On paper the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid looks like a sure thing. The recipe appears simple. Take one Kia Optima — a terrific car in its own right — add a hybrid powertrain, then drive away in blissful EV silence on your way to unheard-of fuel economy.
The reality is not so straightforward.
A Sonata Hybrid at a Costume Party
Let's back up a bit. This is Kia's first-ever hybrid, and under the skin it's virtually a clone of its kissing cousin the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. There's a 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine that's backed by a conventional six-speed automatic gearbox and a 40-horsepower electric motor fed by a state-of-the-art lithium-polymer battery pack.
The tricky bit is that the transmission's torque converter has been binned in favor of a clever electronically controlled clutch pack, a change that enables the engine to be coupled or decoupled from the propulsive ballet. Gory details of the system can be gleaned from our First Drive of the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.
First-Time Hybrid, and It Shows
Kia's hybrid approach is slightly different from its competitors, but the upshot is similar — it'll run in pure EV mode during low-demand driving, and once the battery runs down, a gas engine jumps in to do the heavy lifting.
The Optima's EV mode is predictably silent and can be maintained if you treat the throttle as if there's an egg between it and your foot. Drive it like a normal car and the gas engine comes into play with regularity, and it doesn't thrum to life as seamlessly as we've come to expect from modern hybrids. There's also a mild yet constant surging during part-throttle acceleration.
Another of the Optima's peculiarities is its reluctance to respond to prods of the throttle, as if your request for torque has to be faxed to a committee of powertrain engineers in Korea before being granted. What's more, the throttle calibration defaults to "Eco" mode, which does nothing but further deaden throttle tip-in. That's the last thing this powertrain needs.
Kia is on the money in its philosophy that sequential gearchanges are more intuitive than the stretch-forever nature of continuously variable transmissions. But you can forget about commanding your own downshifts in the Manual mode of this hybrid's transmission. It responds so excruciatingly slowly that you can time its gearchanges with a calendar.
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid's power delivery and transmission also get tripped up by the kind of in-and-out throttle action that's common in urban driving. The result is that despite a healthy combined output of 195 pound-feet and 206 hp, the Optima Hybrid is recalcitrant at part-throttle.
Give it the spurs, though, and it moves out quite quickly. When you whack the gas pedal to the floor, the Optima Hybrid runs to 60 mph in 8.4 seconds (8.0 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like at a drag strip) and through the quarter-mile in 16.1 seconds at 87.7 mph. This represents a small but decisive edge over the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which does zero to 60 in 8.7 seconds (8.4 with rollout) and the quarter in 16.4 seconds at 87.8 mph.
So it has some guts if you need them and when driven in wide-open spaces away from the cut-and-thrust driving conditions of the city, many of its irritations simply dissolve away. Still, there's clearly room for improvement before the Optima Hybrid exhibits the level of powertrain refinement found in the Fusion, Altima or Camry hybrids.
Our Mileage, Indeed, Varied
Full-bore acceleration is perhaps lower on the list of priorities among hybrid buyers than fuel economy. No surprise, then, that the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid's window sticker looks quite appealing with its EPA ratings of 35 city and 40 highway mpg.
In its time with us, we measured 29.6 mpg in mixed driving: a far cry from its EPA combined estimate of 37.8 mpg. There was no hooliganism behind the wheel that tanked our measurements — the Optima Hybrid doesn't inspire such antics. Our seat time consisted of everyday driving in everyday conditions. It's worth noting the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid we tested fell similarly short of its EPA projections, too.
Hybridization hasn't done favors for the Optima's brakes either, as they lack finesse in city driving. It's down to the blending of the regenerative braking system with the conventional friction brakes, which is proving notoriously difficult for hybrid hawkers to get right.
The 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid is no exception. Its braking force is often a half-beat behind in responding to pedal pressure, and feel is nonexistent. Outright stopping power shows they're capable when used in anger, however — the Optima Hybrid reaches a halt from 60 in 126 feet.
Fortunately, the underlying Optima chassis is impressively stiff, and so the hybrid's ride quality hasn't been unduly sullied by the additional 270 pounds of hybrid componentry. You feel the extra mass, sure, but the ride remains compliant in a way that many hybrid cars aren't. The Kia soaks up even crappy roads with dignity. The steering is better than expected, too, given the character of modern Hyundai tillers. In routine driving, the helm is linear and quick enough to distract you from its lack of communication.
Driven to the extent of its capability on our test track, the Optima Hybrid generated 0.78g on the skid pad and threaded the slalom cones at 62.2 mph. It's a hybrid, not a sport sedan, and as such it's clearly much happier when you dial back the pace, Mr. Hotshoe.
A Sound Starting Point
The Optima's a looker and it remains so in hybrid guise, as Kia was wise enough not to dork it all up with zoomy graphics. In fact, from the curb you'd be hard-pressed to tell an Optima Hybrid from its non-hybrid brethren. Only its mildly tweaked front and rear fascias, side sills and discreet badging give it away. It out-styles every hybrid extant.
Nor does the cabin spoil the plot. Here, too, the Optima Hybrid is largely similar to the base Optima, and that's no bad thing. There's a revised instrument cluster with a charge-flow diagram, plus that extra button on the steering wheel labeled "Eco." It's a handsome cabin with seats that are on the flat side and enough room front and rear to keep everyone on speaking terms. Trunk volume is somewhat smaller than the base car due to the hybrid battery pack snuggled up tight against the backseat. Instead of 15.4 cubic feet you only get 9.9.
It's an all-or-nothing situation when it comes to options — you either tick the box for the $5,000 Hybrid Premium Technology package and get leather, HID headlights, a sunroof, 17-inch wheels, navigation, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seat, fancy audio system, back-up camera et al., or you make do with the base equipment. There are no other choices. Equipped with said package, our Optima Hybrid tester rings in at $32,250.
Buy the Base Optima Instead
It's hard not to look at the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid through the lens of the plain-Jane non-hybrid Optima. This stablemate does everything better than — and looks every bit as good as — the hybrid, and does it for a substantially lower purchase price.
The hybrid might offer a few exclusive gewgaws and cost less to operate, but the break-even point is a long way off. Relative to an optioned-up Optima EX going by EPA fuel economy estimates — not our observed mpg, which would result in an even longer period — you'd get your money back in about 11 years. With the hybrid's attendant compromises, who would want to drive it for that long?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored press event to facilitate this report.
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