Kia Optima Hybrid — A job well done

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Hybridization seems to be the immediate future of the automotive industry as we await further development of hydrogen fuel cell cars and all-electric vehicles. A hybrid vehicle has both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor endowing it with exceptional mileage — and virtually all automakers now have hybrid variants of some of their vehicles in an effort to meet mandatory mileage standards.

When the hybrid car first reached the motoring public nearly 20 years ago it offered remarkable gas mileage, but it was underpowered, and more expensive than a comparable gas-powered vehicle.

We have come a long way in two decades. Take the all-new mid-sized Kia Optima Hybrid sedan, for example. It drives and performs just like its gasoline-only counterpart. The fact it has an electric motor doing some of the heavy lifting is not apparent from behind the wheel. The Optima, all-new for the 2016 model year, is at the top of the segment in styling, drivability, technology and comfort. Ditto for the hybrid version, which was delayed a year and becomes part of the new iteration for 2017.

With the exception of a slightly elevated purchase price, there's no compromise with the hybrid. The upside is gas mileage measured at 39 mpg city, 46 highway and 42 overall. That's compared to the standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder at 25/36/29. That means you will realize 13 more miles per gallon or save 128 gallons of gas if you drive 12,000 miles a year. Additionally we found the driving experience the same as the gas-powered version, and that's something few automakers can brag about with their hybrid variants.

The hybrid drivetrain is made up of a 2.0-liter Atkinson-Cycle inline 4-cylinder engine making 154 horsepower, and a 50-horsepower electric motor combining for 192 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Combined torque is 271 pound-feet routed through a standard six-speed automatic. That yields decent performance measured at 7.9 seconds from 0-to-60. By comparison, the standard 2.4-liter 4-cylinder gas engine Optima has 185 horsepower and has a published time of 7.5 seconds from 0-to-60.

The Optima entered a new generation in 2016 looking more streamlined — slightly longer, wider and taller — gaining a more fastback look. The rear taillights are larger and the signature “tiger nose” grille has been widened. The hybrid has a few styling differences from the gasoline-only model including active grille shutters, a beveled rear bumper, and a rear diffuser designed to streamline airflow by shrouding the exhaust tip and an aerodynamic alloy-wheel design. If these subtle differences aren't enough to proclaim you are driving economically, the hybrid comes with a special "EcoHybrid" badge.

Kia says the new body structure is 150 percent stiffer than the outgoing model through the use of high-strength steel. Kia has also stiffened engine mounts and body panels. The effort goes toward both quelling noise and vibration while improving handling.

Because of the slightly increased body dimensions, the passenger space inside expands in nearly every dimension. Tall door openings allow passengers to access their seats without any drama. There's more hip- and shoulder room front and rear, ranging from an inch to an inch and a half. There's also an inch more rear legroom and 13.4 cubic feet of trunk space, about two cubic feet less than the standard Optima because of the battery pack.

While the dashboard won't blow you away with space-age styling, it has pleasing horizontal lines, uncluttered with an abundance of storage spaces. The 8-inch touchscreen features large, easy-to-press buttons and a legible picture. We particularly like Optima's physical buttons for navigating top-tier functions including climate control.

Some cutting-edge standard features are included with the hybrid including a Harmon/Kardon Premium Surround audio system with 10 speakers, a hands-free trunk open feature, a wireless phone charger, and surround view monitoring that offers help in parking lot situations.

The most luxurious Optima Hybrid is the EX equipped with the Technology package that adds LED adaptive headlights, automatic high-beam control, a panoramic sunroof, auto-dimming rearview mirror, adaptive cruise control, a power passenger seat, ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, rear-side window sunshades, lane departure warning, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring and rear parking sensors. The Technology package is priced at $5,000. The bottom line of our well-equipped test car was $36,885.

Kia also offers a plug-in version of the hybrid with a 202-horsepower powertrain and a 9.8-kWh battery pack that, according to Kia, allows it to travel up to 29 miles on electricity alone. It starts at $36,105 in EX trim.

Base price: $26,890; as driven, $36,885
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: 192 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 271 foot-pounds @ 1,770 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 110.4 inches
Length: 191.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,538 pounds
Turning circle: 35.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.4 cubic feet
Furl capacity: 15.9 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 39 city, 46 highway, 42 combined
0-60: 7.9 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid

The Good
• Quiet interior
• Excellent gas mileage
• Spacious passenger space
• Seamless hybrid performance

The Bad
• Some rivals get better fuel economy

The Ugly
• Lack of rear-seat headroom