Mr. Green Car: Kia Optima Hybrid offers luxury in the low $30,000s

Kia Optima Hybrid (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I’m back from a little hiatus of writing car reviews with an exciting new hybrid — the Kia Optima Hybrid. This is a “German” car with a Korean name. Actually, it is nearly 100 percent Korean built, but its design chief, Peter Schreyer, is famous for penning Volkswagens and Audis — and it shows in the Optima.

While the hybrid version is built in Korea, the “regular” versions are all built by 3,000 American workers at Kia’s new assembly plant in West Point, Ga. Kia claims their U.S.-built cars generate 10,000 American jobs.

The new Optima is a clean sheet design. Kia threw away everything about the old, sedate Optima model, and brought new life into a state-of-the-art mid-sized car. There are Kia Optima racing teams that do quite well on the circuits — and the product has been improved by this activity. A state-of-the-art assembly line ensures a quality built car as well.

I recently test drove the Kia Optima Hybrid at Rock River Block Kia, with sales manager, and Optima hybrid enthusiast, Nick Dembicky, who owns one himself. Nick drove and talked at first, showing me the many features of this Optima (EX trim). It seems to want for nothing. Roomy cabin, electric power steering speed, one-touch folding heated mirrors, heated and ventilated front seats, with heated rear seats and steering wheel. Voice-activated audio controls. Back-up camera. I liked the analog gauges with the info screen between them. The Optima EX had essentially luxury-level features in a car priced in the low $30,000s.

Kia Optima Hybrid (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

It was a cloudy day (which often seems to be the case when I’m testing), yet the dual sunroofs let in light in near convertible lighting. And that was with the glass closed. Driving was typical hybrid, with silent motion at first and a bit of engine feel when accelerating.

The Kia Optima Hybrid accelerates quite well, with a 166-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine combined with a powerful 40-horsepower electric drive motor. I took it on some curving streets and parking lots, and found the power and handling to be impeccable. I found it far too easy to get enthusiastic and drive down the MPG — which is, of course, relayed to you on a display in real time between to rather nice analog displays for speed and fuel and tachometer. The automatic transmission was smooth in drive and sporty in manual shift mode. My main trouble was sliding about in the seat. The car was glued to the road better than I was stuck to the firm and comfortable leather seat.

In parking lot maneuvering, the back-up camera aimed us straight into a space — and the extraordinarily tight turning radius surprised me for a car of this size. It was about on par with my Miata! I threw it around a few times, and it never lost its balance. The ride was smooth over bumpy surfaces, despite its generally taut feel.

The trunk was quite roomy for a hybrid. There is a pass-through panel so you can carry skis and such, and the spare tire (an option) is eliminated with an emergency inflation kit. This kit is a tire inflator that seals small punctures. You don’t have to jack up the car and change a tire to get going again. If that doesn’t work, five years of free roadside assistance will send someone out to do the dirty work.

Kia Optima Hybrid (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

I like the styling of the Optima — it is distinctive, bold and a bit aggressive without being over the top. I find too many new designs exceedingly aggressive and wonder how often this extra boldness leads to aggressive driving as well — I know I’ve had more than a few on my rear bumper.

One of the first things Nick told me was that the Optima hybrid established a new Guinness Book of World Records mark for fuel economy in traveling through all 48 states with two people and luggage of 64.55 mpg. But don’t expect that every day. While there is much in the way of encouraging leaves and flowers you get from “Earth” driving (really), it is up to the driving habits of the owner to make a difference. The Kia Optima Hybrid is EPA rated at 35 city/39 highway MPG. The more famous makers of mid-sized cars, are, I’m afraid, in trouble. This is tough new competition.

From the July 31-Aug. 6, 2013, issue

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