Who wants the hybrid that loses the fuel economy war?
Among gas-electric midsize family sedans, the Kia Optima Hybrid (and the mechanically identical Hyundai Sonata Hybrid) have been leapfrogged by redesigns of the Toyota Camry and Ford Fusion hybrids, which handily outsell them.
The Optima Hybrid is rated for 34 miles per gallon in the city and 39 on the highway, or 36 mpg overall – an impressive figure for a midsize car, to be sure. But the Camry's overall rating is 40 miles per gallon and the Fusion's a whopping 47. (General Motors' halfhearted Chevrolet Malibu Eco “mild hybrid” is rated at just 29 miles per gallon in mixed driving, less than some competing gas-only midsize sedans.)
This shortfall puts the Optima Hybrid at an automatic disadvantage against its top competitors for one of the primary reasons to consider a hybrid. But to write it off based on the spec sheet alone overlooks the reason automakers have installed gas-electric technology into their ordinary family sedans: Buyers are looking for everything that attracts them to the best-selling midsize sedan segment, plus a fuel economy bonus.
The Optima Hybrid has a sleeker shape and nicer interior than the Camry, and more power and more user-friendly dashboard controls than the Fusion. The Kia also has a lower price and a longer warranty than either. Meanwhile, the Camry leads the trio for interior volume and the Fusion for in-cabin technology. If you are willing to pay extra for the most fuel efficiency in a midsize sedan, don't ignore these respective strengths and weaknesses as you choose among them.
By the numbers
At the same time as you're looking at the various pros and cons of various midsize hybrids, the fuel economy estimates on the cars' window stickers will be hard to miss. The Optima Hybrid's also got special attention last fall, when an EPA investigation determined that Hyundai and Kia had overstated the gas mileage of many of their cars. (The automakers blamed a laboratory oversight.) The Optima Hybrid dropped by a relatively minor 1 mpg when the EPA tests were re-conducted correctly, costing it a prized 40-mpg highway rating.
But even at 36 mpg in mixed driving, the Optima Hybrid beats the conventional Optima – itself one of the fuel economy leaders in its class – by eight miles per gallon, a fuel savings of 29 percent. The bulk of that difference comes in city driving; though the car can cruise in electric mode on a flat or modestly inclined surface at speeds just past 60 miles per hour, even the regular gas Optima is quite efficient in those conditions, and there are thus relatively few savings to be had there.
As with other hybrids, the Optima Hybrid's achieved mileage is more heavily dependent on driving style than a typical car's. Accelerate gently and take your foot off the gas at speed to put the car into electric mode, letting it motor around gas-free. The running engine recharges the battery when it gets too low or when it's needed anyway for more power than the small electric motor can provide. The car's brakes also capture energy when used that further helps with recharging.
This reviewer achieved 36.5 miles per gallon in mixed driving during a weeklong test, which splits the difference between the incorrect and current EPA estimate. A previously tested mechanically identical Hyundai Sonata Hybrid returned 32.2 mpg with greater city mileage in the mix. Many hybrids thrive in those conditions because the cars stay in electric mode longer than at higher speeds, but the Optima/Sonata's battery capacity depletes more quickly. Even that mileage, though, is a significant jump over what a conventional midsize or even compact car would achieve in those conditions.
The Optima/Sonata hybrids rarely use the engine and electric motor simultaneously, except when the electric motor is powering the car's wheels and the gas engine is idling to recharge it. Hard acceleration and driving up a hill will at times put it in “hybrid mode”; otherwise, the car is switching between gas and electric.
The car's instrument cluster includes a healthy array of information, both about fuel efficiency and about some items that many hybrids don't have room for. The trip computer can be set to simultaneously show average and instantaneous fuel economy, or unrelated data points like trip distance and outside temperature if the fuel economy doesn't demand your constant attention. An “eco guide” gauge shows you essentially how hard you're pushing on the gas, and a battery-life indicator is a necessity when you're trying to stay in electric mode. Kia also found room for an engine temperature gauge instead of just an indicator light, and a small tachometer that drops to zero RPM in electric mode.
The in-dash screen can also display a bar graph of fuel economy averages for five-minute increments, or tell you which combination of engine and electric motor is moving the car at a given time.
The rest of the car
This reviewer has sampled a healthy variety of Kia Optimas, and each has proven to be a pleasant and decently practical car to drive. The Optima Hybrid gives up the smooth, effortless pep of the gasoline version – power is there, but the car isn't designed for someone who floors it out of anything but occasional necessity – and the electric motor's battery robs more than a third of the trunk space. Matters are otherwise similar to other Optimas.
The Optima has a firmer ride than some midsize sedans, which can lead to large bumps punching through sharply, but it's otherwise steady and controlled. The car handles nimbly for a midsize sedan, but the light steering lacks feel – in all Optimas, not just in the hybrid. The car stays quiet, but flooring the accelerator while in electric mode – such as idling at a stop – leads to a sudden noise when the engine kicks on and revs up after a couple of seconds.
Unlike most hybrids, including the Camry and Fusion, the Optima Hybrid has a six-speed automatic transmission instead of a continuously variable transmission. CVTs often boost mileage, but some drivers don't like the way they feel because they lack specific shift points.
Inside, the Optima has a sensible interior design with an upscale layout and mostly high-quality materials. The instrument panel is angled toward the driver, and includes large, clear buttons, along with a multifunction touch screen. The car has comfortable front seats, but some people might find them too hard and low – especially the passenger's, which lacks a height adjustment. The rear is decently roomy, but the cushion is a bit low and head space is trimmed by the sloping roofline. The seats in the tested car were trimmed in two-tone leather.
The Optima's styling puts it at a disadvantage for trunk space compared even to the Sonata; both regular and hybrid Optimas have one cubic foot less than equivalent Sonatas. This is especially a problem with the hybrids, which have little to spare to begin with. At 9.9 cubic feet (compared to 15.4 with the gas engine), the Optima Hybrid's is one of the smallest trunks of any sedan or any size. Both the Optima and Sonata have compromised rear visibility.
With a base price of just over $26,000 with the destination charge, the base Optima Hybrid represents a price premium of some $4,000 over the gas version. The Optima Hybrid adds a few extra features over the gas LX, most notably a proximity key system and automatic climate control. Hybrids also have an exclusive wheel design, and share a grille and taillights with uplevel SX models, but lose the gas Optimas' folding rear seat in favor of a small pass-through. Unlike the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, though, there's no huge visual differentiation between Optima Hybrids and other Optimas – for better or for worse.
All Optimas have standard power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; alloy wheels; a Bluetooth cellphone link; a six-way power driver's seat; and air conditioning that also cools the glovebox. A manual transmission is no longer offered on any Optima for the 2013 model year; it had been available on a stripped-down LX.
In the hybrid, a $700 “Convenience Package” adds tilting to the driver's seat cushion to make an eight-way adjustment, and Kia's UVO infotainment system.
The tested fully-loaded Optima Hybrid has the other major option group, the $5,350 Premium Technology Package. The UVO system is replaced by an in-dash navigation system with a larger touch-screen (which also includes fuel economy displays and a rearview camera), and the 16-inch alloy wheels are replaced with 17-inchers. The package's other luxury-grade features include leather seats, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, a memory system for the driver's seat, a four-way power passenger seat, a panoramic sunroof, power-folding outside mirrors, and an upgraded Infinity-brand audio system.
The loaded Optima Hybrid, at $32,500, is equivalently equipped to a $28,825 Optima EX. Unlike the gas Optima, features like leather seats, a sunroof, and a navigation system are all grouped together into a single package rather than available separately.
Truecar.com estimates that buyers can expect to haggle just over $2,000 off the price of a 2012 Optima Hybrid, similar to the discount off a 2013 gas-powered Optima. (2013 Optima Hybrids aren't yet available as of this writing.)
To make back the cost difference between the gas and hybrid Optimas, while hitting the EPA mixed-driving estimate and paying $3.50 per gallon, it would take 144,000 miles to recoup the extra purchase price through fuel savings. However, part of the upfront investment will also almost certainly be retained when the car is sold.
The right choice?
As with other hybrids, the Optima Hybrid makes sense only for someone who considers driving with an attentive eye toward maximizing fuel economy to be a game rather than a chore. Not that the Optima Hybrid demands that in all circumstances, but its mileage will suffer quickly if it's driven like any other car.
If you've cleared that threshold, the choice is between the Optima and its competitors. If the Optima's styling, interior quality and layout, value, warranty or driving dynamics appeal to you more than the Fusion or Camry hybrids, then it should be worth the penalty in fuel economy to be worthy of your consideration. And 36 miles per gallon in mixed driving is still impressive by most standards in any size of car, much less midsize.
If nothing about the gas-powered Optima jumps out at you as particularly desirable, though, the competing hybrids' superior fuel economy give you little reason to consider it over them.
More photos of the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid
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Vehicle tested: 2012 Kia Optima
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $19,500
Version tested: Hybrid
Version base price (MSRP): $25,700
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $32,500
Estimated transaction price as tested*: $30,332
Test vehicle provided by: Kia Motors America
Length: 190.7 inches
Width: 72.1 inches
Height: 57.3 inches
Wheelbase: 110.0 inches
Weight: 3,490 pounds
Trunk volume: 9.9 cubic feet
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Engine: 2.4-liter gasoline engine + electric motor, with 206 net horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 34 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 39 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 36 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 36.5 miles per gallon
Assembly location: South Korea
For more information: Kia website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on estimates from Truecar.com and quotes from individual dealers.