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2012 Kia Optima HybridFirst Kia with gasoline/electric powertrain delivers smoothly satisfying road experience
Some automakers-notably Toyota and Honda-leaped upon the hybrid-powertrain bandwagon early. Others joined the gasoline/electric group later, but several continued to hold back, searching for other ways to boost gas mileage. Among the reluctant entrants was Kia, which finally launched its first hybrid model in 2011, echoing the introduction of a gasoline/electric Sonata sedan from its South Korean corporate parent, Hyundai. Like its corporate cousin, the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid sedan brings an appealing level of fuel-efficiency.
Up to 40 MPG on the Highway
Kia claimed "class-leading" fuel efficiency for the Optima Hybrid when it appeared as a 2011 model: up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway and 35 mpg in city driving. Two configurations are available: the base model, and a more costly version fitted with a Premium and Technology Package. The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid has added an HE Radio and power-folding mirrors to its available Hybrid Premium and Technology Package.
An air-cooled 270-volt lithium-polymer battery pack, developed in partnership with LG Chem, works with an electric motor. Compared to the older nickel metal hydride batteries, Kia's Li-PB battery is said to be 20-30 percent lighter, occupies 40 percent less volume, and is 10 percent more efficient. According to Kia, it also holds a charge 25 percent longer than many competitors' batteries, and is warranted for up to 10 years or 150,000 miles.
Hybrid Power and Performance
Developing 166 horsepower, Kia's 2.4-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine is connected via a wet clutch to the electric motor, which yields 40 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque in full-electric mode. Rather than using a continuously variable transmission (CVT), as in most hybrids, Kia's gasoline/electric system is connected to a six-speed automatic transmission.
Because it's a full parallel hybrid system, the Kia Optima Hybrid can be driven in full-electric mode at up to 62 mph, for a relatively short period. When the car comes to a halt and the electric load is slow, the engine shuts off completely, restarting again as the driver touches the accelerator pedal. Or if it's starting off from a stop in electric-only mode, the gas engine restarts later. A Virtual Engine Sound System plays a prerecorded engine sound during electric-only operation at up to 12 mph, to help notify pedestrians (including the blind) that the car is approaching.
Claiming a "coupe-like profile," the 2012 Optima Hybrid sedan sits 5 millimeters (0.2 inch) lower than regular Optimas-a difference that isn't likely to be noticed. Distinctive Optima Hybrid features include a chrome version of the customary grille, lightweight 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, foglamps, heated outside mirrors, and LED taillamps. Unique headlights help to channel air, while smooth underfloor panels aim to improve airflow.
Front/rear lower bumpers and side sills were inspired by the sporty SX trim level. An active air flap system in the grille automatically opens and closes based on speed, engine temperature and airflow, to help reduce drag. At 0.26, the car's drag coefficient is 10 percent "slippier" than non-hybrid Optimas. Models equipped with the Premium Technology Package get 17-inch wheels with low-rolling-resistance tires, power-folding mirrors, and high-intensity-discharge headlights.
Interior and Safety Features
Inside, the instrument panel is said to be "contoured toward the driver." Standard Kia Optima Hybrid features, comparable to the LX trim level, include an eight-way power driver's seat, dual-zone automatic temperature control, pushbutton start, a "Supervisor" instrument cluster with LCD display for hybrid information, and leather-wrapped steering wheel. Fixed rear seats include a ski pass-through.
Six airbags are standard, along with electronic stability control. Kia's Premium and Technology Package adds a panoramic sunroof, four-way power front passenger seat, driver's seat memory, heated/cooled front seats, heated rear seats and steering wheel, and a navigation system with backup camera.
Kia Optima Hybrid Driving Impression
Magnificent is the word for operation of Kia's hybrid powertrain system, which stays in EV mode for quite a while as long as you don't push hard on the accelerator pedal. Battery/gasoline transition is barely perceptible-sometimes, not noticeable at all. Excellent sound insulation keeps engine sound well subdued. Occupants get plenty of front-seat space, with a comparatively long driver's seat bottom. Visibility is top-notch.
Smooth and quiet on the highway, the Optima Hybrid has a pleasantly light steering feel-but not excessively so. Thus, you can expect nice control in turns. A superior ride is the rule, too, at least on good roads.
Acceleration is rather enthusiastic from a standstill, but more modest when pushing the pedal at 50 mph or so. Either way, response is quick, with no significant delay for a downshift. In fact, the transmission often feels almost like a CVT in terms of smoothness.
A neat ECO indicator with a green segment that reveals efficient driving sits at the left of the instrument cluster, with a bright, easy-to-read speedometer at the right. With a nearly full tank, the indicator showed Distance to Empty greater than 550 miles, suggesting that gas-station stops will be infrequent.
The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price of $26,450 (including $750 destination charge). Adding the Hybrid Premium and Technology Package adds a hefty $5,350 to the total. In contrast, a conventional Optima sedan ranges from $21,750 for an automatic-transmission LX model to $27,250 for the sportier SX edition. www.kia.com