We had a chance to spend some time driving the Kia Optima Hybrid around the Florida Keys. You can read about our adventures here.

The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid – the brand’s first hybrid introduced last year – borrows the drivetrain found in the 2012 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. It combines a 2.4-liter engine with a six-speed automatic transmission, a 30-kw electric motor and lightweight lithium polymer batteries to provide a total 206 horsepower.

As a full hybrid, the Optima Hybrid is capable of running on either the gas engine, the electric motor or both. The system requires no plug-in charging, the battery pack being replenished by energy generated from the gas engine and captured during regenerative braking. It also saves gas by automatically shutting off the gas engine when the car is stopped. As one would expect, the Optima Hybrid’s fuel economy rating is the same as its Hyundai cousin: 35 city /40 highway and 37 mpg combined.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

Available in one trim level and only one option package, the 2012 Optima Hybrid’s base price is $25,700, which is $800 less than the 2011 model. For the 2012 model year, there are no significant changes.

Exterior and Interior

The Kia and Hyundai hybrids use the same powertrain, are mechanically identical and are built on the same platform. But placed side-by-side, there’s little evidence of that. The two share no exterior body panels or interior parts, with each expressing a look that is distinctive from the other. Both are standout designs in the midsize hybrid class.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

Previous Optima designs were forgettable, but the current car has striking looks that are retained in hybrid guise. An expressive front blends into a long, bold hood where the profile takes on the appearance of a coupe with a sharply raked windshield and curvaceous roof that ends with a short rear deck. Muscular, yet restrained, front fenders add an assertive dynamic.

The hybrid version of the Optima features unique exterior aerodynamic refinements – the rear fascia exhaust is hidden – a unique headlight design, lower ride height, an active air flap system, lower drag 16-inch wheels, underbody aero tuning to reduce drag, and low rolling resistance tires. The Optima Hybrid’s drag coefficient is an exceptionally low at 0.26, although not quite as slippery as the Sonata.
Adding to the Optima’s hybrid-ness is what Kia calls a “Virtual Engine Sound System.” It plays a pre-recorded engine sound during electric-only operation to notify people outside the vehicle that it is approaching.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

On the inside, the fit-and-finish is first-rate, the ergonomics are solid, and the slight angle of the cockpit toward the driver is a very nice touch. White on black gauges are large and easy to read, with an LCD screen positioned between the two dominant gauges that provides hybrid information.

The sedan easily passes the test for midsize-car roominess. In front, the driver and passenger have more than 45 inches of leg space, and passengers in the back seats have 34.7 inches of legroom – more than adequate for most adults in the back, and lots of room for youngsters.

It’s pretty much a given that hybrid cars will have a small cargo area because that’s where battery packs reside. The Optima Hybrid’s trunk is quite small, just 9.89 cubic feet of space, which is less than the 10.7 cubic feet of trunk room in the Sonata Hybrid. However, the fixed rear seats have a ski pass-through, an uncommon feature with hybrid vehicles.

Feature-Rich

Kia has gone from an also ran to being a significant player in the U.S., which can be partially attributed to the generous content for the price of its vehicles, and the Optima Hybrid is no exception.

In addition to the extensive list of standard features found on the standard Optima LX A/T trim, the hybrid offers these as standard: eight-way power adjustable driver’s seat, dual zone climate control with rear vents, push-button start with smart key, rearview camera, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, automatic up/down on front windows, glove box illumination, and rear reading lamps.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

The Optima Hybrid was the first Kia vehicle to offer the optional UVO infotainment system ($700). Similar to Ford’s Sync, indexed content from an iPod or other compatible MP3 player can be called up by saying the name.

An optional Hybrid Premium and Technology Package ($5,350) includes a hard-to-resist panoramic sunroof, leather interior, power heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, an Infinity audio system, a navigation system, HID headlights and other goodies.

On The Road

The Optima Hybrid is a capable family car that offers up a quiet and comfortable ride while delivering excellent fuel mileage. Like the Hyundai hybrid, the Kia’s steering is responsive and has a quick and precise feeling. The Optima’s suspension is tuned on the soft side and it soaks up large bumps and potholes quite well.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

While its performance on the highway is quite admirable, when driving in city or the stop-and-go commute, the car’s computer controls and hybrid system seem to be miscommunicating. From a stop, the hybrid system always rolls off in electric mode. Around 15 mph the gasoline engine starts up with a harsh jolt and the six-speed transmission’s shifts in lower gears are often hesitant, actions that are unsettling to say the least.

The Hybrid Car For You?

Based on a sharp design, appealing amenities, and a competitive price, hybrid shoppers looking for a fuel-efficient mid-size sedan should put the Kia Optima Hybrid in the running with the Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid. Of course, for the time being, the Toyota Prius still rules for overall efficiency in the five-seat conventional hybrid market. But the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid is one more sign of a maturing hybrid market, with expanding choices of brand, drive feel, price and design.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.