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We drive the Kia Optima Hybrid

by Ali Arsham
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

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Kia Optima Hybrid is a good looking car
If you want an affordable mid-size hybrid family sedan, most people would run out to their local Toyota dealer and buy a Camry Hybrid.  Well there are a few other options out there and one of the better ones is the Kia Optima Hybrid.  We recently tested the regular Optima EX and were blown away with it.  Now we managed to get our hands on the high efficiency Hybrid model.  While costing a bit more, the hybrid promises a lot more.

The hybrid powered Optima is Kia’s first hybrid model.  The Optima Hybrid comes with a 2.4 liter four cylinder gasoline motor that puts out 166 hp instead of the 200 in the LX or EX.  One of the biggest differences is the lack of direct injection in the hybrid version.  Instead, it uses port fuel injection to squirt fuel into the intake manifold.  Supplementing the gasoline engine is an electric motor that when combined makes 206 hp. 

The Hybrid is tuned to be efficient and is not in the sports sedan territory but can still accelerate with good pace.  The only issue is the lag when starting from a stand still.  The gas engine is very quick to shut off in the Kia and when you want to start out again, say from a stop sign, there is a small delay for the gasoline engine to kick in.  There is also another lag for the automatic transmission to select the correct gear.  By the time the computers have decided everything, a lot of time has passed by.

You can tell how much that Kia is pushing the efficiency factor by looking at the interior display.  There is a gauge for efficiency that basically goes up closer to red the harder you press on the gas pedal.  Next to that gauge, you have a battery level monitor and next to it, a tiny tachometer to show the gasoline engine speed.  In the center there is a configurable LCD panel that shows everything from “Eco Level” to a picture of trees and flowers which changes depending on your driving habits. 

The navigation screen in the center of the dash also has a hybrid mode which shows your fuel economy history, how much you are impacting the Earth and how happy your Optima is with lots of trees and flowers around.  There is also a green light that shows when you are in Electric Vehicle mode but interestingly, the light has a delay of at least a second.  The gasoline engine can kick in and you can see the tachometer move but the light stays on for a good second.

The Optima Hybrid's outstanding efficiency is due in large part to the use of a lithium polymer battery, which was developed in South Korea with partner LG Chem. The power and energy density of this new battery type allowed Kia engineers to create a lighter and more compact battery pack, with the 30 kilowatt battery pack weighing just 95.9 pounds – 28 pounds less than the 2011 Toyota Camry Hybrid's nickel metal hydride pack – which aids fuel economy and also helps to maximize Optima's cargo space.

The Optima Hybrid's battery will hold its charge up to 25 percent longer than hybrids with nickel metal hydride batteries, so the battery is more likely to have usable energy available even if it has not been in use. Both fuel consumption and emissions are cut, allowing more electric starts and drive-aways. With that improved efficiency, more of the recovered kinetic energy and charging energy from the engine is available to move the car as necessary, which allows the vehicle to provide electric driving assist more often and for a longer period. Lithium polymer also has less of the self-discharge characteristic found in most rechargeable batteries.

Interior
The nice thing is that all Optimas have terrific room inside for five passengers.  The front seat offers great visibility and lots of room with very comfortable seats that could use more lateral support.  The rear seats are very comfortable and there is almost limousine like legroom back there. 

Our model came with the Technology Package which includes lots of great luxury items such as panoramic sunroof, four-way power adjustable front passenger's seat, driver's seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats and steering wheel, HID headlamps with automatic leveling, leatherette-wrapped center fascia, auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink and compass, a navigation system with back-up camera and SIRIUS Traffic, and an eight-speaker Infinity audio system. 

The batteries do eat up some of the trunk space so the Hybrid has 9.9 cubic feet of space in the trunk and the rear seats in the Optima Hybrid do not fold down so you only get a small pass through hole.

The Optima is still a Kia which means it is inexpensive to operate.  The Optima Hybrid is very efficient with EPA fuel economy ratings of 34 mpg in the city and 39 mpg on the freeway.  As usual with all hybrids, it is almost impossible to match EPA’s numbers in the real world.  We got around 32 mpg in mixed driving and noticed that it is possible to get 40 mpg on the highway but you have to keep your foot out of the throttle and be gentle. 

Kia says that the Hybrid can run on electric power at up to 100 km/h provided you have a light foot.  Amazingly, we found that the car would run on electric power at even higher speeds as long as you were barely on the gas pedal.

The Optima is also inexpensive to buy.  Base price of the Hybrid starts out at $25,700 which is an amazing deal for a car that feels much more like an Audi than a Toyota.  There are only two options so our loaded car was just over $31,000.  If you are in the market for a sedan, the Kia dealership must be one of your stops because the Optima is an terrific deal and sooner or later Kia will realize that they have set prices way too low.

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