2012 Kia Optima Hybrid review: Good looking…and a hybrid too

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid

A dialog between a parking lot attendant and us, the latter driving a 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid.

He: (Looking at the nameplate) I didn’t know Kia made a sports car.

Us: (Blank stare)

He: I mean a sporty car (he says, noticing the four doors)

Us: Uh, it’s Kia Optima. A Kia sedan.

He: Well, it looks really good.

Us: (Drive away, silently, because this is a Kia Optima Hybrid. We wonder whether he noticed).

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid interior

The Premium Technology Package in the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid includes heated and cooled front seats and heated rear seats. (click to enlarge)

We confess to becoming inured of the Optima’s sophisticated styling, a little too used to it. It definitely is a “really good looking” car. And we’re somewhat embarrassed to keep saying, yes, from Kia.

Likewise, we’ve commented over and over again about the quality of Kia interiors.

And there’s Kia technology, such as the gasoline direct-injection turbocharged engine, as used in the Optima Turbo. It’s admittedly shared with corporate cousin Hyundai, just as the Optima’s platform shared with the Hyundai Sonata. In a review of the 2011 Sonata, we called the naturally-aspirated direct-injection engine “a peach.” We’re not likely to change our minds.

However, this review is about the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid. And we’ll say that if the GDI engine is a peach the hybrid powertrain in the Optima Hybrid—also shared with the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid—is the cat’s meow.

The power train isn’t me-too, playing catch up with the hybrid systems other manufacturers but a new design from the ground up. It’s a full parallel hybrid system, with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine producing 166 horsepower. It’s connected via a wet clutch to an Interior Permanent Magnet (IPM) synchronous electric motor with a 40 horsepower output and 151 lb-ft of torque up to 1,400 rpm in full-electric mode.

2012 Kia Optima Hybrid engine

The powertrain of the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid is a full-parallel system with a 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine. (click to enlarge)

Unlike many other full-parallel systems that use a continuously variable transmission or epicyclic gearbox, the Kia/Hyundai system uses a mostly conventional six-speed automatic transmission. The full parallel hybrid system can be driven in full-electric drive mode at speeds up to 62 miles per hour or in blended gas-electric mode at any speed.

Of course, the Kia Optima Hybrid auto stop/start, the engine turning off completely when stopped to save fuel and reduce emissions.  Overall, the Optima Hybrid’s fuel economy is EPA rated at 35 miles per gallon city and 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

Energy storage for the Optima Hybrid is an air-cooled 270V lithium-polymer (Li-PB) battery. The blower for cooling battery can be seen in the trunk and the intake vent is in the package tray behind the back seat…so be careful where you put the bobble-head dogs. Developed in partnership with LG Chem, Kia claims “Li-PB chemistry offers an optimum balance of power delivery, energy density, reliability and thermal stability. Compared to commonly used nickel metal hydride systems, Kia’s Li-PB system is 20-30 percent lighter, occupies 40 percent less volume, is 10 percent more efficient, offers two times the power density, and holds a charge 25 percent longer than many comparable competitor systems.”

The battery pack weighs in at a mere 95 pounds—about the same as the average half-gown kid—and with the polymer technology, the battery is flexible enough to wrap around body and mechanical elements, making it much more space efficient than batteries with fixed dimensions. Still, the Optima Hybrid’s trunk is only 9.9 cubic feet, losing about a third of its cargo capacity.

Interestingly, as with many hybrid or high-efficiency models, the Kia Optima Hybrid has its exterior massaged, changed  slightly from other Optima models. For example, the Hybrid has a different headlamp design from ordinary Optimas “that helps to channel air around the vehicle.” Other aerodynamic tweaks include special outside mirrors, a rear spoiler, smooth belly panels for better airflow under the vehicle, and the Hybrid is smoother along its sides at the rear.

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