Kia Optima Hybrid
Kia Optima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

A more sound rationale for buying a gasoline-electric hybrid is one that is based on principle; a reduced reliance on fossil fuels and a personal decision to lessen one’s impact on our increasingly vulnerable environment. And while that is arguably a sound rationale, one needs to consider not only the potential reduction in fuel consumption, but also the environmental costs related to battery production and disposal through the hybrid vehicle’s life cycle. These costs can be (and are) endlessly debated and are a discussion topic for another day. But just know that there’s more to the hybrid equation than saving fuel.

Getting back to the Optima Hybrid, I will say that it possesses many of the attributes I find so appealing in the other Optima models, but there are some significant drawbacks to the Hybrid that affect real-world fuel consumption and everyday drivability.

First, there’s my observed fuel consumption. During my five weeks with the car I averaged about 12 L/100 km. This would fit under the category of “shockingly high” as an overall average for this type of vehicle. But to top it off there were no instances of even brief brag-worthy trips. For example, when I drove the Lexus HS 250h a couple of years back, I did manage one single city trip where consumption dropped to 4.9 L/100 km. In the Optima Hybrid, I didn’t once see it drop below seven. In fact, single-trip fuel consumption typically ranged from 9.5 to 11 L/100 km. And these numbers were observed in relatively temperate winter conditions, with temperatures ranging from zero degrees to -20 C.

Kia Optima Hybrid
Kia Optima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The primary reason for the higher-than-expected consumption in the Optima Hybrid is that other than when while coasting and when stopped, the engine rarely shut off under any circumstances. Where most Toyota hybrids will happily coast along at 50 km/h for a good distance with the engine shut down, I noted that the Kia’s engine was almost always running. Even when the green “EV Mode” light was illuminated on the instrument panel, the car was in charging mode so the engine hummed along at 1,500 rpm, charging the battery. It seemed like that battery was all take and no give. Plus, it adds 120 kg to the Optima’s curb weight.

Even during the dreaded “Osborne Village crawl” — a 1.5-km long bottleneck that, during rush hour, results in most drivers watching enviously as pedestrians make it through in a fraction of the time — where Toyota hybrids happily move along in silence, the Kia refused to shut its engine off for any appreciable period of time between battery charges; this, after the car was parked in a heated garage for the day.

Drivability of the hybrid suffers as well: particularly when cold, the transition from EV mode to one of the other modes that involve the engine (either “engine” or “hybrid” mode) is not a smooth one. This issue is exacerbated when the engine’s startup coincides with the transmission downshifting. It’s not only rough, but there’s a disturbing delay between throttle application and actual forward motion that doesn’t sit well with me. We need our brakes to work in an instant; there’s no reason to expect less from the vehicle’s throttle response.

Kia Optima Hybrid
Kia Optima Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Speaking of brakes, every hybrid on the market makes use of regenerative braking, whereby the turning wheels actually power the electric motor which functions as a generator to charge the battery on deceleration. The downside to this is that if the design isn’t sufficiently refined it can make the brakes grabby and difficult to modulate. Such is the case here.

I also had a few issues with the user interface on the Optima Hybrid. It just seems like the design needs to be refined a bit. There’s dual-zone automatic climate control, but unlike most systems you can’t tell what mode it’s in (automatic or manual; what temperature is it set at) until you make a change to the settings and the climate display appears. Most systems will at least have a light on the “auto” button and the better ones will always have the interior and exterior temperatures displayed even when the screen is showing other information. There’s lots of room on the screen, it just needs to be put to better use.

And on the trip computer, the instantaneous fuel consumption display couldn’t be trusted because it registered consumption even as the engine was not running.

I want to make it clear that I’m a big fan of Kia’s new Optima. It has the looks, value, and performance to be a world beater. However, this hybrid version ranks far lower for me based on my experience with it this winter. Stick with the four-banger, save a bunch of cash up front, and experience only marginally higher fuel consumption in most situations.

Pricing: 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid
  • Base price: $30,595
  • Options: $4,900
  • A/C tax: $100
  • Freight: $1,455
  • Price as tested: $37,050

  • Buyer’s Guide: 2012 Kia Optima

  • Buyer’s Guide: Buick Regal e-Assist
  • Buyer’s Guide: Ford Fusion Hybrid
  • Buyer’s Guide: Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
  • Buyer’s Guide: Toyota Camry Hybrid
  • Buyer’s Guide: Toyota Prius

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