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  • 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

    Posted on November 28th, 2011 ninarussin

    Mid-sized sedan gets a green connection

    By Nina Russin

    Kia Optima Hybrid

    It was exactly one year ago that Kia unveiled its first gasoline/electric hybrid at the Los Angeles Auto Show. I’m thinking back to the model reveal as I drive the Optima Hybrid sedan across the Sonoran desert between Phoenix and Los Angeles for the 2011 show.

    While other automakers struggle to tread water after the industry-wide implosion of 2008, Kia seems to be on a roll. Looking at the interior of the Optima Hybrid, it’s easy to understand why. Value has been core to Kia’s mission since arriving stateside in 1994 and remains so today. MSRP on the Optima Hybrid is $26,500, not including the $750 delivery charge.

    For the price of a mid-level sedan, Kia offers its premium grade, with Bluetooth interface, a rearview camera display and dual-zone climate control. Kia’s UVO infotainment system, developed in conjunction with Microsoft, is also standard.

    Power comes from a 2.4-liter Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine, which works in concert with an electric motor. Kia partnered with LG Chem of South Korea to develop a lithium polymer battery, which is lighter and more compact than nickel metal-hydride units.

    A technology package on the test car adds navigation with Sirius traffic updates, an Infinity premium audio system, dual-pane panoramic sunroof, 17-inch alloy wheels, high-intensity discharge headlamps, leather seating, heated and cooled front seats, a heated steering wheel and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink and a compass ($5000). Price as tested is $32,250.

    Leaves and flowers

    Kia Optima Hybrid Energy Monitor

    Most hybrid vehicles have an efficiency indicator to show the driver how well he is using the gasoline/electric technology to extend fuel economy. The Optima is display is an appealing mix of leaves and flowers. On my maiden voyage, I score 70 percent. While I’ve made extensive use of the cruise control and avoided tipping into the throttle whenever possible, I like to get where I’m going quickly. Keeping the speed at 80 miles-per-hour puts the eco-indicator right at the threshold between green (superior gas mileage) and white (average).

    According to the car’s fuel economy monitor, I’m averaging 34.9 miles-per-gallon, which isn’t particularly good, considering the EPA estimates of 35 mpg city and 40 on the highway. On the other hand, I am able to complete the entire 400-mile drive, which includes about 50 miles through typical downtown LA traffic, on about three eights of a tank of gasoline.

    The tradeoff is that the battery, positioned between the rear seats and trunk, eliminates the pass-through which extends the cargo floor on the other Optima models. The trunk has plenty of room for luggage or a week’s worth of groceries, but there’s no way to stash larger items such as skis, snowboards, or camping equipment.

    Ample power for the open road

    Kia Optima Hybrid

    Because electric motors develop peak torque at extremely low speeds, the Optima Hybrid delivers exceptional low-end torque for a four-cylinder car. Acceleration off the line, and in the 20-to-50 mile-per-hour range drivers use merging into high-speed traffic, is excellent.

    Kia rates the gasoline engine in combination with the electric motor at 206 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque: similar to a six-cylinder engine.

    While most gasoline-electric hybrids have a continuously-variable automatic transmission, Kia uses a six-speed box instead. The six-speed automatic transmission allows the driver to select gears manually when driving the car for sport. This makes a huge difference in performance when accelerating up steep grades. Although the wet-type laminated clutch doesn’t have the precision response of a manual gearbox, it feels much crisper than most CVT units. A lockup torque converter clutch changes the coupling from fluid to friction during steady-state cruising to extend gas mileage.

    A four-wheel independent suspension consists of MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link setup in the rear, with stabilizer bars on both axles. Having driven the car exclusively on smooth pavement, I’m not sure how well the low-profile tires would fare in pothole-filled streets in the Midwest. But on the test drive, the suspension was pleasingly compliant. The stabilizer bars keep the chassis flat in the corners during aggressive driving.

    An electric power steering system is well tuned to the car, providing ample assist at low speeds with good on-center response on the highway. A 35.8-foot turning circle makes the occasional U-turn a non-issue.

    Visibility around the sedan’s perimeter is quite good. I had no problems monitoring traffic in adjacent lanes. Engineers did a good job of isolating passengers from road and wind noise as well.

    Electric power saves fuel in stop-and-go traffic

    Drivers who commute through dense urban traffic get the most benefit from hybrid powertrains. Crawling down the 10 freeway towards the LA convention center, I’m happy to see the power monitor on EV mode. Since the speed of traffic rarely exceeds twenty miles-per-hour, I save a considerable amount of gasoline on fifteen-mile drive from the hotel to the convention center, through the heart of the morning rush.

    My efficiency score has risen to 80 percent, reflecting the extended time in EV mode. The optional navigation works in concert with Sirius real-time traffic to reroute me around the biggest quagmires. In a city such as Los Angeles, this type of information can be lifesaving. In my case, rerouting gets me to the convention center about 15 minutes faster than I might have, left to my own devices.

    Upscale interior rivals luxury models

    Kia Optima Hybrid Interior

    Although Kia doesn’t classify the Optima as a luxury car, the sedan’s upscale interior is typical of a much more expensive model. Keyless entry and start, standard on the Optima Hybrid, enables the driver to unlock the car and start the ignition without removing the key fob from his pocket. In addition to convenience, this feature adds a measure of safety for drivers who use their sedans after dark in urban centers.

    Heated and cooled front seats keep passengers comfortable in temperature extremes. The seats on the 2011 model are on the hard side. Kia is installing softer seats across the Optima line-up for the 2012 model year. A power lumbar adjustment provides excellent lower back support for longer drives.

    The navigation system is intuitive to program. The display allows multiple drivers to maintain separate address books. This, together with two-position driver’s seat memory makes it easy for several family members to share the car.

    Redundant audio, information and Bluetooth controls on the steering wheel minimize driver distraction. An information display in the gauge cluster includes instant and average fuel economy, driving range, average speed, odometer and trip meter information.

    In addition to satellite radio with a three-month complimentary subscription, the audio system is MP3 and iPod compatible. The optional Infinity sound system surrounds the driver with living room quality sound.

    Kia does a good job of providing plentiful storage cubbies and cupholders for both rows of passengers. Cupholders are larger enough for 20-ounce water bottles. Dual 12-volt power points at the base of the center stack recharge portable electronic devices on the go.

    The trunk is on the small side, due to the location of the battery pack. Cyclists will be better served with Kia’s Sorento cross-utility vehicle.

    Standard safety

    The 2011 Optima Hybrid comes with front, side and side curtain airbags, antilock braking, stability and traction control. Hill start assist prevents the car from sliding backwards when accelerating from a stop up a steep grade. All models carry Kia’s ten year/100,000 mile factory warranty with up to five years (60,000 miles) of roadside assistance.

    The Optima Hybrid is rolling into Kia dealerships nationwide.

    Likes: A stylish, well-equipped hybrid sedan with exceptional gas mileage and a high level of standard comfort and convenience features.

    Dislike: Lack of trunk space.

    Quick facts:

    Make: Kia
    Model: Optima Hybrid
    Year: 2011
    Base price: $26,500
    As tested: $32,250
    Horsepower: 166 Hp @ 6000 rpm (gasoline engine only). Net horsepower: 206.
    Torque: 154 lbs.-ft. @ 4250 rpm (gasoline engine). Net torque: 195.4 lbs.-ft.
    Zero-to-sixty: N/A
    Antilock brakes: Standard
    Side curtain airbags: Standard
    First aid kit: N/A
    Bicycle friendly: No
    Off-road: No
    Towing: No
    Fuel economy: 35/40 mpg city/highway


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