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Undercover Greenie - 2013 Kia Optima Hybrid Review By Rex Roy

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2013 Kia Optima Hybrid

Undercover Greenie
2013 Kia Optima Hybrid

By Rex Roy
Contributing Editor
The Auto Channel
Michigan Bureau

American drivers have been conditioned to think that fuel-efficient hybrids look dull and nerdy, if not kind of weird.

For example, the first Toyota Prius sold in the US scored and absolute zero on the looks scale. Not even a blind man would have bought that car for its style. It was beyond duller than dishwater.

Then there was the first-generation Honda Insight. This tiny two-seater managed to combine modern aerodynamic design with what looked like 1950s-style wheel skirts over the rear tires. Its styling is one reason the 2000-2006 boasts a cult-like following of hybrid enthusiasts.

These early hybrid and their not-necessarily attractive styling help define the most popular hybrids the US has ever known. This is one reason many customers bought hybrids: to make a visible green statement.

No Funny Looks
The 2013 Optima Hybrid from Kia changes this axiom.

This sleek sedan’s handsome lines hide the fact that this mid-size is capable of achieving 35-mpg city, 40-mpg highway. These are excellent numbers for a four-door that easily accommodates five and offers decent luggage capacity trunk (9.9 cubic feet). Non-hybrid Optimas offer 15.4 cu.ft., but the hybrid batteries consume the difference.

The Optima’s style is dynamic, and there’s so much happening on the car’s surface that it’s a car a blind man could see by touch. Unlike earlier cars from Kia, the Optima’s style is not derivative of competitive cars, but unique to Kia in a most favorable way.

Comfort and Style
The high style continues inside. The door panels sweep nicely into the instrument panel with a modern, purposeful flair.

The main instruments are easy to read, but the tachometer is too little to be useful and seems like one of those inclusions that were made because the designer needed something to put in the space, as opposed to using the space for something actually beneficial.

There’s room aplenty for those in front and back. Riding four-up for long distances is so comfortable that it would be hard to justify needing a larger vehicle. Riding with someone in the center rear seat also works, but would get tiresome for long trips.

Our model was equipped with the $5,000+ Premium Technology Package that includes a navigation system, leather seating and much more. The pricy option included heated and cooled front seats. The cooling feature wasn’t on a recent $42,000 BMW 3-Series we tested … and the seats cooled much better than on the last two Lexus models we drove.

Gearing Up The Hybrid Drive
Unlike the most popular hybrid drive systems that operate like a CVT (continuously variable transmission), the Optima Hybrid has a conventional six-speed automatic.

This gearbox gives the Optima a driving sensation that’s similar to a conventionally-powered automobile. CVT-equipped vehicles don’t “shift,” making them feel initially odd … brains accustomed to shifts unconsciously “look” for that sensation.

Brains get the shifting sensation with this Kia.

When accelerating from a stop on electric-only or electric-gasoline power, the transmission upshifts first-to-second and then second-to-third just as you expect.

The powerful electric motor placed between the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and the 6-speed automatic has the juice needed to propel the Optima at a good clip. Many hybrids are “programmed” to engage the engine when accelerating at the rate normal traffic flows.

Not the Kia. It can keep up with traffic running just on electrons. During our week with the car, we often accelerated to over 30-mph on battery power. The engine would smoothly engage at higher speeds.

The Optima’s unique hybrid system also gives the sedan the ability to run on electricity at speeds approaching 80-mph. You’ll have to read the power flow on the instrument cluster to realize what is happening because the transitions are so smooth. Even on the interstate, the engine would shut down, letting the electric motor and batteries power the Optima down the highway to improve highway economy.

This powertrain is not without its faults. It has ample power (206 horsepower, 195 pounds-feet of torque) for quick acceleration at full throttle, but the power doesn’t always come on smoothly or quickly. The gearbox sometimes shifted abruptly or late. Additionally, we were often left waiting for power after we hit the accelerator pedal because the engine, electric motor and transmission dithered before deciding on and executing an action plan.

And while the Optima’s engine feels smooth on the highway, at city speeds -- when there’s less road noise and vibration -- engine stops and starts send unpleasant sounds and quivers through the car. Hybrids from Toyota and Lexus remain the gold standard that Kia is far from matching in this area.

On-Road Refinement
Looking at the Optima’s sporty aluminum wheels and low-profile tires, you expect quick handing and responsiveness.

The Hybrid doesn’t deliver all its looks promise. It’s not a BMW or Audi, for example. Turned hard into a corner, the suspension takes a firm, safe set, but the energy-efficient tires howl in tortured protest. There’s nothing remotely dangerous about the Optima’s handing, but it’s not a sports sedan. That’s OK in light of its purpose in life. The Hybrid will easily satisfy 99.9-percent of its drivers in terms of handing.

While few drivers will make the tires beg for mercy, nearly every driver will experience this: the Kia’s lack of chassis refinement on the highway. Small steering inputs can cause an unpleasant sensation. While the body isn’t moving much – and remains completely safe in terms of handling – the suspension feels as if it lets the body initially roll a smidge too far before it abruptly “catches” the roll.

Happily Undercover
With a well-equipped sticker price in the low $30,000 range, the Optima Hybrid is yet another Kia that buyers will consider because of how it looks, feels and performs … not just because it offers lots of features at an ultra competitive price.

The Optima is also a hybrid that people who appreciate style for style’s sake can enjoy. The Prius is not the only answer.