2011 Kia Optima Hybrid HD Video Review

As always, feel free to click on that “like” button above. No pressure. Just saying…

It’s important to feel good about a car purchase, they are major investments that we live with for a long time.  It’s easy to be tempted by the fuel economy of a hybrid, and heck, as an air breather I’d love to help out the environment. But historically, their sheetmetal has never been considered haute couture. The  most popular, Toyota’s Prius, certainly makes the eco statement but few consider it high fashion.

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Kia wants to change that and the Kia Optima Hybrid is first effort. Like the regular Optima, the design is striking. One person asked if it was the new BMW i8.  Sorry, try back in a few years. Against Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry hybrids Optima clearly pops. It’s not dramatically different from the gas-only model, the nose is unique but subtle, so is the rear fascia.  Spiffy aerodynamic wheels are the biggest clue.  I’m driving a base model with no options that retails for $27,250 with destination.

Brother and Sister

Hyundai owns a little less than half of Kia but technically they’re two different companies that share a lot of engineering and development.  Remember, Sonata is available in a hybrid so it only makes sense that platform mate Optima would get it.

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The drivetrain is the same, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 166 HP (154 lb-ft of torque @ 4500 rpm) and a 40 HP electric motor (151 lb-ft @ 0-1,400 ) for a total of 206 horsepower and 193.4 lb-ft of torque.  The four-cylinder runs on the Atkinson cycle.  Unique to Optima and Sonata’s segment is a six-speed gearbox.  It even gets manual shift control on the console. Most hybrids use continuously variable transmissions.

Unlike Ford and Toyota’s hybrids, this one is modular.  The electric motor is separate from the transmission. In theory, it means they have the option of installing a larger motor and battery pack to make a plug in hybrid. It’s also less costly to repair should any one of the components need replacement.

Optima (and Sonata) hybrid uses lithium polymer cells which are lighter and smaller than the nickel metal hydride units used by Ford and Toyota.  LP cells are flat so packaging is more efficient than cylindrical NiMh cells. The lithium polymer pack is 20-30 percent lighter, 40 percent smaller in volume and 10 percent more efficient.  LG Chem, the manufacturer, claims these batteries are more durable and hold a charge longer.

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All The Usual Hybrid Tricks

Optima generally pulls away on electric power alone, staying in that mode longer than most other hybrids before the gas engine smoothly feathers in.  Kia says it can stay in electric-only mode up to 30 miles an hour, I generally see it kick in at around 10.  0-60 happens in about 8.5 seconds, a full second quicker than a Prius.  It shuts down at stoplights to conserve fuel.  Of course. Put your foot in it and it’s fairly quick and responsive.

Optima’s ride quality is firmer than sister Sonata, cornering noticeably crisper.  Body roll is minimal for a mainstream sedan.  At highway speeds the hybrid is the quietest version of the Optima I’ve driven.  That could be due to the low rolling resistance tires.  We’re not talking Buick hushed, it’s average. Other versions of Optima have more road noise than I prefer.

Toyota and Ford systems are more efficient in city driving, Kia’s goes for maximum highway MPGs.  The EPA rates it at 35 city, 40 highway, good for a roomy family sedan.  This is about the same as Fusion hybrid (41 city, 36 highway) substantially better than a 2011 Camry hybrid (31 city, 35 highway) but short of the upcoming 2012 Camry hybrid (estimated EPA scores are 43 city/39 highway).  I’m seeing 32 MPG on mostly city driving, but I’m not driving it easy.  One particular afternoon I was very light on the throttle and saw 41 on the trip computer.

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An efficiency gauge that replaces the tachometer helps to eek out better fuel economy.  A crisp hybrid energy flow graphic in the gauge cluster shows what’s happening with engine power and battery regeneration. The more efficiently you drive, the more leaves and flowers you’ll get on the screen, similar to the rewards program with Fusion.  The brakes have a nice linear feel something not all hybrids can claim.

One gripe I had with this drivetrain in the Sonata was that the six-speed transmission was easily tripped up in hard cut-and-thrust city driving.  That’s been taken care of, it’s much smoother now.  The folks at Hyundai confirm that Sonata is using the revised transmission calibration.

Look Familiar?

Other than a different gauge cluster and some instrument panel trim, the interior is much like a gas-only Optima. The center stack tilts ever so slightly toward the driver though it’s no problem for a passenger to access any of the controls. iPod and phone integration is standard, so is a leather wrapped wheel and dual-zone climate control. Worth noting, start-up and warning chimes are very pleasant.

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The standard seats are well bolstered and covered in a decent cloth.  The driver’s chair is powered, the passenger chair is manual.  Materials are of good quality, a mix of soft and hard plastic and there are lots of small places to stash things..

Listen Up

Kia has teamed up with Microsoft to create UVO. It can read incoming text messages and makes many electronics voice active.  Generally, voice activation systems don’t work well with mine.  By simply reading the “quick startup” manual I was calling up songs I loaded on the 1 gig jukebox and making phone calls just by saying “call home”.  Many will compare UVO with Sync but the Ford system is more powerful.  Still, UVO is a good place to start.

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A standard touch screen is on the small side and the rear vision camera image a bit dark (though useful).  There are no hard radio preset buttons, you have to scroll to use them on the touch screen (or use UVO voice command I suppose).

Moving To The Back…

It’s roomy enough for three average adults.  The cushions are well sculpted and the floor is flat so the middle passenger doesn’t have to straddle a hump.  There’s storage in the doors and both seat backs.  No power port though.

My biggest gripe is about the option.  That’s right, option.  There’s really only one, a Premium Technology package that bundles a panoramic glass roof, heated seats (cooled for the driver) satellite navigation and much more for $5,000.  It’s an all or nothing deal.  If all you want is a better sound system (and audiophiles certainly will) it’s quite a commitment.

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Why I Do The TP Trunk Test

Optima Hybrid is the perfect example of why a constant test metric is a good idea.  The standard Optima holds seven packs of the two-ply (a decent sized cargo hold by the way) and in a pinch the rear seatbacks can be dropped to expand the space.

The hybrid has its battery pack in the trunk and despite its compact size the lithium polymer battery (and the standard 12v unit also located back here) takes up some space.  Seats do not fold, there’s only a small ski pass through here.  Not sure how, but somehow the hybrid can swallow six bundles.  Personally I would have guessed five.

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Summing up, this Kia is a great all-around package for those who want an attractive, roomy, efficient sedan.  The price is right too.   No, it does not have the fuel economy or distinctive “I drive a hybrid dammit!” shape of Prius but not everyone likes that silhouette.  It’s good that we have the benefit of living in a free-market society.  We have choices.  Optima Hybrid is an appealing one.

FULL GALLERY BELLOW.  ALL PHOTOS (EXCEPT THE ONE ON THE STREET WITH LOTS OF TREES) PROVIDED BY KIA.  THE OTHER IS COURTESY OF MARTIN CAMPBELL.

9 Comments

  1. FinalBlue says:

    Not really sure why you included the bit about someone thinking this was an i8, Tom; no offense, but that person probably doesn’t know very much about cars at all to make that kind of mistake. Also, it baffles me how people can ask questions like that when the brand badge and car name are in plain sight.

    The thing with the Optima’s styling is that while it looks pretty rad from a distance, things start to lose cohesion when you move in for closer inspection (in my opinion, anyway). The still photos on this page cleverly don’t show it, but the front and rear overhangs on this car are monstrous. The colossal headlights and taillights can only do so much to fool the eye into believing they’re smaller than they really are.

    Furthermore, what’s the deal with Hyundai/Kia putting non-functional vents on their cars? The Veloster doesn’t need them (it has the Accent’s engine, if I’m not mistaken), and this car, a HYBRID no less, certainly has no need for them either.

    Finally, I think the chrome strip on side of the Optima is pretty tasteless. While small bits of chrome in the details of a car can look nice and really add a lot to its design, this application just seems garish to me. The fact that it stretches past the side windows and to the end of the rear window (nearly to the trunk!) rubs me the wrong way as well.

    • TV says:

      True, the i8 comment was not from the brightest bulb in the marquee but at least they were aware of the car. That says something. Also, we were across the street, and his genuine astonishment was quickly replaced with the realization that it count be am i8.

      Perfect design? Nope. I also thing the vents are gratuitous, like many cars these days. I’ll disagree on the chrome spear though that runs through to the C pillar though. An original cue in a world where everyone apes the premium brands. Compared to some others in class (Accord, Camry) it’s a breath of fresh air. It’s great to see something that takes a chance.

  2. Ted says:

    Cool review, Tom. I have always liked this car and, now that I think of it, the first review I watched on this site was that of the SX last year. I also like the high-profile tires on a non-sports car such as this, looks bolder in my opinion. Full silver rims instead two-tone would have been perfect to me, but perhaps too close to e-Volvo’s :)

  3. TV says:

    The shift quality was the first thing I looked for when I got the Kia. Was pleasantly surprised how much better it was. I think it was so blatent it had to be addressed immediatly.

    I have driven the Fusion hybrid but frankly it’s been so long that it would be hard for me to honestly and effectively compare the finer details. I do remember having fun driving it for about a mile on city streets on electric power alone. I also remember liking the driving dynamics better than Prius.

    • DCR says:

      Hi TV, do the Kia/Hyundai Hybrids now “deliver power at a continuum” as one reviewer recently noted post this Tranny update? In other words, how smooth were the start/stops and transitions from electric motor to gas engine?

      As Kia/Hyundai is asking buyers to cough up more $$ than their excellent GDI powered vehicles, like the first blogger below, this is really a big issue for potential buyers considering either one of these two hybrids.

      Now that you have driven both the Kia Optima hybrid and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which would you say gives a quieter ride from a noise perspective?

  4. Ken says:

    why do hybrids always come with those ugly wheels???

    • TV says:

      Aerodynamics. Personally I think they look okay in the real world. I’d prefer the standard SX wheels though.

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  6. spidey1968 says:

    Earlier reviews of this Kia complained about the uneven gear changes just like you did in the Sonata. I’m amazed that Kia/Hyundai has been able to fix this issue so quickly. Most other companies would have left it until the next model year. If you’ve ever drive the Ford Fusion hybrid, how would you compare the driving experience between the two?