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2017 Kia Optima Hybrid Review by Steve Purdy +VIDEO

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Review by Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
Michigan Bureau

The Kia Optima has been one of my favorite mid-size, front-wheel drive sedans since it’s third generation launched in 2010. I found it one of the best looking and competent cars in its class as it got ahead of its competitors as they were all rapidly moving upscale in design, engineering and content.

While hybrid and electric sedans still constitute a tiny percentage of the overall U.S. market nearly every manufacturer feels the need to be in that space and the products are consistently excellent, including the Optima. But, do they make sense?

My usual advice to those contemplating the purchase of a hybrid is to first determine what their motives are and then to run the numbers. If your purpose is just to make a statement about your environmental cred you may be willing to pay for that image beyond what makes sense economically. On the other hand, if you’re in it to save money, that’s another matter entirely. From my experience running the numbers on a variety of hybrids the pay-off period (extra cost of the hybrid powertrain over the conventional powertrain, divided by savings in gas costs) ranges from about 3 years to over 150 years.

Before we run the numbers on this one, let’s talk about the car itself.

The Kia Optima fits nicely into the mid-size sedan segment where all the mainstream manufacturers have great products. Cars in this segment tend to get mid-cycle refreshes at about 3 years and fully redesigned at around 5 to 6 years. This newest, fourth generation, Optima entered the market in late 2015 as a 2016 model. Optima competes well, and while no longer a standout, it is as good as any and well worth a close look if you’re shopping in this market.

Distinctive exterior design leaves no question as to its brand identity with the chipmunk grille and sporty profile, modest sculpting all around and unique details like a fender badge and chrome strip around the top of the side windows extending to follow the roofline rearward. Standard (on the EX) are 17-inch shinny alloy wheels and a tasteful use of black trim for an unusual aesthetic appeal. Kia’s design director formerly headed the Audi design team and is a remarkably talented guy.

Interior design seems ready for another update already, though it is quite functional and attractive. Materials and design are just a half-generation behind most of the competition but fit and finish are excellent. Convenient and intuitive controls and displays made acclimation easy. Ergonomics – that is, the feel and tactile function of everything – are well thought out as well. Not only are the USB, auxiliary port and 12V outlets in front easily accessible behind a door at the front of the console but we also have one of each on the back of the console for use by the rear seat passengers.

Generous and comfortable seating in our “EX” version (higher of two trim levels) is leather while the lesser trim “Premium” gets fabric seats. Our rear seat passengers gave it good marks for room and comfort including the fold-down armrest with cup holders built in. Rear seatbacks fold 60/40 with substantial bulkhead obstruction. The battery pack resides below the rear seat for less intrusion on the trunk space where we have a decent (for a hybrid) 13.4 cubic-feet.

This second generation of the Kia Optima Hybrid gets a more efficient 2.0-liter Atkinson Cycle gasoline engine with a 13.5:1 compression ratio and stronger 50-hp electric motor along with an incrementally bigger 1.6-kWh lithium-polymer battery pack. Unlike most hybrids that use CVT (continuously variable transmission) this one gets a conventional six-speed automatic. Total system is listed at 192 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. The EPA rates this relatively light (3,500-pound), front-wheel drive (all-wheel drive is not offered), sedan at 39 mpg in the city, 46 on the highway and 42 combined. Compare that to the conventional powertrain version at 25/36/29.

Driving dynamics leave us nothing to complain about. Acceleration, particularly at lower speeds, is downright thrilling, but at mid and higher speeds it feels a bit tepid. The electric motor’s torque comes into play here. Ride, handling and level of agility will satisfy all but the most demanding driver. The chassis and suspension are well tuned as particularly evidenced by some especially jittery pavement on one of our nearby freeways where we regularly assess a car’s balance, poise and degree of quietness. This one gets a solid B+.

Now, back to the numbers.

The difference between the cost of the conventionally-powered Optima Premium (lesser of two trim levels) is about $3,800. The more content-rich EX spread is about $5,600. We’ll look at the latter first since that’s the one we’re testing this week.

If we make our calculations assuming $3.00/gallon fuel, 15,000 miles/year and a differential of just about 12 mpg we come up with a payoff period of just about 11 years for the EX. For the Premium it would be about 9.5 years.

So, if your goal is to reduce your carbon footprint, this might be the way to go, but for purely economical considerations you might want to go with the conventional powertrain.

Whichever way you go, we think you’ll be happy with the Optima. It is a good-looking, competent and comfortable sedan that will probably last forever, if you want it to.

Kia’s new car warranty covers the whole car for 5 years or 60,000 miles and the powertrain for 10 years or 100,000 miles – one of the best warranties in the business.

© Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved

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