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2011 Kia Optima Hybrid: In the same league as the big boys

Wheels contributor Brian Early reviews the 2011 Kia Optima hybrid.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

NANAIMO, B.C. ? According to Kia?s numbers, total hybrid vehicle sales make up just 2.4 per cent of the North American marketplace, so you?d have to wonder just why it would bother to go through the expense and effort of introducing a hybrid version of its sexy-looking new Optima sedan.


After all, the fuel consumption ratings of the non-hybrid models already compare favourably with other intermediate-segment sedans, such as the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Chevy Malibu and Ford Fusion.


The decision was likely a multi-faceted one, with the company?s desire to offer buyers a more environmentally conscious option being only one part of the equation.


Proving to the world that they?re able to play in the same sandbox as the big boys at Toyota, GM, Ford, and Honda was probably a factor too (seeing as this Korean brand is enjoying a stratospheric growth in sales numbers and image similar to that of its sister company, Hyundai).


Increasingly world-class products, competitive pricing, and ? with the 2006 appointment of renowned stylist Peter Schreyer as design chief, attractive styling ? will do that.


That family connection to Hyundai is important, as the basic bones beneath the Optima (which was previously branded as the Magentis in Canada) are shared with that company?s Sonata, and they jointly operate their global engineering operations.


This allows Kia to utilize the same hybrid powertrain as the recently released Sonata Hybrid, key in making it a financially viable proposition. (With a base manufacturer?s suggested retail price of $30,595, the Optima Hybrid undercuts all but the $596 cheaper Sonata, although the Kia is slightly better equipped.)


It?s a ?full? hybrid system, meaning that it is capable of propelling the vehicle entirely with electric power (potentially at speeds in excess of 100 km/h), and it is a design of Hyundai/Kia?s own, not simply a licensed version of an existing system, as is the case in the Nissan Altima Hybrid, which uses Toyota?s technology.


As with any hybrid, things are pretty technical. The greasy bits are composed of a 2.4 litre ?Theta II? four cylinder gasoline engine using the Atkinson-cycle ? basically a modification in valve timing strategy that compromises low-rpm power for greater overall efficiency ? teamed with a pair of electric motor/generators that can propel or recharge the vehicle as required.


It differs considerably from the Toyota and Ford designs beyond those basic aspects in several key ways. Most apparent is that there is a conventional 6-speed automatic transmission, rather than the CVT-style transmission used in those other systems, so it behaves in a familiar manner and seldom drones when accelerating. Shift quality is very good.


The 30 kW primary drive motor resides in the transmission (roughly where the torque converter would be), and there?s clutches that allow the gasoline engine to be mechanically disconnected from the transmission/motor to facilitate electric-only operation. When connected, a torsional damper reduces engine vibration.

The second motor, the Hybrid Starter Generator (HSG), looks like a giant alternator and is connected to the crankshaft via a drive belt. Kia is quick to point out that it is not the same as the similar-looking ?BAS? mild-hybrid system used on some earlier GM models.


Beyond engine starting and charging duties, it is used to synchronize the gasoline engine?s speeds with the primary electric motor before recoupling them to eliminate driveline shudder.


It works: the transition from gasoline to electric operation and back is normally very subtle, at times completely indiscernible without the aid of the ?EV Mode? indicator in the cluster.


Additionally, this Korean system is the first mass-produced hybrid I?m aware of that uses lithium-polymer (LiPo) batteries for energy storage. While they still consume about 167 litres of the front of the Optima?s otherwise good-sized trunk, these LG-Chem designed cells are more compact and energy-dense than the nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries used in most other hybrids, allowing for a token back-seat pass-through for hockey sticks or skis.


Externally, there?s little other than some silver accents and a hidden tailpipe to differentiate the Hybrid from other Optimas, particularly the turbocharged SX model, which uses the same grille and trunk spoiler.


Hidden behind the signature ?Tiger Nose? grille is an active shutter system that aids highway-speed aerodynamics. The wheels are therefore easiest to spot, with base Hybrids getting unique flat-faced 16-inch alloys, and the Premium version 17-inchers.


Internally, the replacement of the tachometer with a power gauge and some added readouts and animations in the cluster?s central LCD screen are about all that changes, although astute Kia fans might notice that the base Hybrid is the only Optima model to have leatherette seats with carbon-fibre patterned cloth inserts.


All Hybrids feature Kia?s Microsoft-designed UVO voice-recognition touch-screen audio system.


Kia?s tuning of the steering and suspension is its own, and while the electrically-assisted steering is devoid of feedback, it has a nice heft, a responsive ratio, and excellent high-speed stability.


This Optima is far more willing to carve along a twisty road than its granola-munching mission and low-rolling resistance tires would suggest and I was quite impressed by the quality and maturity of the ride. No longer the stereotypical Korean mush.


The total rated output is 195 lb.-ft. of torque and a class-leading 206 horsepower, but gearing chosen to favour highway fuel economy (where the slipperier Sonata Hybrid rules) results in acceleration that?s adequate but not inspirational; by Kia?s reckoning half a second or less slower to 100 km/h from rest than all but the Camry.


Tackling the hills on the road to Tofino, the Optima never felt underpowered, and there were several lumbering RVs that quickly saw the Hybrid?s LED taillights go by.


Kia?s offering a hybrid model is as much an investment as anything. As fuel prices continue to climb, hybrids are expected to account for a larger portion of new vehicle sales ? Kia predicts nearly 10 per cent by 2020. Being a player now gets your foot in the door, builds good green-will, and gives you a technological foundation to build on.


Early adopters and the eco-conscious alike will discover that beyond the expected roughly $2,000-$3,000 initial cost difference, there?s little compromise to be made in purchasing the Hybrid versions of the Optima over the non-turbo models.


Still new to the market, hybrid Sonatas already account for 16 per cent of Canadian intermediate hybrid sedan sales. On sale now, the arguably better-looking Optima Hybrid should have no trouble establishing a similar beachhead for Kia.


Transportation for freelance writer Brian Early was provided by the manufacturer. bandbearly@sympatico.ca


2011 KIA OPTIMA HYBRID


PRICES: Optima Hybrid/Optima Hybrid Premium – $30,595/$35,495


ENGINE: 16 valve 2.4L 4 cylinder engine: 16 valve 2.4L Atkinson-cycle 4 cylinder and AC-synchronous electric motor, HSG assist


POWER/TORQUE: 206 hp/195 lb.-ft.


FUEL CONSUMPTION: L/100 km – City/Hwy, 5.6/4.9


COMPETITION: Ford Fusion Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid, VW Passat TDI


WHAT?S BEST: Well integrated and nearly seamless hybrid system; probably the best-riding hybrid sedan currently available.


WHAT?S WORST: Rear seat and trunk are not spacious; unproven-in-application battery technology and no corporate hybrid history.


  • 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid: In the same league as the big boys 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid, photographed on Vancouver Island, British Columbia during its Canadian launch. Brian Early image.

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