Kia got us all worked up earlier this year when it displayed the Sportspace concept at the Geneva auto show: we car folks tend to like wagons an awful lot, and this was just the right kind of wagon, with rakish lines and looks that suggested the mechanicals underneath meant business.
That the car was revealed in Geneva, however, pretty much laid to rest our hopes that Kia would add it to its North American lineup; a New York auto show reveal of the production version of the 2016 Optima sedan more or less confirmed that there would be no Kia station wagon for those of us on this continent.
The 2016 model indicates that Kia is unwilling to take much of a risk in updating a car that’s aged well since its 2011 redesign, one that turned the Optima into one of the most handsome family cars going. With that revised 2016 version on its way, 2015 brings little of note to the Optima line; it carries on with an all-four-cylinder trio of powertrains that includes a 2.4L, a turbocharged 2.0L, and the gas-electric hybrid under the hood of my tester.
Kia is one of four automakers selling mid-priced hybrid family sedans, which pits the Optima against formidable competition in gas-electric versions of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. Part of what makes those cars as good as they are is the seamlessness with which they blend power produced with valves versus volts, so the key to Kia’s success in the hybrid arena lies under its hood.
As it happens, that’s where you’ll find the most significant difference between the Optima Hybrid and its competitors: where those other three blend power sources with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), Kia sticks with the six-speed automatic used in gas-only Optimas. Perhaps that’s a nod to Porsche’s refusal to use un-sporty CVT tech in its performance-oriented hybrids, or maybe it was a simple cost-saving measure; either way, that six-speed is the weak link in the Optima Hybrid’s mechanical make-up.
It’s a fine transmission in gas-powered Optimas, but in the Hybrid’s electric-only mode, it’s an eerie thing to feel the gearbox moving from one ratio to the next in the absence of the gas engine’s vibration. Frankly, it weirds me out in Porsche’s hybrids too (the Cayenne and Panamera); from a seat-of-the-pants perspective, there’s a good reason why most hybrids use CVTs, and all-electric cars take advantage of their motors’ inexhaustible torque band by eliminating multiple gear ratios altogether.