2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Road Test

What It Is/Who It's For
A niche in the midsize segment has emerged for greenies and eco trumpeters. The Optima Hybrid has come to play.

Best Thing
Buying a mainstream midsizer no longer means compromising between sexy styling, good fuel economy, and the ability to haul five people in comfort.

Worst Thing
The hybrid system makes driving the car feel artificial, and fuel economy was lower than expected.

Snap Judgment
It's worthy of your attention, but we'd sooner opt for a non-hybrid Optima.

Introduction


Fuel economy matters, and recessions, inflation, and environmental concerns have forced us to stretch our expectations for all vehicles, including midsize sedans. Enter the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid. While not the first hybrid midsize sedan, the Optima Hybrid represents a logical first step for the Kia to get into the gas-electric market.

The Optima Hybrid is the third iteration of the Optima to join its lineup since the current model's debut last year. The Optima is already a fuel economy leader with the base 2.4-liter four-cylinder and 2.0-liter turbocharged models at the top of their class. Similar to the 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid and 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Kia Optima Hybrid hopes to give a greener hue to Kia's midsizer. It's loaded with high-tech features designed to suck energy from each drop of gasoline. But its styling looks sleeker and better thought out than much of its bland or overwrought competition.

We drove the Optima Hybrid for a week to see if the book was as good as its cover. We wanted to see if the Optima Hybrid had the chops for family-sedan duties, and to see how the hybrid powertrain behaved in our relentless stop-and-go Los Angeles traffic. After all, if it pass muster here, it could anywhere.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Safety and Technology


The Kia Optima Hybrid comes two ways. Our test car was the more basic of the two, but its $27,250 price tag--which includes a $750 destination charge--included enough toys to entertain both driver and passengers. Headlining the act is Kia's latest UVO infotainment system, which integrates Bluetooth, smartphone functions, and an MP3 player into the car's voice-command audio system. The Optima Hybrid also comes with dual-zone climate control with rear vents, a power driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, rear camera, keyless entry and ignition, and 16-inch alloy wheels with low rolling-resistance tires. If that's not enough, an extra $5000 gets you a technology package that adds a navigation system, dual-pane glass sunroof, 17-inch wheels, leather seats, and high-intensity headlights.

Standard safety equipment on the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid includes dual front airbags, front seat-mounted side airbags, LATCH child seat anchors, and the usual antilock brakes, traction control and stability control. A hill start assist feature applies the brakes on hilly terrain to prevent the car from rolling backwards, disengaging when the driver puts his or her foot back on the accelerator.

The Commute


Los Angeles' grooved freeways, while great for road durability, can make for a noisy commute in a poorly insulated car. Fortunately, the Optima Hybrid doesn't suffer from such a problem. In fact, over the roads, the near-silent operation of the powertrain and tires worked to quell road noises much better than a loaded Honda Accord EX V6 we had tested several weeks earlier.

That allowed us to clearly hear and judge the car's audio equipment. Several staffers complained about the speakers having a "tinny" sound. The only way to upgrade to the better Infinity audio system in the Optima Hybrid requires splurging for the pricy technology package. Those with less astute ears came away from the experience equally dissatisfied with the car's stereo for a different reason, noting the Optima's satellite radio would occasionally skip out for a few seconds.

As for on-road performance, the hybrid seamlessly switched in between the engine and electric motor around town, displaying whether the gas engine or electric motor was pulling duty via a gauge-mounted digital display. When the battery was powered up, the car's combined output of 206 horsepower provided plenty of grunt for brisk acceleration. But under gas power alone, the Optima's 166-horsepower 2.4-liter engine felt sluggish, burdened with lugging the hybrid's 3500 pounds. On the highway, we noticed a slight hesitation before the car's six-speed automatic would downshift for passing. We were left to question whether the car's electronic programming was completely in sync with its powertrain.

To slow the vehicle down, the Optima employs four-wheel disc brakes with regenerative technology that recaptures energy used to get up to speed and puts it back into the battery. While very effective, it gave the brake pedal a spongy, numb feel. Once we got used to it, we had no further issues with its operation.

Otherwise, the ride quality landed on the firm side of comfortable. It glided down the road, favoring minimizing turbulence from the outside world over outright sportiness. Most staffers found it an easy companion for swallowing the miles of Los Angeles highway.

The Grocery Run
The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid served as a perky around-towner, making grocery-getting a cinch. With the driver's seat positioned relatively outboard of the interior and forward-swept front pillars, its excellent front visibility made the car feel smaller than it was. A backup camera that comes with the UVO infotainment system provided assistance out back, which was needed due to large, visibility-obstructing rear pillars. They helped create large blindspots, which made lane-changing somewhat tricky.

Inside, the Optima provided ample space for five adults to travel in comfort. Both in the front and rear passengers had plenty of space. We found that like its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, which has a sloping roofline that compromises rear-seat entry, the Optima's greenhouse forces talleer passengers to duck a little when entering or exiting.

While passenger space proved ample, trunk space did not. The large battery that accompanies the hybrid setup cuts trunk space down from a par-for-the-course 15.5 cubic feet to a smallish 9.9--less than the Ford Fusion Hybrid (11.8 cubic feet) and Toyota Camry Hybrid (13.1 cubic feet). Though small, we found it could more than handle the rigors of all but a wholesale store shopping trip. Only a small pass-through allows access to the trunk for larger items, ceding the standard car's folding bench.

Overall, the Optima Hybrid maintains most of the non-hybrid Optima's endearing qualities. But it compromises some utility for efficiency. There's only one question left: Is the fuel economy tradeoff worth it?

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun
Walking back to the car after a quick grocery store run, I noticed fellow twentysomethings checking out the Optima Hybrid. I repeat: Young people were ogling a midsize family sedan. It looks like nothing else on the road, save for possibly some high-priced German steel. For the rest of the day, I felt a little more important driving in a city littered with vanity.

Throughout the weekend, I racked up nearly 200 miles, travelling the highways and in city traffic. I had hoped to get a healthy mix of roads in an attempt to reach the car's 37 mpg EPA mixed rating. The car didn't quite deliver, returning 32.8 mpg overall. That's better than the 22 mpg we had gotten with the Honda Accord, but it fell lower than the projected 35 mpg city rating. Neither myself nor anyone else was driving with a lead foot, either. News director Keith Buglewicz noted on his drive that, "Fuel economy didn't exactly jive with my expectations...one hard launch would cut a good 5 mpg off the average."

Other criticisms stemmed from the interior where the cloth seat material drew complaints from several editors, as did the somewhat cheap-feeling dashboard. When optioned with the technology package, as with the non-hybrid EX and SX models, a soft-touch dashboard replaces the plasticky unit from our tester. Complaints aside, the ergonomics in the Optima proved excellent, as did the car's overall interior layout. However, the Optima's UVO infotainment system proved to be a mixed bag.

At the same time we had the Optima Hybrid, we also had a Ford Focus equipped with its similar MyFord Touch amd Sync. I was eager to see how Kia's UVO, which stands for "Your Voice," stacked up. Firstly, its Bluetooth calling capabilities worked flawlessly. Never using it before, I was able to connect my old-school phone to the car's interface and get going in less than five minutes. The Optima's solidity and quietness allowed for conversations devoid of having to raise my voice when talking to the guinea pigs on the other end known as my friends and family.

However, UVO's voice commands for the satellite radio weren't nearly as straightforward. Because our test car came without UVO's 115-page manual--more pages than Ernest Hemingway's Old Man in the Sea, by the way--I resorted to learning UVO on the fly. Unlike Ford's Sync, UVO only recognizes channel numbers; not channel names. Kia says it doesn't program name recognition because Sirius changes its lineup frequently, and it saves customers from a few headaches. But we'd gladly opt for an extra update or two per year if it ensured better flexibility with UVO.

There were also instances where the system's pause between selecting a function and using the voice command became frustrating. We found out later that customers can tailor UVO for a smoother operation through its submenus. What UVO lacked in intuitiveness, it made up for in promise. Since testing this example, Kia has provided us a much-improved version of its UVO software in another vehicle that is already making rounds for public consumption.

Summary


If you're shopping for a new midsize sedan, the Kia Optima should undoubtedly be on your list. However, no one came away in gotta-have-it awe with the Optima Hybrid. Not even our family-minded staffers.

On the plus side, it's comfortable, rides well, has space aplenty, and easy-to-reach controls. If that weren't enough, the car looks more like a $50,000 German sedan than a near-$30,000 family car. It's quite a departure from the midsize sedan norm.But its UVO proved confusing and slow to operate, and real-world driving showed EPA fuel economy numbers to be overly optimistic. Further dampening our fanfare for the Optima Hybrid, the car had some noticeable lag between the engine, motor, and transmission when passing other vehicles on the freeway.

At $27,250 as-tested, the Optima Hybrid isn't a bad value. It's cheaper than the comparable Ford Fusion Hybrid or Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE. But a loaded 2012 Kia Optima EX with the 200-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine only costs $565 more and comes with everything available in the $32,250 tech package-equipped Optima Hybrid, minus the hybrid powertrain. It has a lower EPA-estimated fuel economy rating of 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway, but the price disparity quickly claws away at the value proposition of the hybrid. A more powerful Optima Turbo with similar equipment levels costs $1605 more than our hybrid, and it's a markedly more enjoyable car with tighter steering, a sportier suspension, and a more natural-feeling brake pedal.

Gas-only models also don't have the technological hiccups associated with programming the hybrid powertrain. Having driven other automakers' hybrids with little of the hesitation we found in the Optima, we're well aware that Kia's working its way up a steep learning curve with new technology. But Kia is bound to improve quickly, as we've been assured by its engineers.

What we found the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid to be, then, is a noble first effort--nothing more and nothing less. It's a solid performer that could use some work to sand down the edges. However, there are better midsize sedans in the segment, including Kia's own non-hybrid Optima models, which force us to look elsewhere for a more complete package.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $27,250
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 35 mpg
EPA Highway: 40 mpg
EPA Combined: 37 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 636 miles
Intellichoice Five-Year Cost of Ownership: $34,059 (Excellent)

Notebook Quotes

"I'm pretty fond of the current Optima, but I didn't find very much exciting about this hybrid model."
- Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"Overall, a good, solid car with a slightly more sporty edge."
- Joel Arellano, Assistant Editor

"Firm suspension. The car feels steady at highway speeds."
- Matt Askari, Associate Editor

"The center stack works well. But with a tiny touch screen, it's hard to navigate while driving."
- Jason Davis, Associate Editor

"I like how when you turn off the Eco mode, the LCD screen goes to black and white, like switching from Hollywood to Soviet cinema."
- Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor

"I thought the exterior design was very flashy, but the interior fell short of my expectations."
- Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

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