2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review By Carey Russ
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid
The current Optima has put Kia on the map for buyers of mid-size, middle-class sedans by offering distinctive European-influenced style to go with Asian value. Fuel economy was improved as much as power output, and has been brought further with the Optima Hybrid.
And the Kia Optima Hybrid is as different from other gasoline-electric hybrids as the Optima is from other midsize sedans. Hybrid development is a display of engineering and technological ability. Kia is a division of Hyundai (and the Optima is platform mate to the Hyundai Sonata), and there was no way Hyundai was going to license technology from a competitor -- particularly arch rival Toyota. Unlike most other gasoline-electric hybrid systems, the Hyundai/Kia one uses a conventional planetary-gearset automatic transmission, not a CVT. The electric traction motor is integrated into the transmission, replacing the torque converter. The motor-transmission unit is coupled to the engine by a multi-plate wet clutch so the engine may be deactivated during stops and electric vehicle (EV) mode. The system is modular, uses many existing components, and is scalable and can be used with a variety of engines and transmissions, existing or new. A second electric motor-generator, called the Hybrid Starter Generator, is used as the starter motor for the engine and to recharge the battery pack when the car is stationary -- the engine will run at that time. The lithium-polymer battery pack is lighter in weight than an equivalent lithium-ion one or a more conventional nickel-metal hydride battery.
Because of its design, the Hyundai/Kia hybrid system can operate in EV mode at higher speeds than other hybrid systems. In the Optima, under light throttle as downhill or on level or gently ascending ground, EV operation can happen up to 62 mph (100 kph). Other hybrids might get excellent city mileage (depending on speed and driving style), but their advantage drops precipitously on the highway. During my week with an Optima hybrid, I saw low 30s at the usual 70+ mph highway speeds in my part of the world. Which is not bad at all for a five-passenger sedan. Dial it back a bit so EV mode could kick on, and the result was and easy 40 to 50mpg, much better than any comparable midsize hybrid sedan I've driven. If you can drive 55, here's your car.
Compared to other models in the Optima lineup, the Hybrid is closest in specification and standard equipment to the mid-level EX. The engine is a modified version of the EX's 200-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Total system power is similar, with a maximum of 206 horsepower.
During my week with a well-equipped Hybrid, I found it quite capable of holding its own in any traffic situation, with no real disadvantages and few hybrid system quirks. Engine stops and starts were virtually un-noticed, and, with the right mindset when driving, fuel economy could be exemplary, 30mpg or better around town and 40+ (sometimes very plus) on the highway. About a third of the trunk is sacrificed to the battery pack and associated hardware. That aside, the Hybrid has the same above-its-station character as any other current Kia Optima, especially with the comprehensive if pricey ($6,000 with required Hybrid Convenience Package) Hybrid Premium Technology Package. That puts the bottom line over $30,000. Think half the price of a "real" luxury brand, for far more than half the car -- more like 95 percent of the pricier luxury car.
APPEARANCE: Kia banished blandness a few years ago with its newest design language, which is most fully-developed in the Optima. If it's more European than Asian looking, the designer is German… and the tabbed grille and subtly matching windshield ensure that it will be noticed. The Hybrid differs slightly from its stablemates in being a touch lower, with a special headlight design, smoother lower rear panels, and flat panels under the car, all in the name of aerodynamics for improved highway fuel economy. It's chrome and gloss black implementation of the tabbed grille is unique, as is the active air flap system in that grille. The LED taillights are specific to the Hybrid, as is a hidden exhaust tip, in place of the usual twin exhausts.
COMFORT: In standard trim, the Optima's interior builds on that of a mid-level LX or EX. With the Premium Technology Package, it's closer to entry-luxury than middle class. Comfortable power-adjustable front seats are heated and cooled, and feature an interesting combination of leather and cloth trim. The heated steering wheel is manually-adjustable (as in many an entry-luxury sedan) and has cruise, auxiliary audio, and information system controls. The interface for the navigation and audio systems uses hard buttons for the basics -- map, destination, audio input -- with the touchscreen handling the details. Nice and simple. With or without the option packages, the main interior difference from other Optima models is the instrument display. It's a bright electroluminescent display, called Supervision™ by Kia, and offers excellent visibility. To the left is a combination gauge with the "eco guide", green zone for optimum, white for pushing it, and red for "maybe you'd rather have the turbo?" A small tachometer display flanks the central information display, and the speedometer is on the right. Information includes trip miles, outside temperature, hybrid system information, instant and cumulative mileage, distance to empty, and more, all useful. Rear seat room and comfort are very good for the car's size and price class. Having the hybrid battery behind the rear seat means that there is only a ski-type passthrough, no folding seatback, and about one-third of the trunk space is sacrificed. There's still a useful 9.9 cubic feet.
SAFETY: The Optima has all of the expected safety features and then some as standard equipment across the lineup, including front, front-seat side, and full-length side curtain airbags, side-impact door beams and front and rear crumple zones, a tire-pressure monitoring system, electronic stability control, traction control, brake assist, and hill assist. In the Hybrid, the standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes shared by all models are augmented by regenerative braking.
RIDE AND HANDLING: Like the Optima LX and EX, the Hybrid's fully-independent MacPherson strut front, multilink rear suspension is tuned moderately for a good balance of comfort and handling. The Hybrid's low rolling resistance tires are designed and built to enhance fuel economy, not cornering prowess, but work as well as any normal passenger car tires. The electrically-assisted power steering is not too light and actually transmits a bit of road feel. Interior noise levels are low, and the Optima Hybrid is a fine car for an extended road trip. And all the better for that because of its lack of thirst.
PERFORMANCE: As mentioned earlier, the Optima Hybrid's gasoline-electric system is a full series-parallel hybrid, capable of running the car with internal combustion or electric power or a combination of the two. Because of its design, it can run in EV mode at highway speeds much faster than usual for hybrids. And it does that very easily. The hybrid nature of the car is mostly transparent, helped to some small amount by the "Virtual Engine Sound System" (VESS) that plays recorded engine sounds in EV operation under 12 mph. Eco mode is the default, meaning (electronic) throttle and transmission shifting programmed for economy. Need quicker acceleration? Turn Eco mode off -- or slip the shift lever into manual mode and shift yourself. Try that in any other common hybrid (except a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid)… The engine is the 2.4-liter twincam alloy four-cylinder familiar from other naturally-aspirated Optimas, but modified for hybrid duty by using the Atkinson combustion cycle and variable cam phasing, both for increased efficiency. It makes 166 horsepower (at 6000 rpm) and 154 lb-ft of torque (at 4250 rpm). The permanent magnet synchronous electric traction motor produces 151 lb-ft of torque as soon as it starts to spin and up to 1400 rpm and adds a maximum of 40 hp between 1400 and 6000 rpm. Because neither power component makes its maximum output simultaneously, combined maximum system horsepower is 206, with torque maxing at 195 lb-ft -- very close to the regular 2.4-liter engine. The Hybrid weighs about 250 pounds more than a comparable non-hybrid, so acceleration is a bit less (about a second more to 60 mph) but that shouldn't be a negative for a hybrid buyer. Want quick acceleration in an Optima? Get the turbo. Want maximum mileage, especially on the open road? Get the Hybrid.
CONCLUSIONS: The Kia Optima Hybrid adds excellent fuel economy
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid
Base Price $ 25,700 Price As Tested $ 32,615 Engine Type aluminum alloy Atkinson cycle DOHC 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with continuously-variable cam phasing Engine Size 2.4 liters / 144 cu. in. Engine Horsepower 166 @ 6000 rpm Engine Torque (lb-ft) 154 @ 4250 rpm Transmission 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode Electric Motor Horsepower 40 hp @ 1400-6000 rpm Electric Motor Torque 151 lb ft @ 0-1400 rpm Total Combined System Power 206hp / 195 lb-ft Wheelbase / Length 110 in. / 190.7 in. Curb Weight 3490 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17 Fuel Capacity 17.2 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P215/55R17 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, plus regenerative braking ABS, ESC, VSM, TCS, BAS standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain transverse front engine/motor, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 35 / 40 / 30 to 47 depending on driving 0 to 60 mph 9.2 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Hybrid Convenience Package - includes: 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat with lumbar support, UVO by Microsoft® infotainment system $ 700 Hybrid Premium Technology Package - includes: navigation system with Sirius/XM Traffic and rear camera display (replaces UVO), Infinity® 8-speaker audio system, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with Homelink® and compass, panoramic sunroof with gloss black B-pillars, power folding outside mirrors, HID headlights with auto-leveling, 17" alloy wheels, 4-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, driver's seat memory, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seat cushion, heated steering wheel, leather and cloth seat trim, door mood lights, illuminated door scuff plates $ 5,350 All-weather floormats $ 115 Destination charge $ 750