To be a hybrid connoisseur or not to be a hybrid connoisseur; that is the question.
With apologies to Will Shakespeare, this question takes on added meaning as new propulsion technologies and upgraded internal combustion engines duke it out for free market supremacy. The key competitor to our impressive gas-electric test hybrid vehicle this week may be its equally impressive standard engine counterpart, not necessarily hybrid segment sales leader Toyota Prius.Kia
's 2012 front-wheel-drive Optima Hybrid
has momentum going its way right off the bat since it's visually based on the highly stylish five-seat Optima. The mid-size sedan received its eye-popping third-generation redesign in the 2011 model year, the same time the automaker began offering a gas-electric hybrid version in select U.S. markets; with the Midwest and Chicagoland serving as the last stop of the hybrid's distribution chain. Pricewise, the standard, non-hybrid 2012 Optima rates as one of the most affordable family friendly mid-size offerings.
As more automakers offer their own take on gas-electric hybrid powertrains, the tried and true internal combustion engine continues evolving and staking out incrementally higher fuel mileage claims. Thirteen years ago, when Prius stood as the sole four-door gas-electric hybrid, purchasing strategy was straight forward. City mileage approached 50 miles per gallon with highway mileage about 10 points behind. These easy-breathing fuel numbers got offset by a higher premiums which early adaptors happily justified.
Today, several competitors offer their own 'full' hybrids while another alternative-fueled subcategory has emerged, the 'mild' hybrid. Simply defined, a 'full' hybrid offers an electric motor and internal-combustion engine capable of working together or independently depending on driving demands. They also command better fuel mileage. By contrast a "mild" hybrid generally uses the electric motor as an assist, never solely propelling vehicles at any time. Most full or mild gas-electric hybrids don't require wall socket plug-ins, as do pure electric plug ins (no gas engine on board) such as the Nissan Leaf. Both mild and full hybrids (as well as electric vehicles) take advantage of regenerative braking, a process involving capturing friction during vehicle deceleration for later use; and a shutdown of the gas engine at prolonged stops to conserve fuel.
High-tech underpinnings of full hybrids also differ slightly from one manufacturer to another. While Toyota has benefitted from Nickel Metal Hydride batteries in a majority of their full hybrid products, Kia
and South Korean cousin Hyundai utilize and share a smaller, lighter weight, 270 volt lithium polymer battery, developed by South Korean giant LG Chem, to run the on board electric motor. Kia
Optima's hybrid's 2.4-liter gas engine (connected to a standard six-speed automatic transmission) produces 166 horsepower and when teamed with the 40 horsepower electric motor offers a combined 206 horses.
The standard, non-hybrid Kia
Optima offers two different four-cylinder powertrains with 2.4-liter four cylinder averaging 24 mpg city and 34 mpg highway when mated to a six-speed automatic transmission; certainly acceptable, but well below our tester's 35 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. The fuel tank holds a relatively large 17.2 gallons of regular 87-octane unleaded fuel.
For those intrigued by Optima hybrid (a full hybrid), the purchasing process is simplified significantly with one relatively well equipped trim level. This version can also be ordered with two factory option upgrades: a $700 convenience package (power adjustable driver's seat, rear camera display) and $5,350 technology package with sunroof, heated steering wheel, heated and cooled leather trimmed front seats, heated rear seats, in-dash 4.3-inch navigation screen and upgraded sound system.
Starting price checks in at $25,700. Our 2012 hybrid tester for a week included both packages for a bottom line of $32,500 including a $750 destination charge. By comparison a base, conventional Optima lists at $21,200. A 2012 five-door Prius lift back, starts at $24,000 but with fewer standard nuances than our test Optima.
When positioned behind the wheel, Optima hybrid incorporates a comparatively low seating position and average headroom; by design, the hybrid is five millimeters lower than the conventional Optima, helping improve aerodynamics and fuel consumption. Comfortable and supportive bucket seats, doors and parts of the dash include up-level white stitching. Push-button start comes standard and the two-tone interior with spot brushed aluminum accents remain eye pleasing. Be forewarned to keep those eyes focused on the instrument panel when starting because once called to action, the hybrid synergy emits a sound as quiet as an electric-powered golf cart. For those acclimated to an engine purr when starting, this new dynamic takes some getting used to. The three-spoke steering wheel includes cruise control and secondary audio functions arranged very logically for touch-type maneuvers with large print helpful during quick glances. Also positioned on the wheel is an 'eco mode' button kicking the vehicle's fuel-enhancing mode into action. Kia
smartly positions trunk and fuel door release levers on the driver's door.
The relatively flat instrument panel features two circular gauges with a hybrid specific left side gauge alerting the driver when the electric motor is in use. The driver and passengers may also call upon the navigation/information screen for more animated-flowchart type of information detaining when the electric motor and/or internal combustion engine are in use. Details are informative without being overwhelming. Ventilation functions monitor from two dials monitoring dual climate zones flanking a series of push plates including fan direction and temperature. Below is an area for stowing portable electrics along with two power outlets and USB and auxiliary ports.
While hybrid underpinnings are identical to that of the Hyundai Sonata hybrid, Optima sport a cleaner, muscular, visual style usually the norm of European designs. Optima stands as one of the most handsome-looking hybrids, luxury or otherwise. Notable exterior cues differing from the conventional version include low rolling resistant tires draped with wheel covers sporting, flat, reflective plates with a resemblance to solar panels. Light emitting diodes (LED) tail lights adorn the narrow, wrap-around housing while the front grille incudes black gloss highlights. The front also boasts narrow band-like housing helping to channel air around the vehicle. A small green 'hybrid' badge adorns the trunk lid.
Trunk volume (9.9 cubic feet) gets compromised by the lithium-polymer battery pack located behind second row seats, but the remaining volume is well designed with a deep center accommodating mid-size luggage. While seatbacks are prohibited from folding down, Kia
manages to incorporate a small, yet effective pass-through window for snow skis. When picking up three out-of-town guests and their long weekend of luggage, all bags fit easily into the trunk and all rode comfortably in back for the short trip from Midway airport to southwest suburban Willowbrook.
The ride is tuned more towards a luxury suspension rather than a sporty variety. For those new to gas-electric hybrids, Kia
's version is great fun to drive with two engine technologies contributing to plenty of low-end torque.
At speeds of approximately 40 miles per hour, Kia
's two propulsion technologies noticeably overlap, causing a low-key lurch, but it's no deal breaker. Consumers must decide if the additional $4,000 in hybrid underpinnings saves enough fuel and dollars at the pump in the long run.Kia
offers one of the longest-in-duration powertrain warranties in the business and this carries over into its first hybrid foray. The battery and powertrain are covered for 10 years or 100,000 miles.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid
Price as tested: $32,500
Wheelbase: 110.0 inches
Length: 190.7 inches
Width: 72.1 inches
Engine: 2.4-liter, four-cylinder
Combined horsepower: 206
Curb weight: 3,490 pounds
Battery/powertrain warranty: 10 years or 100,000 miles
City/Highway economy: 35/40 mpg
Assembly: South Korea