Kia Optima is a freshly redesigned midsize sedan that comes in three versions. The Kia Optima was redesigned for 2011. The 2011 Optima lineup included a compelling EX base model and a Turbo model that proved to be a hit.
The 2012 Optima lineup adds a Hybrid version using a 2.4-liter I4 Atkinson cycle gas engine that produces 166 horsepower with an electric motor with 40 horsepower. The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid gets an EPA-estimated 35/40 miles per gallon City/Highway.
Optima is at the forefront of midsize design: sleek and muscular, with none of the odd feel that sometimes characterizes new Asian cars. It is a car of finesse, with distinguished aesthetics, except for that grille.
Inside, the interior appointments and materials are handsome, generous, and of high quality, overall. Beautiful leather adorns the dashboard and seating, comfortable with firm support, including the rear. The design and layout of the instrumentation reflect thought and employ the latest technology. Legible, jewel-like instruments signal that this is no bland commuter module, though the Optima does make a good commuter module. The expected conveniences are all there, plus bonuses such as a cooled glove compartment for keeping beverages cool.
Optima offers heated/cooled seating, navigation with rearview camera, paddle-shifter transmission, and an extra-large panoramic sunroof. Connectivity conveniences include satellite radio, USB audio input jacks and Bluetooth wireless, with steering wheel voice activation controls that deliver hands-free phone operation.
Optima uses front-wheel drive and a four-wheel independent suspension that is athletic and responsive. We found the ride quality compliant over rougher pavement, filtering out harshness, while the suspension accurately communicates smaller bumps and ripples. The chassis is good, and although Optima is no performance sedan, its handling has a sporty glimmer.
The Kia Optima EX, the base trim and most common model, uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder making 200 horsepower. This engine is short on excitement, but it's fine for most drivers. Quiet at highway cruising speeds, it delivers enough power to keep up with fast traffic on the freeways, while delivering an EPA-estimated 24/35 mpg City/Highway.
The 274-hp Optima Turbo sweetly carries this sedan into another world. The Optima Turbo's performance, stability and agility are first rate, and its silky smooth engine is amazing for a 2.0-liter four-cylinder. It squirts from 0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds, very quick indeed, and through the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds.
The Optima Hybrid drags Optima back into a third world. Its EPA estimated mileage is 35/40 miles per gallon. However, we only got 25.5 mpg during our lead-footed stint. The 6-speed automatic transmission was rough, which we blame on its electronic programming.
Optima Hybrid uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine that produces 166 horsepower connected by a wet clutch to an Interior Permanent Magnet (IPM) synchronous electric motor producing 40 horsepower. The battery that powers the electric motor is state of the art, a 270V lithium-polymer (Li-PB) battery. Compared to a nickel metal hydride system, this 95-pound Li-PB system is 20-30 percent lighter, 40 percent smaller, holds a charge 25 percent longer, is 10 percent more efficient, and offers twice the power density. The warranty is good for up to 10 years or 150,000 miles. It's a hybrid, so you don't need to plug it in. Just fill it with gas and go.
When this generation Optima was introduced as a 2011 model, it was a bold, fresh prism through which to view the Kia image. As with the Sorento and quirky good-natured Soul, the new Optima's design focus is not Korean nor even Asian. It is a world car like sedans from Ford, Toyota or Honda. Sleek, aggressive and modern, the Optima is at ease; it's like a well-tailored Italian suit, made in Korea.
The suit seems a bit tight in the front, though. The Optima grille, a sharp-angled chrome bezel surrounding a black mesh screen, arouses opposite opinions. One correspondent called it elegantly simple, comparing it to Jaguar and Bentley, but most of us think it looks like it came out of an aftermarket catalog.
The racy wraparound headlamps, and low wide stance, imply athleticism. The front air dam is low enough to scrape in surprising places for a so-called sedate sedan like this, and gives the nose an aggressive look while helping fuel mileage. Scraping can be annoying if your driveway or a nearby intersection you use is severe enough to cause the nose to drag.
The sides of the car are admirably clean, with three horizontal character lines giving them form and flow. Handsome flared fenders add muscularity to the Optima's flanks.
The wheels come in several patterns and sizes, and are cutting edge. The sporty Optima SX comes with wheels that make a strong styling statement, but because they're soft alloy and wider than the tires, it's very easy to scrape and scar them against a curb.
Wraparound red taillights complete the dynamic look, with dual chrome exhausts, one at each side, fulfilling the sporty image by gilding the rose, since dual exhausts on an inline four-cylinder are pure styling, like snowshoes on a duck. Still, the imagery is enticing.
The Optima's interior concedes nothing to its European or American competitors, except for its black plastic trim. The dashboard uses pebble-grain black leather, handsomely stitched with French seams. Optional leather spreads to the seats, trimmed with fabric.
The instrument panel is clean, including four handsome horizontal climate vents. Instruments use a clear font. The lettering on the tach and speedometer is organic white with a red needle, although the tach is too small to be very useful.
The leather-wrapped four-spoke steering wheel is thick, feels good in the hands. It tilts and telescopes, and contains controls for audio, cruise control, phone and a big green button for Eco. Heating is optional.
The five-passenger seating is excellent, with a full range of adjustability available in the driver's seat. The seats are firm, well-bolstered, and deliver snug lateral support for more vigorous driving. However, the center-rear passenger must ride the camel's hump, and the rear legroom is on the low side of average, at 34.7 inches. Heated front and rear seating is available, as is front cooling and a cooled glovebox for drinks.
The front windows feature fully automatic one-touch up/down operation, a provision found in pricier European sedans. The panoramic sunroof is huge, airy and truly bright. When closing it, the sunscreen panel closes automatically. A separate function opens only the screen and tilt roof. Nice, as with the controls on the center console, angled slightly towards the driver.
The right side B pillar creates a blind spot over the driver's shoulder.
Starting the car turns on the screen. One thing we continue to hate, and gets us off on the wrong foot every time, is having to click I AGREE to something, before the car will even show you its clock. Adding insult to injury, on the Optima you have to reach way up there to AGREE. We have no idea what we're agreeing to.
The screen didn't get much better for us. There are a bewildering number of things to click: GPS, Daylight Savings Time, some icon that looks like a hairbrush, and so on. The Navigation is fairly easy to set, and you can operate it while the car is moving, though we recommend your co-driver perform this duty. We found the navigation in our car inaccurate. It was so wrong it was useless at worst, untrustworthy at best. It was totally confused by a freeway branch outside the city, and if we hadn't known our way and ignored it, it would have put us on the wrong freeway, wrong direction, for at least six miles. Another time, we were parked in front of our destination, and navigation told us to drive around the block: The map on the screen showed four right turns at the end of each block, to reach where we already were.
The display for the Hybrid is only slightly strange, for a hybrid: growing flowers in Eco mode, the bigger the bouquet the better you're doing. In the center of the speedo a display shows average and instant fuel mileage, with blue bars that move with the throttle position, duh. It also scores your efficiency. There's a big round instrument on the left that's an Eco guide, with white, green and red zones. You can see energy flow back and forth between the wheels, battery, and engine. Fun to watch for the first few minutes of the few years you might own the car.
The Hybrid offers a Microsoft voice-activated infotainment system with its audio system, incorporating Bluetooth and back-up camera. Infinity's deluxe 12-speaker audio system, with stylish speakers in the doors and dash, delivered superb sound.
A Virtual Engine Sound System (VESS) plays an engine sound during electric-only operation up to 12 miles per hour, to help notify people outside the vehicle that it is approaching. We would have liked to hear this mock buzz, but we couldn't get the Hybrid to run on electric only. It took the internal combustion engine just to back downhill out of our driveway. Nothing new with hybrids. And rather than a buzz, why not play music? Hi folks, we're coming through, now how about a little Led Zeppelin for you? Or perhaps exotic engine sounds, like a Formula 1 Ferrari or an old Can Am car. Or maybe it should woo woo like an old steam locomotive. Purposely making cars noisier. Is that progress?
The Hybrid's air conditioning system uses an electric compressor, reducing the losses in belt-driven systems and allowing cool air to flow, even with the engine off in Idle-Stop mode. We didn't test it because it was freezing outside. So far, we've found that when they say cool air, they mean exactly that, as in not hot. Don't expect air-conditioning cold, in summer.
Cargo space is vast in the Optima EX and SX (15.4 cubic feet), but not so vast with the Hybrid (9.9 cubic feet) because of battery placement.
The driving character of the Optima varies by model.
The Optima EX comes with the 200-hp 2.4-liter four cylinder engine, which we found flexible, very quiet, and reasonably powerful. As the engine most Optima buyers will choose, it is well suited to family duties both in daily traffic and at highway and commute speeds.
Even at middle throttle, accelerating from a stop, the engine is only distantly audible. Only under full acceleration does this engine remind you that it's a small four-cylinder, with an agonized yowl. At the more common task of accelerating away from an intersection, the Optima EX excels, smoothly and predictably gaining speed with no drama. In other words, throttle tip-in at slow speeds is linear and without surges; many cars nowadays jump off the line with overly sensitive throttles.
The Optima EX rides nicely, passing over rough surfaces with little effort, soaking up roughness while delivering necessary road information to the driver. Chassis dynamics are excellent for a family mid-size car. Steering is accurate, firm and provided good feedback over twisting terrain. Pushing harder, there is good front-wheel grip, and when we hit a long curve at high speed, the multi-link rear end hooked up nicely. The usual ride responses experienced in vigorous driving, such as body roll, dive and squat, are well controlled, thanks to the car's rigid chassis.
Handling-wise, everything the EX does well, the Optima SX Turbo does crisper. The SX includes a sport-tuned suspension.
The Optima 2.0T is a sweet performance star with a classy ride. The Turbo's performance, stability and agility are first rate. Silky smooth engine, amazing for a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, thanks to the Korean carmaker on the other side of town; the engine is shared with the Hyundai Sonata. It makes 274 horsepower, squirts the Optima from 0 to 60 in 6.5 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 14.8 seconds, muscle car times. What's more, if you get the EPA estimate of 22/34 mpg City/Highway, it'll be as good as we got in our real world with the Optima Hybrid.
The Optima Hybrid delivered unimpressive fuel mileage when we drove it with no babying. EPA rates the Optima Hybrid 35/40 miles per gallon City/Highway. But our combined average, after 240 around-town and fast freeway miles, was 25.5 mpg. Around town we got just 20.5 mpg. Highest we reached was 39.4 mpg, in Eco mode at 60 mph; that's how to match the claims or EPA estimate. At 78 mph, with the Eco button amusingly still pressed, the average was 25.0 mpg.
Both the Turbo and Hybrid use a 6-speed automatic transmission, but the Turbo's is smooth, while the Hybrid's is programmed to get better fuel mileage. We found the Optima Hybrid transmission awful. It would not respond to on-off throttle, for example on the freeway shooting for holes. When it's changing gears, sometimes it feels like it's slipping, other times like it's snatching. It felt like we were towing a big bag of boulders.
The Hybrid uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle gas engine that produces 166 horsepower connected by a wet clutch to an Interior Permanent Magnet (IPM) synchronous electric motor producing 40 horsepower and 151 lb-ft of torque up to 1,400 rpm in electric mode. Hyundai says it can be driven in full-electric mode at speeds up to 62 miles per hour. Supposedly when the car comes to a stop and the electrical load is low, the engine shuts off to completely eliminate idle fuel consumption and emissions. Ours never did that.
The battery that powers the electric motor is state of the art, a 270V lithium-polymer (Li-PB) battery. Compared to a nickel metal hydride system, this 95-pound Li-PB system is 20-30 percent lighter, 40 percent smaller, holds a charge 25 percent longer, is 10 percent more efficient, and offers twice the power density. The warranty is good for up to 10 years or 150,000 miles.
Wintry conditions do not suit the Optima. When we drove the Hybrid in snow we found little traction. We'll remember this Optima as the one-wheel-drive car. On our sloping driveway with a couple inches of snow, left front tire on asphalt and right front on ice, the power went to the tire on the ice, which just spun, as the car went nowhere. If you live in the Snow Belt look elsewhere.
The Kia Optima lineup includes three models each with distinctive characters. The base Optima EX, the model most buyers will choose, is well suited to family duties, with decent acceleration, a good ride, and generous creature comforts. The fast and silky Turbo is an impressive underdog against European sports sedans. The new Hybrid needs work, with its rough transmission and uninspired fuel mileage.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses contributed to this report from the Pacific Northwest. Ted West contributed to this report.