Test Drive: 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Kia's first hybrid model delivers all the Optima virtues, plus 40-mpg highway mileage estimate

by James M. Flammang

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Some automakers, led by Toyota and Honda, rushed to the forefront of the hybrid-powertrain phenomenon a decade ago. Others took their time developing vehicles that operated on either gasoline or battery power. Several held back completely, focusing instead on other ways of boosting fuel efficiency.

Kia has been one of the holdouts, but that's about to change with the release of the Optima Hybrid. Hyundai, Kia's South Korean cousin, introduced its Sonata Hybrid sedan during 2010. Now it's Kia's turn, with the modestly-dimensioned midsize Optima.

With a fuel-economy estimate of 35 mpg in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway, Kia claims "class-leading" fuel efficiency for the Optima Hybrid. Like Hyundai, Kia has turned to lithium polymer batteries, supplied by LG Chem, to work in the full parallel hybrid system.

The 2.4-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine develops 166 horsepower, while the electric-motor system supplies 40.2 hp, for a total of 206.2 horsepower. A six-speed automatic transmission is used, but without the customary torque converter.

The Optima Hybrid can be driven in full-electric mode at up to 62 mph. Such battery-only speeds seemed inconceivable a couple of years back, but now several hybrid manufacturers make comparable claims. Like other hybrids, the system blends the two power sources: the gasoline engine and the electric moor. As usual, the gas engine shuts off completely when coming to a stop.

To differentiate the Hybrid from a regular Optima, the gasoline/battery version gets a unique front grille, 16-inch alloy wheels, heated mirrors, plus specific headlamps, foglamps, lower bumpers and side sills, and LED taillamps. Features are similar to those in an Optima LX sedan with automatic, including an eight-way power driver's seat, dual-zone automatic temperature control (with rear vents), pushbutton start with smart key, and Supervision instrument cluster with LCD display. Also standard are a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, one-touch automatic up/down front windows, glovebox illumination, rear reading lamps, and fixed rear seats with a ski pass-through.

The Optima Hybrid is the first vehicle to offer Kia's UVO powered by Microsoft hands-free, voice-activated infotainment and communications system.

Responding to concerns about pedestrians who cannot hear a nearby hybrid or electric vehicle, Kia has taken a tangible step. The standard Virtual Engine Sound System plays a pre-recorded engine sound during electric-only operation.

Six airbags are standard, including full-length side curtains. Also standard is electronic stability control.

Behind the wheel, it's next to impossible to tell when you're in EV mode, operating solely on battery power. That may be the ultimate goal of any hybrid. If so, Kia has reached it with the Optima. Driving the Optima Hybrid differs so little from operating a regular gas-engine Optima that it's hardly worth trying to determine which is which. The fact that the Hybrid uses a six-speed automatic transmission rather than a continuously variable transmission (CVT), like many hybrid vehicles, narrows the difference even more.

A very small flow diagram can appear ahead of the driver, cycling through various forms of graphic information that shows what's happening in the system. Some automakers post such graphics on large video screens, so everyone in the car can follow the transition between gas engine and battery if they wish Kia doesn't make a big thing of it, but does make this information available for viewing

Placed on sale in June 2011, the Kia Optima Hybrid has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price of $26,500 (plus a $750 destination charge). All Kias include a 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty, plus a 5-year/60,000-mile basic warranty. Roadside Assistance also is included.

For $5,000 extra, an available Hybrid Premium Technology Package adds a panoramic sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, four-way power front passenger's seat, driver's seat memory, heated/cooled front seats, auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, navigation system with backup camera and Sirius Traffic, and eight-speaker Infinity audio system. (Those features replace the UVO system.)

Attention Editors: This complete 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2011 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang