Ronald Montoya, Senior Consumer Advice Editor
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid started out as a great idea. Kia took a great-looking midsize sedan, made it more aerodynamic and threw in a hybrid engine. So far, so good. Next it was rated by the EPA to deliver an estimated 35 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. On paper, this was better fuel economy than many of its competitors. But such efficiency proved elusive in our test-drive in the real world.
There's much to like about this car. It is comfortable, looks good and has a lot of technology. But without an engine that delivers on its promise of great fuel economy, you're better off either saving money with the standard Optima, or if you want added performance with a similar feature set, go for the Optima Turbo. For those who are more concerned with fuel efficiency in a sedan package, there are more proven competitors to consider. If you want to go the hybrid route, the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid are solid picks. The less expensive Volkswagen Jetta TDI gets comparable fuel economy and is powered by a diesel engine so it has good low-rpm torque.
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid is powered by a four-cylinder 2.4-liter hybrid engine. The electric and the gas engine combine to make 206 horsepower, and this adds up to more power than any of its competitors. As a result, the 3,641-pound sedan gets to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds in Edmunds testing. The Optima Hybrid also comes to a stop from 60 mph in 126 feet. This is an average braking distance, although we noticed that the transition from the hybrid-type regenerative brakes to the mechanical brakes proves clumsy, so the brakes feel as if they're grabbing too eagerly. The lack of communicative feedback from the brake pedal also made the whole process feel a bit uncertain.
Chances are, however, you aren't interested in the Optima Hybrid because of its 0-60 times. Here's how it performed in the area that matters the most: fuel economy. We tried really hard to get the best possible fuel economy in this car. We drove it leisurely, left it in "Active ECO" mode (to which the car defaults every time you turn it on) and put more than 1,300 miles on the car. In mixed city and highway driving around traffic-congested Los Angeles, we were only able to average 25.4 mpg — a far cry from the EPA estimate of 35 mpg in the city. A traditional hybrid should excel in these conditions, but the Optima Hybrid's powertrain design more closely resembles a traditional vehicle because it features a conventional automatic transmission, so fuel economy appears to be better on the highway.
We wanted to give the Optima Hybrid a chance to redeem itself, so we drove it more than 800 miles in a variety of city and highway conditions in Las Vegas and the surrounding desert, as part of our Fuel Sipper Smackdown comparison test. In this test, the Kia yielded an average of 33.6 mpg, a substantial improvement, but still short of the EPA's rating of 37 mpg combined. After we tallied all the miles we had driven, the Optima's average fuel economy was only 29.5 mpg.
For comparison, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI in our long-term fleet consistently averages about 34 mpg. In that same fuel economy test, the Jetta turbodiesel averaged 37.2 mpg — a rating that exceeded the EPA rating of 34 mpg combined.
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid has a traditional six-speed automatic transmission. Most hybrids tend to have continuously variable transmissions (CVT). Our editors are divided about the impact this technology has on the car's performance. Some note that the car is extremely sluggish and that the transmission continuously hunts for the correct gear. Others don't notice anything out of the ordinary and feel that the Optima's power delivery is much livelier than other hybrids. Those considering this car would be served well by test-driving it themselves to determine how much of an issue this is for them.
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid has a very quiet interior. Road and wind noise are kept to a minimum. You are more likely to hear the hum from the hybrid engine than something outside the car.
Our test vehicle is equipped with leather-upholstered seats, which we find very comfortable thanks to numerous adjustments and good lumbar support. There is plenty of space and legroom for passengers of all sizes throughout the cabin. Passengers in the rear will be happy to feel the air-conditioning from the rear vents, a feature commonly found only on more premium vehicles. The rear center armrest folds down and reveals two additional cupholders.
The Optima Hybrid's ride balances comfort with maneuverability, proving neither too soft nor too stiff-legged, perhaps because the 55-series tires on 17-inch wheels do a good job of isolating the cabin from ride harshness.
Our test vehicle came equipped with the Premium Technology package. This includes a number of features such as navigation, HID headlights, leather seats, panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled seats, Hybrid-exclusive 17-inch wheels and more. It's an extremely comprehensive package to be sure, but the problem is, it's all or nothing. The package costs $5,000, and you can't pick and choose the options you want.
If you end up opting for the Premium Tech package, you should know that Kia's new Microsoft-powered UVO interface will not be included. This is a curious omission, since UVO has a number of promising high-tech features that might appeal to the gadget-loving consumer. That said, the interface you get with the navigation system is responsive, easy to use and has a comparable feature set. We were able to pair our phones and play music from an iPod easily.
The Optima's Hybrid battery has severely cut into the car's storage space. The rear seats do not fold down, and the trunk now has a maximum cargo capacity of 9.9 cubic feet, down from 15.4 in the standard Optima. This roughly translates to one large luggage bag or two small ones.
Visibility isn't an issue with this car. The hood's cowl doesn't come up too high and those who often have trouble reversing will be happy to hear that a rear back-up camera is a standard feature.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid is a great-looking car. The Hybrid features a few minor changes to the standard Optima grille, headlights and rear bumper that only eagle-eyed Optima fans will notice. People who don't feel the need to advertise that they are driving a hybrid will appreciate this tasteful look.
The interior of the car feels upscale and has a solid build quality. There is a mix of soft-touch materials that would be right at home in a car costing a few thousand more. The Optima's instrument panel faces the driver as if to remind them that this car is a bit more driver-centric than other hybrids.
Who should consider this vehicle
Not everyone cares about squeezing every last mpg from the engine. For those in search of a stylish, comfortable sedan that offers decent fuel economy, look no further than the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid. This is a hybrid that doesn't sacrifice the things you expect from a mainstream sedan for social responsibility. But if you are looking for a car that really makes good on its promise of high fuel economy, then you'll want to consider the established players in the hybrid segment.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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