2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: What Is It
Not too long ago, when it came to giving compliments to a hybrid electric vehicle, they usually came with qualifiers like "it's stylish... for a hybrid," but Kia's first-ever hybrid car throws that line of thinking right out the window with sporty, stylish, comfortable and practical family sedan that uses both gasoline and electricity for propulsion. Alone, the third-generation Kia Optima impressed us enough to be named the Autobytel 2012 Sedan of the Year, and the addition of the advanced, fuel-efficient Optima Hybrid helps makes this one of the most complete mid-size sedans on the market. Kia tossed us the keys to one of its greenest cars, and while Kia is in the same boat as other automakers in playing catch up with the current hybrid heavyweights - Toyota and Ford - it has figured out how to make a hybrid family sedan look cool while leap-frogging lesser hybrid-building automakers like Honda and General Motors.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Pricing and Trim Levels
Although production of some 2012 Kia Optima models has switched to the Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG) facility in West Point, Ga., the Optima Hybrid is still built in South Korea. Offered in five different trim levels (LX, EX, EX Turbo, SX and Hybrid), the 2012 Optima has a starting MSRP of $19,500, but, as expected, the Optima Hybrid commands a hefty price premium starting at $25,700. Priced in between the luxurious Optima EX Turbo and the sporty Optima SX, the 2012 Optima Hybrid is priced quite competitive with other mid-sized hybrid sedans, but it wouldn't be a proper test car if it didn't have all the bells and whistles. Kia made sure to include the only two option packages offered on the Optima Hybrid which increased the as-tested price to $32,500.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: What It's Up Against
As competitive as the mid-size sedan segment is, there is surprisingly no shortage of fuel-sipping models to go up against the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid. This includes full hybrids like the Ford Fusion Hybrid (shown alongside the Otpima here) and Toyota Camry Hybrid, the mild hybrid Chevrolet Malibu Eco and even the diesel Volkswagen Passat TDI. When it comes to choice, no other mid-size sedan offers such a variation of models (that is until the new 2013 Fusion launches), and this is definitely Kia's recipe for success with the Optima as it is the automaker's best-selling car so far this year. Last month, the Kia Optima led the charge helping to give Kia its best February sales ever with 11,558 units sold marking an increase of 128 percent year over year. To put that into perspective, Kia has sold almost as many Optimas in the first two months of 2012 that it did in the entire year of 2010.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Exterior
What's New for 2012:
- The exterior design is a carryover from the 2011 model.
How It Looks:
The redesigned 2013 Ford Fusion is going to make some mid-size cars look downright stale when it debuts later this year, but the 2012 Kia Optima will be able to stand its ground against one of the perennial top sellers. All of the third-generation Optimas feature a stylish four-door coupe design made popular by cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class and Volkswagen CC. The sleek roofline is the highlight of the Optima's look, but Optima looks sporty and low-slung from just about every angle thanks to the use of the SX body kit. Unlike its competitors, Kia decided not to make any over-the-top styling changes to distinguish the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid from the non-hybrid models. Instead, Kia tweaked the Optima Hybrid's to be more aerodynamic giving it active air shutters behind the grille, a lower ride height, a smooth belly pan beneath the car and unique side mirrors that all help to give the Optima Hybrid a drag coefficient of just 0.26 - 10 percent better than other Optima models. The active air shutters not only helps to reduce the car's drag, but it also helps warm up the engine quicker to a more efficient temperature.
In terms of its styling, the Optima Hybrid adds different headlights, black and chrome trim around the front grille, LED taillights, a rear fascia with hidden exhaust pipe, a sporty decklid spoiler and lightweight, 16-inch wheels with a unique blade design. The exterior is finished off with tasteful chrome accents (including a strip that runs from the front door mirror back to the base of the C-pillar) and, in the case of this test car, a Snow White Pearl paint scheme that gives the car an even more upscale appearance. Adding the optional package that includes the panoramic sunroof makes the entire roof black which is especially contrasting on this bright pearl effect color.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Interior
What's New for 2012:
- UVO is no longer standard equipment
How It Looks and Feels:
In a similar fashion as the car's exterior, slipping into the cabin of the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid unveils an interior that resembles a sport sedan rather than a fuel-efficient family sedan. Although Kia and Hyundai share many platforms, Kia's models always end up looking sportier inside, and for the Optima this is largely due to the driver-focused cockpit design. The large instrument gauge cluster and wrap-around center stack make all of the switches, controls and displays easy for the driver to see and reach. Speaking of the instrument cluster, the Optima Hybrid gets a unique gauge cluster that features a center LCD screen in the middle flanked by analog gauges for the speedometer on the right and hybrid system information on the left including battery charge meter and electric motor state. The Active Econ has more to do with the driveability of the car, but it also adds a green accent on the instrument cluster to the digital tachometer.
The Optima Hybrid comes standard with a cloth interior, but two leather seat options are available. Our car came with the sporty-looking, two-tone leather that used black leather with beige inserts and contrasting stitching. Our car also had a large panoramic sunroof with a power-opening front half and fixed rear portion as well as a power-retractable sun shade. The panoramic roof makes the rear-passenger experience even better after factoring in how roomy the rear bench seat is. With the battery pack mounted right behind the rear seat, interior and cargo volume are slightly reduced with the trunk's cargo capacity dropping from 15.4 cubic feet in the standard Optima sedan to just 9.9 cubic feet in the Optima Hybrid and the passenger volume dropping by 5.5 cubic feet to 112.1. Despite these smaller figures, the rear seat still feels just as spacious and comfortable as the non-hybrid Optima models and the trunk still has enough space for a family road trip.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: The Extras
There is plenty of equipment that comes standard on the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid to somewhat offset the higher MSRP, but buyers looking for the latest technology features will want to check out the Optima Hybrid's only two packages. For 2011, the Optima Hybrid came standard with Kia's Microsoft-developed UVO infotainment system and an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, but fast forward a year and these are both optional as a part of the $700 Hybrid Convenience Package. On top of this package, the $5,350 Hybrid Premium Technology Package replaces the affordable and easy-to-use UVO system unit with a touch-screen navigation system and an eight-speaker Infinity audio system. This package also adds the unique two-tone leather seating material, heated and cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, panoramic sunroof and illuminated door sill scuff plates. Visually, this package also adds self-leveling HID headlights, sportier 17-inch wheels, power folding door mirrors and a gloss-black B-pillar treatment.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
What's New for 2012:
- The powertrain and fuel economy are a carryover from the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid.
How Does It Go:
Powering the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid is a 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter inline-four gasoline engine paired with a 42-hp electric motor which can both send power either together or independently to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission. While the Optima Hybrid's engine is the same displacement as the base Optima, it does not have direct injection and it runs on the Atkinson cycle which is the reason for the engine's decreased horsepower and improved efficiency. The electric motor gets its power from a 270-volt lithium-polymer (Li-PB) battery mounted in the trunk of the Optima Hybrid which weighs just 95 pounds while being more efficient and holding a charge longer than conventional mid-size hybrid sedans using nickel metal hydride battery packs. For now, until the new Fusions come out, the 2012 Optima Hybrid boasts best in class fuel economy numbers with EPA-rated estimates of 35 miles per gallon in the city, 40 mpg on the highway and a rating of 37 mpg in combined driving. The Optima Hybrid also has its own gasoline tank which holds 17.2 gallons (as opposed to other Optima models with 18.5-gallon tanks) meaning this car has a range well over 400 miles.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: How It Drives
Compared to a standard Optima, the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid does make a few compromises to its driving dynamic which is either a result of the hybrid system's extra weight or its attempt to improve efficiency. Being Kia's first hybrid vehicle, we can somewhat overlook the car's jerky transition from engine to electric (and vice versa) or the overly goofy and confusing hybrid "score" digital screens inside, but in the end, this car's focus is fuel economy and after spending a week with the car, we saw right around 43 mpg in mixed driving. Aside from the harshness during the EV mode transitions, the Optima Hybrid has an almost identical ride to its non-hybrid counterpart. Drivers looking for a little sportier response should keep the Active Econ off as this system alters throttle response to squeeze out every last mpg, but the biggest issue with the Optima Hybrid was Kia's stated 62 mile per hour electric driving speed. After numerous and dangerously slow take offs in real-world conditions, we could never get this car above 30 mph under electric power only, but we're pretty sure some light-footed hypermiler out there somewhere who doesn't care about surrounding traffic might have a better go at this challenge than we did. An interesting note is that when the Optima Hybrid is driving under full electric power at speeds of up to 12 mph, there is a Virtual Engine Sound System (VESS) that creates an artificial engine sound to help warn pedestrians when the car is approaching.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Is It Safe
The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid was given a full five-star safety rating by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the Optima (all trim levels) a 2012 Top Safety Pick. These perfect ratings make it one of the safest hybrids on the market thanks in large part to the long list of standard safety features that come in all 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid models such as the six airbags, active front head restraints, electronic brake-force distribution with brake assist, four-wheel anti-lock disc brake system, traction control, Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Vehicle Stability Management (VSM), Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) and tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS).
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Final Thoughts
The Kia Optima was redesigned for 2011 and quickly gained a reputation as one of the sportier mid-size sedans on the market, but the Optima Hybrid model proves that the company can go green, too. One of the Optima Hybrid's biggest selling points is that "40" printed on the right side of the Monroney sticker, and it doesn't take a hypermiler to hit the car's EPA numbers in real-world driving. There is still plenty of bugs to be worked out of this car as evident by the seemingly lack of cooperation between the engine, electric motors and transmission at times, but considering this is the very first hybrid system developed by Hyundai and Kia, it is a very impressive feat. With just about every automaker from Acura to the Lincoln MKZ is getting in on the whole hybrid game, it would be hard to find a better fuel efficient car than the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid in terms of the overall execution, fuel economy and, most importantly, value.
2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review: Pros and Cons
- excellent real-world fuel economy
- sporty and stylish exterior design
- luxurious interior with impressive cabin technology
- lengthy warranty on battery components
- $6,200 price premium over base Optima LX
- battery pack compromises trunk space
- harsh transition between engine and electric operation
- questionable 62 mph electric driving speed
Kia provided the vehicle for this review
Photos by Jeffrey N. Ross