2014 Kia Optima Hybrid, headlight. Click image to enlarge
Review and photos by Greg Wilson
Now in its fourth model year, the 2014 Kia Optima Hybrid mid-sized sedan differs from other ‘full’ hybrid sedans such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion Hybrids in two important respects: it uses a six-speed automatic transmission rather than a continuously variable transmission so as to provide a more natural transmission shift feel; and it has a lighter, more compact lithium-polymer battery pack rather than the more popular lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride batteries used in its competitors.
The former is something you’ll notice, while the latter is something you won’t.
Changes to the Optima Hybrid for 2014 are fairly minor: its re-designed rear bumper, trunk lid and alloy wheels improve aerodynamics slightly, and a new front grille design, new front air vents, new LED tail lights, and optional LED front fog lights help improve visibility and the overall appearance. As well, prominent green and silver Eco-Hybrid badges on the front fenders make it easy to tell the Optima Hybrid from the regular Optima.
The combination of the Optima Hybrid’s 159 hp 2.4L four-cylinder Atkinson Cycle engine and 46 hp electric motor and 270-volt Lithium-polymer (Li-PB) battery pack create a total of 199 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque, which is on par with its major competitors. However, the Optima Hybrid lags behind its competitors in overall fuel efficiency: with an EPA fuel economy rating of 6.5 L/100 km city/5.9 hwy, the Optima Hybrid is about the same as the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid (which uses the same hybrid system), but isn’t as fuel-efficient as the Toyota Camry Hybrid with 5.9/6.2, Ford Fusion Hybrid 5.3/5.7, Honda Accord Hybrid 4.7/5.2 and Toyota Prius 4.6/4.9. All of the above use Regular grade gas.
The Optima’s real-world fuel economy is something else again: my observed average fuel economy after a week of mixed highway and city driving in mostly sunny, warm weather was 7.6 L/100 km. And as Autos contributor Haney Louka observed in his Winterpeg test of the Optima Hybrid in January, 2012, sub-zero temperatures take a heavy toll on the Optima Hybrid’s fuel economy. In cold temperatures, Haney observed that the engine was almost always running, even though the Optima Hybrid is capable of running on electric power alone at speeds up to 100 km/h under low load conditions. My own experience in summer weather was that the car could occasionally run in EV mode (as indicated by a green light in the instrument cluster) at speeds under 20 km/h on level or slight uphill grades and at city and highway speeds on level or downhill sections. But the engine starts easily with very little encouragement, and this appears to be the reason why its city fuel consumption is higher than its competitors. Like other hybrids, the Optima’s engine stops and starts automatically while paused at traffic lights, but unlike the Toyota Prius, there is no driver-selectable EV mode activated by a pushbutton.
Another possible reason the Optima Hybrid is not as fuel efficient as it competitors is its conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Continuously variable transmissions have demonstrated superiority in maximizing fuel economy in hybrids and non-hybrids. But as many drivers don’t like the rubber band experience of a CVT, the Optima’s traditional six-speed automatic offers a more conventional stepped gear-changing experience. As well, Kia’s six-speed automatic has a manual shifting mode, something that most CVTs do not have.
2014 Kia Optima Hybrid engine bay & dashboard. Click image to enlarge
The traditional sound and feel of the Optima Hybrid’s automatic transmission is certainly appealing, but as there has been a big improvement in CVT technology recently, it’s not the big advantage it used to be. The new Honda Accord Hybrid, for instance, has minimized the droning noise and rubber band effect of its CVT to the point where, if I were in the market for a hybrid, I would tolerate it in return for the superior fuel economy.
Since the Optima Hybrid’s real-world fuel economy doesn’t appear to be much better than the non-hybrid Optima sedan with the standard 192 hp 2.4L four-cylinder engine (the EPA rates it at 10.2/6.9 and Autos contributor Chris Chase achieved about the same fuel consumption (10.5/7.2) in his test of the 2011 Optima EX), it seems difficult to justify the $3,000 price difference (comparably equipped) between the hybrid and non-hybrid versions of the Optima.