Kia has really come a long way in a short time, and it seems that few people have taken notice. Styling is the most visible improvement to Kia's product portfolio, and Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi, gets the credit there. Powertrains have also come a long way, though they aren't quite as remarkable as the new design language.
My main concern with the Optima Hybrid is the shudder you feel when leaving from a stop. It's possible to glide away on electric power, but most starts require assistance from the gas engine and there's a definite shudder when it kicks in. The shudder isn't terrible; and not that long ago this could have been considered a pretty well calibrated hybrid system. But developments in hybrids are happening very quickly. It's now common for new entries to leapfrog the competition, and Kia just hasn't made that big of a leap.
I do like Kia's choice of a conventional torque convertor automatic transmission. If the engine is running, it feels and sounds like a normal midsize sedan. No CVT here causing the engine to hang at the power peak during acceleration while filling the cabin with an unrefined sound. If it weren't for the shudder when the gas engine kicks in, I'm sure most people wouldn't notice the Optima were a hybrid.
The Optima is still a strong competitor in the mid-size hybrid sedan class. I'd probably choose the Ford Fusion, because of its better powertrain calibration and integration, but I wouldn't fault anyone for choosing the Optima if they were put off by the Ford's gimmicky instrument cluster.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I certainly can understand the appeal of a midsize sedan with fuel economy ratings of 35 mpg city and 40 on the highway. But the sacrifices in drivability demanded by the Optima hybrid are too much.
The spring steering, grabby brakes, and non-linear throttle response create sort of a funhouse driving experience, except that's it's really not fun.
Kia can do better than this. A turn behind the wheel of the Optima turbo proves it.
Joe Lorio, Senior Editor
As both Phil and Joe have noted, Kia has some work to do in with its hybrid powertrain. Other manufacturers (Toyota and Ford) have managed to tune their hybrids so that the transitions from electric to gasoline power are relatively transparent, but in this Kia, there's a definite lag as the gasoline engine kicks in.
One thing the Kia has in spades, however, is its styling. Case in point: My sister is currently looking for a new car to replace her aging Volvo S60. She's has been considering the Lexus IS, Infiniti G, Volkswagen CC, and Mercedes C-class, among other premium sedans. Imagine my surprise when she mentioned that she'd seen the Kia Optima and thought it looked like something she might be interested in. That speaks volumes to the huge strides Kia as made in appealing to buyers.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
Ditto to my colleagues' complaints about the Kia Optima Hybrid's touchy brakes and rubbery steering, but I will point out that off-the-line acceleration, at least, is pretty strong. The all-new Toyota Camry Hybrid has surpassed the Kia's hybrid efforts, no surprise given Toyota's leadership in that arena, but I imagine Kia will catch up pretty quickly. For now, if you want a Kia Optima, get one with the standard gasoline engine or upgrade to the turbo. If a hybrid sedan is specifically what you want, look to the Ford Fusion or the Toyota Camry.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Given that this is Kia's first production hybrid, it's not surprising that the system could use a little polish. The engine's start-up delivers an ungainly shudder, and the switch between regenerative and physical brake systems isn't seamless. That said, the Optima hybrid is a formidable first effort, and it incorporates some features - notably the conventional six-speed automatic transmission - that help it stand apart from some competitors.
The problem is, as Phil Floraday suggests, that this segment moves at an extremely fast pace. Addressing these calibration issues isn't an insurmountable task, but it would behoove Kia to tackle them sooner than later. Seeing as the Optima's sophistication already surpasses most expectations, it deserves a hybrid driveline that matches.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor