Kia Optima Hybrid: Independence at Forty

Does life begin at 40? Well, if you’re referring to automotive life and 40 as in miles per gallon, until recently that probably wasn’t the case. Cars designed for sipping fuel were generally about as exciting as hanging wallpaper.

But, as automakers feel increasing pressure to deliver more fuel-thrifty cars – ones that don’t sacrifice driving excitement – the notion of Fun at 40 is something that’s becoming more and more a reality.

And in an effort to find out just how fun it could be, this April we found ourselves trading glum North Eastern skies for the sunny, balmy climes of South Florida on a road trip from Miami to the southernmost point in the Lower 48, namely Key West.

In order to get there we needed a car and although we could have opted for a flashy convertible, this being HybridCars.com; a more appropriate mode of transportation was Kia’s Optima Hybrid sedan.

We drove this car a few months back and came away suitably impressed with its combination of build quality, driving dynamics and good fuel economy.

However, a short stint only provides so much time to get a really clear picture of the vehicle, so we figured an extended drive was in order. Although South Florida doesn’t provide a lot in the way of elevation changes, miles of two-lane roads would give us the chance to evaluate the car under the kind of conditions most owners of such a vehicle would frequently find themselves in.

Rough Stop and Go

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

Our trip begins at Miami Beach.

After a drama-packed air journey we finally arrive in Miami, much in need of some chill time. Having picked up the Optima, getting out of the city proves to be a bit of challenge, with a few wrong turns here and there. And it’s during stop and go driving, that we once again reaffirm one of the car’s not so favorable qualities – notably, its sluggish low-speed acceleration and rather harsh jolt when the gasoline engine kicks in.

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

A full parallel, hybrid, the Optima gets motivation from a 164 hp 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a 40 hp electric motor.

That said, the steering is very nice and linear, with crisp on-center action at lower speeds. On city streets, the Optima Hybrid delivers a fairly firm ride, though good seat comfort helps negate the worst effects of bumps and expansion joints.

What does become apparent is when the traffic thins out; this car really starts to come into its own. Perhaps it’s something to do with higher speed. Taking the freeway on ramp, the Kia proves remarkably stable and well poised. As we assumed the traffic flow on Interstate 95 and maintained a steady 65 miles per hour, the 34-kilowatt electric motor/ 2.4-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine combination seems to be much more in rhythm.

The six-speed automatic may not seem an obvious choice for a hybrid, considering the proliferation of CVTs, but cost reasons aside, it actually works quite well here and helps deliver an actual driving experience instead of just engine noise and the impression of forward motion.

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

Priced at $25,700 the Optima Hybrid comes well equipped with standard features, such as dual zone climate control and eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat.

Take Your Time

You can’t rush around in South Florida. Perhaps it’s because of the gentle winds, or the decades of Caribbean cultural influences, so when you drive, laid back is the only way to go. And the Optima Hybrid seems to agree. Take it easy and life just seems more enjoyable. Watching the instrument cluster we note that once a steady pace was maintained, the Optima is happy sipping a gallon of 87 octane fuel every 40.3 miles.

The question is, when the outside temperature is 78 degrees, do you drive with the windows open or run the air conditioning? You could do neither in the quest for optimal fuel economy and with flat, straight roads stretching out before you, there’s arguably fewer more favorable environments for doing so.

However, in order to maintain some semblance of a connection to the outside world, we opted to have the windows down. Yes it does create drag, but what’s the use of embarking on a road trip if you can’t appreciate your surroundings?

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

About halfway through the journey we stop to refuel at Marathon, on Knight’s Key and by that we mean stock up on lunch, not the Kia, whose fuel gauge has barely moved.

Stopping for lunch in Marathon, we had a chance to get a good look at the car. It’s actually quite sporty in execution; if it weren’t for the badge you could mistake this for a European sports sedan, thanks to a fairly broad shoulder stance, quite dramatic roof profile and sharp creases. Things have definitely changed since Peter Schreyer joined Kia. If in doubt, park one of these cars next to a first-generation Optima, that is, if you can find one.

After loading up on fresh shrimp and some of the best Key Lime Pie we’ve ever tasted, it’s time to get back in the saddle. There was still more than 50 miles to cover until we reached our destination, but the Kia’s supple bucket seats and inviting, functional interior are already helping to make this trip enjoyable.

Not long out, we pass a 1970 Oldsmobile Delta 88 convertible loaded with fun seekers heading for the Conch Republic. If ever there was a symbol of motoring decadence this is probably it. The car’s occupants look at us, we at them. All of a sudden we feel very sensible in a notably un-sensible part of the world. Is that a bad thing?

Nonetheless, both parties proved genuinely curious about each other’s chosen mode of transportation. After smiles and waves are exchanged, we press on.

Independence Day

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

The Overseas Highway is the only route connecting the Keys with the mainland and was originally opened in 1938, much of it being constructed using remaining sections of the old railroad.

The further south you travel in this archipelago, the more the Atlantic appears to encroach upon what little land remains. We’re soon crossing the Overseas Highway, made famous in the 1994 film ”True Lies,” and the only link between the Keys and the U.S. mainland. Close by are the remnants of the old Overseas Railroad, once labeled the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The old bridge, which still runs parallel to the causeway has been broken up in places to allow sailboat traffic to pass through, but even now, almost eighty years after the Labor Day Hurricane took it out of commission, refuses to secede entirely to the ocean.

And perhaps that illustrates the underlying theme of this whole excursion, the delicate balance of manmade civilization with nature. Storms may wreak havoc on settlements and provide a sometimes much-needed notion of humility, yet once the dust has settled, we pull ourselves up and get back to work, rebuilding and carrying on. Can we expect to see a growing amount of such wrath from Mother Nature? There are those that argue we will, but the time for that discussion isn’t here and now.

All that can be done is to enjoy the drive and conserve as much energy as we can. Looking at the instrument panel, the Kia is still cresting the 40-mpg mark, (40.1 to be exact) at a steady 55 miles per hour.

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

Nearly there. More police signs indicate busier roads ahead as we enter Key West.

Slowing traffic ahead indicates we’re edging closer to Key West. Lifting off the accelerator, the Kia’s regenerative braking system goes to work. We’re really being thrifty now, yet the transition is barely noticeable.

The land begins to expand again once we enter the heart of the Conch Republic. The busy streets are a marked contrast to the fairly quiet reflection of our drive. As we enter the heart of Key West, celebrations are already underway for the 30th anniversary of the secession. And, after 120 miles, we’ve used hardly any fuel.

Later that evening, having watched the Great sea Battle and sampled a few Rum Runner cocktails, alongside the official festivities, we’re celebrating our independence on this trip, that of being free from the gas station. Nice job Kia.

Kia Optima Hybrid in the Florida Keys

How’s this for a final destination?


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