trying to perfect our game of How Slow Can You Go, we were thrilled at some of the numbers we achieved on the average fuel economy read-out. The Optima Hybrid is rated at 5.6/4.9 liters per 100 kilometers, which we verified is achievable with enough patience. We didn’t always have this kind of time, but you take the good with the bad. We weren’t quite able to match the EnerGuide numbers, but we still managed to average a respectable 6.7 L/100 km. Considering our best real-world fuel economy average for a subcompact car thus far is 7.0 L/100 km, we came away very impressed by the capabilities of this mid-size car.
At its starting price of $30,595, the Kia Optima Hybrid is priced above all but the Ford Fusion Hybrid. This could make it difficult to plead its case, especially against the proven hybrid technology from Toyota in the brand new Camry. The Optima comes standard with more interior amenities, aluminum wheels, and a 6-speed automatic transmission, not to mention better design. All of these things combined to impress the judges at AJAC’s 2012 Car of the Year competition enough to name the Optima Hybrid the Best New Family Car over $30K.
- No CVT
- Electric mode at highway speed
- Better than subcompact fuel economy
We don’t like…
- Goofy wheel design
- Can’t disable comfort access
Quick Spec Summary
2011 Kia Optima Hybrid
Bright Silver Metallic with Black Leatherette interior
6-speed automatic transmission
2.4L GDI I4 with battery pack – 206 hp / 195 lb-ft combined
Gasoline Engine – 166 hp / 154 lb-ft
Electric Motor – 40 hp / 151 lb-ft (0 – 1,400 rpm)
Curb Weight – 1,583 / 3,490 lb
65 L tank – 5.6 / 4.9 L/100km (city/hwy)
Recommended Fuel – Regular
Base MSRP – $30,595
Options – $150
Excise Tax – $100
Destination - $1,455
Total MSRP – $32,300
Options on Tester
- Colour Charge – $150
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