The 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid competes closely with others in the midsized hybrid sedan class, and stands apart uniquely in one important way.
Actually there are a few features that distinguish the fully redesigned car introduced for sale last fall, but its six-speed automatic transmission is a relative anomaly some drivers will prefer over a continuously variable transmission more common to hybrids.
The transmission is borrowed from the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which debuted in 2016, and in fact the Optima’s entire 2.0-liter hybrid powertrain was lifted from the Korean sibling.
While other carmakers have gone so far as to simulate stepped gearing in their continuously variable automatic transmissions, Kia offers the real thing, making the vehicle feel much like its conventional gas-powered counterpart.
Handsome styling on the masculine side of the design language scale also helps the well put together hybrid’s uniqueness. Its 42 mpg fuel economy, while 10-percent improved over the outgoing Optima Hybrid, is about typical in class, and behind the 48 mpg Honda Accord Hybrid and 46-mpg Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid.
Sales this year are still getting up to speed. Less than 500 were sold in 2016 and fewer than 250 were sold in a very slow January
The vehicle – available in a base “Premium” trim and “EX” upper level trim – is also the basis also for a plug-in hybrid variant with 27 miles EV range.
The former Optima Hybrid’s 2.4-liter gas engine was ditched in favor of the all-aluminum naturally aspirated DOHC 2.0-liter with continuously variable valve timing. Output for the engine alone is 154 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, and torque is 140 pounds-feet at 5,000 rpm.
With help from an electric motor pureeing in 50 horsepower (38 kW), and 151.2 pounds-feet torque, low-end oomph is potent with total system power coming to 192 horses at 6,000 rpm, and a substantial 271 pounds-feet of torque.
As noted, the six-speed auto with the electric motor and clutch in place of a torque converter uniquely merges that technology from the world of non-hybrids with this hybrid.
A 1.62-kWh lithium-polymer battery hides under the trunk in the spare tire space to retain the full 13.4 cubic foot trunk capacity like the regular Optima, and 60/40 split seatbacks are handy too.
Fuel capacity of 15.85 gallons yields more range than most will travel before needing a restroom break, or 668 miles.
All-electric operation – though only sporadic, such as under liftoff of the accelerator, or at low speed, is up to 62 mph. For true electric driving, you’ll want to investigate the plug-in hybrid version which operates like a part-time EV for a rated 27 miles.
Rated fuel economy of 39 mpg highway, 46 mpg city, and 42 mpg combined is decent, much better than the non-hybrid’s 36 highway, 25 city, and 29 combined.
Design and Styling
Almost indistinguishable from non-hybrid siblings – the Optima Hybrid adds aerodynamic tricks like slick alloy wheels, and active grille shutters. Its coefficient of drag drops to an impressive 0.24 – equal with the Toyota Prius, Tesla Model S, and Sonata Hybrid, and better than 0.27 cd of the regular Optima.
Design is a variation on the theme of contemporary and sleek. Parked next to any other modern sedan, it looks the part of being comparably hip with attractive lines from most any viewing angle.
Inside, the conservatively laid out driver’s quarters with simply arranged buttons and knobs, and occupant space front and back is roomy and comfortable.
The top-drawer EX we drove included heated and vented seats, a heated steering wheel that is very easy to get used to in February in Pennsylvania.
An optional $1,700 Convenience Package also includes memory for driver’s seat and outside mirrors, blind spot detection, rear parking assist, rear cross traffic alert, power folding heated outside mirror, and more for a plush experience.
If that was not enough, Kia’s $5,000 Technology Package loads things up with a 10-way adjustable power front seats, auto-dimming mirror, awesome roof-length panoramic sunroof, and a host of advanced safety features.
Even the standard Optima Hybrid however is nice, with quality fit and functional design with comfortable front and rear seats and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto via the 7-inch color TFT touch screen display.
On the Road
Notable is acceptably quiet and smooth operation, as the Optima Hybrid – already a relatively refined vehicle since 2011 – is improved with attention given to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH).
Starting off, torque from the electric motor adding grunt can chirp the tires, and let the car leap forward adequately. Its acceleration and momentum, while not sports sedan level, will be potent enough for most ordinary drivers.
The ride is weighted toward the comfort side of the equation, with average levels of control and road feel through corners through the MacPherson-strut front, multi-link independent rear suspension.
Braking including pedal feel is to standard, and overall the vehicle is inviting, and ready to go as far as you want.
As per hybrid practice, engine shut-off via stop-start braking sees the engine start quickly as expected. Under cruising, the engine as noted also may shut off allowing the electric motor to pull the front-wheel-drive car along under stead state conditions.
Any time you request more power, the engine again instantly comes on, and the whole operation is seamless making for a car that is more like its conventional counterparts than other automakers’ hybrid variants.
In addition to the sound system – that included in our car an optional Harmon Kardon system – the six-speed transmission also provides a unique – or is that familiar? – “soundtrack.”
That sound is not the drone of some form of CVT as would be found in all hybrid competitors except from Hyundai. Rather, the automatic shifts to the next highest gear, and tends to hush down the drive. Stomp on the pedal, and it will rev to a peak, then shift per normal, and for some drivers this is a big deal.
Others tune the CVT’s “motor boat” sound out of their consciousness, so if that is you, this is not an important feature. While Kia does not say, the mpg that’s only equal to a Ford Fusion Hybrid’s might be slightly reduced because of the automatic transmission. The 2018 Camry will be pushing 50 mpg, and one reason CVTs are chosen is they do incrementally improve mpg.
Speaking of which, we saw mid 30s driving without care and upper 30s in combined driving. In the cold of winter, hybrids may get lower mpg than in ideal weather.
Base prices including $895 destination are $26,890 for the Optima Hybrid Premium, and $31,885 for the Kia Optima Hybrid EX. This compares favorably to $26,335 for the non-hybrid Optima EX 2.4, and upper level Optimas including turbo versions range from the lower to upper 30s.
This means the cost to “go hybrid” with the Optima is not necessarily steep depending on your priorities.
Compared to other in-class hybrid sedans, the Optima is a closer call. If combined fuel economy is your priority, others like the Accord, Malibu, pending Camry are stronger contenders.
The Optima is relatively well placed as a highway car, as its 46 mpg is 5 mpg above the also-42 mpg Fusion Hybrid, and only 1 mpg below the Accord Hybrid. This comes at the expense of a relatively low 39 mpg city rating.
Also in the running are other types of hybrids. The Kia Niro, Hyundai Optima, and others designed to go against the Prius and small utility crossover type vehicles are also promising from 40 to 50-plus mpg with in a usable form.
The Kia’s main advantage like other hybrid sedans is it blends in with the mainstream and even more-so in that it is nearly indistinguishable to the six-speed regular Optimas. It is comparable also to the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, though it’s rated 2 mpg better.
In all it is a solid offering, brand new in its product lifecycle, and worth a closer look.