2012 Kia Optima Hybrid Review

“Wow, nice car!

“Whoa, what car is this?”

“Holy crap, THIS is a Kia?”

These are the questions I have gotten repeatedly over the last week, because I have had a Kia Optima Hybrid to review. To say this is a nice car is an understatement. It’s an amazing car. The Optima was a pleasure to drive, and had every feature and luxury you could ever imagine or want in a high-end sedan. What made it such a standout vehicle? Read on to find out!

First, let’s talk aesthetics. The Optima is a gorgeous car. It has some very sporty touches, like a spoiler on the trunk, chrome accents, sleek lines, and a grill on the front. Inside, the chrome accents continue to pop against the black interior, and the seats are a soft leather. But the best part of the car is the panoramic sunroof, which looks great fully opened as well as with just the shade retracted. Everyone who hopped in the car commented on how nice it was, and it was especially nice at dusk, when we could open it to let in some light and enjoy the evening air. The car felt solid, and even just opening and closing the doors had a good weight to them. You felt that this was a well-made car; nothing looks or feels plasticky or cheap.

The quality design extends to the features as well. When I first got in the car, I could not believe the array of features. The Optima has everything-Bluetooth calling and audio streaming, GPS, Sirius Satellite Radio, Infinity speakers, a backup camera, and of course voice recognition and commands. It even has a driver 1/driver 2 setting that remembers preferences for seat and side mirror placement, which is invaluable if you often switch off cars with a significant other. Sarah hates how I like to drive (seat straight up) and I hate how far back she sets her seats. If we had this on our regular cars we would save ourselves a great deal of fiddling!

There were a few little touches that made the interior design of the Optima so nice. One, the auxiliary, USB, and car charger ports were all in the center console below the LCD and menu options. They also had an iPhone hookup included that used the USB and auxiliary to power and connect an iPhone or iPod, which was very handy. The placement of the ports meant the phone had a home that was accessible but out of the way, and it didn’t require stashing it in a cup holder or having a mess of wires running all over the front seat. Also, the buttons all had excellent tactile feedback. It’s a small thing, but the feel of buttons becomes incredibly important when you are driving. The ones on the steering wheel alternated raised and indented to make it easy to navigate without looking, and the media console ones were solid but easy to press. Again, it is hard to describe, except that nothing felt remotely cheap or like a corner had been cut, everything felt very well thought out and put together.

The actual technology package was equally high-end. Voice recognition worked perfectly, and with the inclusion of the GPS there were obviously a few more menu items to navigate, but it was still quick, and even understood me over the roar of the air conditioning. I want to address the hybrid system separately, but between the hybrid monitoring options, the various ways to stream and play media, and the GPS, there is quite an array of settings and options on the console, but nothing was more than one to two button presses from being available, and all of it was fast and easy to understand. I really liked the GPS, especially because it included icons for points of interests along the way. If I needed an ATM and saw my bank’s symbol on the map, all I had to do was tap it and select it as a destination. There was also a point of interest library as well, and it pulled up gas stations and other stores very quickly. One item that I know is common in luxury vehicles: the Optima has seat warmers and coolers. While that was great on hot days, I felt a bit like this was the epitome of a first world issue-the fancy leather seats get hot easily, so I need a/c in the seats! Admittedly, it is a fun experience to feel the seat cool down!

Driving the Optima was my favorite part. It rode incredibly smoothly, and felt like a luxury vehicle. Some of that is the hybrid engine making for a smooth, quiet ride, but much of that was also just the solid feeling of the car itself. In fact, I took my dad for a ride in the Optima to get his opinion, and he found it to be just as comfortable as his Maxima. He has driven a Nissan Maxima for as long as I can remember, and as we went through the features of the Optima and we drove around, he agreed it felt just as smooth as his car. This is high praise, considering the $10,000+ difference between the Optima and the much more expensive Maxima!

My personal vehicle is a Toyota Prius, the granddaddy of hybrids, so I was especially excited to experience the difference between the two hybrid systems. Now, my Prius gets 40 city/45 highway miles per gallon (mpg), but it is also built to be lighter and more aerodynamic. The Optima is rated for 35 city/40 highway, but it’s also a heavier car. One is designed from the ground up to wring every last mile per gallon out of the car, the other is a sedan that uses the hybrid system to improve gas mileage. Having said that, I found the Optima did a decent job at gas mileage. I averaged 33mpg in it, but I also had some really bad stop and go traffic on my commute to work this week. When there’s traffic like that and I drive my Prius, I routinely see my average miles per gallon drop from 43ish down to 39-40. So I would guesstimate that the Optima would have probably seen something closer to 35mpg over time.

One of my favorite ways to measure my gas mileage and efficiency in the Optima was through the ECO dial on the dashboard. If the dial stayed in the green area, it meant I was driving efficiently. Getting into white meant I was pushing it a bit, and if I had to accelerate quickly I hit the red zone. It was an easy visual to see how I was driving, and I noticed that the car kicked seamlessly into EV Mode (electric), even at high speeds. If I was on a flat or slight downhill stretch, I could easily ride in EV Mode for a few minutes even at 65-75 miles per hour. Even when it wasn’t quite that efficient, I found there was a sweet spot once the car had accelerated for a few moments where it would cruise along in the green zone for quite a while. There was a small LCD on the dash as well, and I could scroll through various screens to see average miles per gallon, my “Eco score” and other fun details.

There are a few quirks to hybrids that are worth noting. One, pickup can be a bit choppy. You won’t win a drag race in a hybrid vehicle. Second, if you get stuck in bad stuck and go traffic, the battery can run down. Both the Optima and the Prius use regenerative braking, meaning hitting the brakes recharges the battery, but bad traffic outstrips the brakes’ ability to recharge. I don’t know the technical aspects terribly well, but I have always thought of it as being similar to trying to charge an iPad while using it. Stop and go uses a ton of energy, so just like charging an iPad and using it, the braking can’t recharge the battery as fast as it runs down. This only matters because when the battery gets down to low you can distinctly feel it. In both my Prius and in the Optima, there’s a slight shudder as the car kicks over to gas only, presumably to preserve the battery. I only mention it because the sensation is distinctly different than when it is cruising along in hybrid mode, and I know that handoff sensation is often the a complaint about hybrid systems. It isn’t bad, but it’s a common criticism and I wanted to make sure I addressed it (and how it is noticeable but minor).

One other issue with it being a hybrid-you give up some trunk space. The battery is in the back, and you need a hefty battery for a hybrid vehicle, so the seats do not fold down, and some cargo space is sacrificed. However, it was more than enough to pack two bags, a dog bed, miscellaneous grocery bags, and other items. And since we started a pattern with my Kia Rio review, Dan had me hop into the trunk, proving it is at least large enough to hold a 5’7″ person. Please note that Gear Diary does not encourage or condone sticking people in trunks.

I said above that the difference between the Prius and the Optima is that one is about efficiency while the other is far more sedan. The Gear Diary editors took the Optima for a test drive during our “GearFest” weekend, and everyone agreed the backseat was incredibly roomy. This is a better hybrid option for a family, especially on a long car trip. There is more leg room and head room for backseat passengers, and even the front passenger had room to move back without cramping everyone too badly.

Just check out how much fun we had testing out the car:

The Optima package I reviewed has an MSRP of $32,620. Most people who saw the car were shocked that a Kia could run that expensive, but after going over the car feature by feature, the response usually changed to shock that you could get all that for only $32,620! I tried to comparison shop a bit, and it seemed like the closest competitor might be something like the Toyota Camry Hybrid (which clocked in around $35,000, without the sunroof and a few other small features the Kia offered), the Accord (non-hybrid, no sunroof, $35,000+), and yes, the Maxima (also not a hybrid, but well-matched feature for feature, and a whopping $40,000). So realistically, if you want a high-end, sporty style, great gas mileage and a full technology package, you can get almost all of it in the Kia Optima, or spend more and trade off…personally, if I were in the market for a new car today, the Optima would shoot to the top of my list! But don’t just take my word for it; I had a few people tell me their coworker/sister/cousin/neighbor just bought and loved an Optima (both hybrid and non-hybrid styles), so word is definitely spreading!

MSRP: $32,620 as reviewed, find your local Kia dealer here.

What I liked: Sleek and sporty style; excellent gas mileage for a large car; roomy interior; top-notch technology package; fantastic build quality; great value.

What Needs Improvement: Trunk space is cut slightly by the size of the hybrid battery.

Categories: Reviews

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5 replies

  1. Very glad to see size and quality and features going up while the price goes down for hybrids. I personally think liquid hydrogen is the future, but that’s me.

  2. Hyundai and Kia (same company, sharing platforms, but with rather different design and markets) have recently redone their entire lineup of vehicles to a lot of acclaim in the auto press and online.

    The hybrid has an MSRP of about $2500 more than the comparable EX trim of the non-hybrid (the base trim has an MSRP starting under $20K!). Hyundai and Kia are putting a lot of price and value pressure on the other automakers.

    • I agree, they really are.

      We rented a Toyota Camry while we are away this week. And I have to say, the Optima was just a significantly better car. The Camry is perfect for our needs, but frankly after using the Optima the Camry is just…boring.
      Sent from my iPad


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