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2012 Kia Optima Hybrid ReviewThe Good
Sheathed in attractive steel with a classy aerodynamic design, equipped with a strong list of standard features and offering fuel economy numbers of up to 39 mpg, the 2012 Kia Optima sedan appears ready to take on the big names in the competitive hybrid sedan class.The Bad
The 2012 Optima's relatively new hybrid powerplant lacks the refinement offered by some competitive vehicles, with many reviewers reporting rough transitions and surges of power as the engine switches between electric and gas operation.
The CarGurus View
While reviewers say the 2012 Optima Hybrid matches up well against its competitors in styling and interior design, and often beats them when it comes to standard and optional features, it falls short with its hybrid powerplant, which has yet to perfect smooth transitions between electric and gas operation. For some testers this represents a big problem, but others say the Optima's many positive points outweigh the shortcomings of its relatively new powerplant. Prospective buyers will have to test-drive the vehicle and judge for themselves whether the Optima Hybrid performs to their expectations, but current owners give the Optima Hybrid a big thumbs up.
At a Glance
Introduced last year, the Optima Hybrid remains Kia's only hybrid and goes head-to-head with such competitive vehicles as the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Ford's Fusion Hybrid. According to testers, the Camry and Fusion hybrids in particular have come close to perfecting the transition a hybrid powerplant makes as it shifts from electric to gas operation, resulting in smooth, seamless acceleration and deceleration. However, many testers say the transitions made by the Optima Hybrid's powerplant are unrefined, with some calling it jarring and others noting a delay before a surge of power drives the vehicle forward when the gas engine kicks in. In addition, a number of reviewers comment on the Optima Hybrid's regenerative braking system, which they say results in a numb feel when the brakes are applied. According to at least one reviewer, simply reconfiguring the powerplant software on the Optima Hybrid might solve most of its problems, but for now, many consider the hybrid system a little too rough to highly recommend it.
On the plus side, the Optima Hybrid offers agile handling, thanks in part to its lowered ride height, which helps improve aerodynamics and fuel economy as well as stability. In addition, the Optima Hybrid comes well-equipped with a long list of standard features, and it's competitively priced against such vehicles as the Fusion Hybrid, which costs several thousand dollars more. The Honda Civic Hybrid, however, has a base price lower than the Optima Hybrid's. Other class competitors include the Toyota Prius and the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid, as well as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt electric vehicles.
Outside, the Optima Hybrid displays a sleek exterior design with a long, elegant nose, subtly flared wheel wells and an arced, fastback-style roofline. The sculpted front end features a unique black-and-chrome grille with an active air flap that opens and closes automatically, depending on speed, to reduce drag. The headlights, smooth front and rear fascias, low front and rear bumpers, underfloor panels, rear spoiler and unique LED taillights also help channel air around the vehicle, improving aerodynamics and further reducing drag. The combined elements work together to help the Optima Hybrid achieve a drag coefficient of 0.26, which is 10% less than non-hybrid Optimas, according to the automaker.
The Optima Hybrid comes in a single Base trim, with such standard features as Bluetooth, push-button start, dual-zone automatic climate control, SiriusXM satellite radio and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls. In addition, to alert pedestrians of its approach when in electric-only power mode around town, the Optima Hybrid receives a Virtual Engine Sound System, which plays a recorded engine sound similar to that of a typical gas-powered vehicle. Owners can add an optional Premium Technology Package, which includes HID headlights with auto-leveling and 17-inch alloy wheels with low-rolling-resistance tires, as well as a panorama sunroof and heated rear seats, which typically aren't available on competitive vehicles. In addition, for 2012 Kia adds power folding exterior mirrors and HD radio to the optional Premium package.
The Optima Hybrid can operate in full electric mode at speeds up to 62 mph and runs on a blend of gas and electric power at higher speeds or when additional power is required for acceleration and passing. The hybrid system consists of an interior permanent magnet synchronous electric motor and a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder Atkinson-cycle gas engine, which produce a combined 206 hp and 195.4 lb-ft of torque. Working alone in full-electric mode, the electric motor generates 40 hp and and 154 lb-ft of torque, while the gas engine operating alone delivers 166 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. A wet clutch links the electric motor and gas engine, and both mate to an electronically controlled 6-speed Sportmatic automatic transmission with overdrive. The gas engine shuts down at full stops to conserve fuel. The EPA estimates fuel economy numbers for the hybrid powerplant at 34/39 mpg.
Although the powerplant in the Optima Hybrid resembles the systems found in competitive vehicles like the Sonata Hybrid, it uses a different battery system. Rather than the typical nickel metal hydride system, the Optima Hybrid gets an air-cooled 1.4-kHw lithium-polymer (Li-PB) battery, which is lighter, more compact and more efficient than typical hybrid batteries, according to Kia. The automaker also notes that the Li-PB battery holds a charge 25% longer than other batteries. A warranty covers the battery for 10 years and up to 150,000 miles of operation. The battery resides in the trunk area, which cuts back considerably on trunk space (it has just 9.9 cubic feet).
With a 0-60 time of around 9 seconds, the front-wheel-drive Optima Hybrid certainly isn't sporty, but testers say its acceleration and performance match those of class competitors. However, its fuel economy numbers fall short of the leaders in the class. The Ford Fusion, for example, gets up to 47 mpg with its hybrid powerplant, while the Toyota Camry posts mileage numbers of up to 43 mpg. In addition, the rationale for a hybrid Optima is complicated by the fact that the non-hybrid Optima gets up to 35 mpg on the highway, although it manages only 24 mpg around town.
Ride & Handling
The Optima Hybrid sits 5mm lower than the non-hybrid Optima, and with its low ride height (5.1 inches of ground clearance) and solid stance, it provides competent handling with responsive steering and some nimbleness around town and in corners. The vehicle's stability and handling are further enhanced by a lightweight, high-tensile-strength steel frame, which reduces flexing and improves ride quality on harsher road surfaces, and the use of aluminum instead of steel for some parts of the suspension, which helps reduce weight, adding to the vehicle's agility. Kia also took measures to reduce the intrusion of noise and vibration into the cabin.
The Optima Hybrid's independent suspension features MacPherson struts in the front and a multi-link configuration in the rear, with coil springs and anti-roll bars in both the front and rear. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides good feedback, but testers have issues with the Optima Hybrid's regenerative brakes, which they say have a numb feel. Overall, however, the vehicle's ride and handling rank a step above those of the average hybrid vehicle, and the suspension does a good job of smoothing out rougher roads for a comfortable ride. The standard package includes 16-inch alloy wheels, while the Premium Technology Package adds 17-inch alloy wheels.
Cabin & Comfort
The 2012 Optima Hybrid comes equipped with a long list of standard and optional features that distinguish it from some of its competitors. Features typically reserved for mid- to top-level trims, like an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, push-button start with a Smart Key, a temperature-controlled glovebox, Bluetooth and USB, all come standard. The cabin also includes dual-zone automatic climate control with rear vents, rear reading lights, power windows and door locks, steering-wheel-mounted cruise and audio controls, and a 6-speaker audio system with SiriusXM satellite radio and dash-mounted tweeters.
For most of its interior components and design, the Optima Hybrid draws on the non-hybrid Optima sedan, which gets good marks from reviewers for its interior layout, high-quality materials, roomy seats and overall fit and finish. The contoured instrument panel angles toward the driver, creating a cockpit-like feel and putting controls within easy reach. The unique Supervision instrument cluster includes a color LCD screen, which displays details about the hybrid powerplant's operation. In addition, an EcoMinder indicator lets drivers know when the vehicle achieves optimal efficiency.
Most passengers will find ample legroom and headroom in the front and rear seats, which are comfortable and supportive enough for longer trips. Drivers should have no problem finding a comfortable seating position, and visibility out the front and back remains good. The standard package includes cloth seats with manual operation, while the Premium Technology Package adds either beige leather upholstery or black sport leather upholstery with cloth trim.
A Convenience Package adds an 8-way power-adjustable driver's seat with memory and a UVO Powered by Microsoft voice-activated infotainment system, which includes a rear-view camera. The Premium Technology Package also includes a 4-way power-adjustable passenger seat, heated and cooled front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, as well as such features as a heated steering wheel and heated rear seats, which are rarely found on vehicles in this class. A navigation system with SiriusXM Traffic, an 8-speaker Infinity audio system, a panoramic sunroof, an upgraded auto-dimming rear-view mirror with a compass, a leatherette-wrapped center console and illuminated entry lighting are among the other features included in the Premium Technology Package.
Due to the location of the battery in the trunk, cargo space remains tight in the Optima Hybrid at just 9.9 cubic feet. That compares to 15.43 cubic feet for the non-hybrid Optima, and to 10.7 cubic feet for the Sonata Hybrid, 12 cubic feet for the Fusion Hybrid and 13.1 cubic feet for the Camry Hybrid.
The IIHS named the 2012 Optima Hybrid a Top Safety Pick due to its top-level rating of Good for protecting passengers in side, rear and rollover crashes. Similarly, the NHTSA gave the Optima Hybrid a top safety rating of 5 out of 5 stars, since the vehicle notably achieved 5 stars for protecting passengers in all types of crashes.
Six airbags, including front seat-mounted and full-length side-curtain airbags protecting passengers in both the first and second rows, come standard on the Optima Hybrid. Other safety features include a Vehicle Stability Management system, which helps drivers regain control of the vehicle in emergency situations, as well as electronic stability control, traction control and 4-wheel antilock brakes with brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution.
What Owners Think
Overall, owners give the Optima Hybrid a big thumbs up for a number of reasons. Numerous owners cite the vehicle's good value and reasonable pricing as positive points, especially given the Optima Hybrid's strong list of standard features, which meets or beats the standard packages on many competitive vehicles. Owners also say they like the Optima Hybrid's stylish exterior design, smooth ride, comfortable interior and overall fit and finish. In addition, most owners find no fault with the vehicle's fuel economy numbers, with some reporting achieving up to 48 mpg when driving efficiently. Similarly, while some owners find fault with the powerplant's transitions from electric to gas operation, others say it's barely noticeable and suggest that Kia may have already tweaked the powertrain software to eliminate some of the problems.
Some owners find the seats a little too hard and flat for longer trips, and a few say they're not getting promised fuel economy numbers. However, most owners agree with those reviewers who call the Optima Hybrid the best in its class, despite its few shortcomings, and a large percentage say they're happy and even extremely satisfied with their purchases.
Rob has been a contributor to CarGurus since 2007, and an automotive test-driver and writer since the early ’90s. He’s test-driven everything from BMWs and Jags to Bentleys and Saabs, with an occasional Range Rover, Ferrari, Porsche or Lamborghini thrown in. He also created the annual Car of the Year and Exotic Car of the Year awards for Robb Report magazine. He currently resides in Florida.
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