Like all green cars these days, the Optima features not one, but four different Eco score displays that aim to make a game out of using less fuel. In the instrument cluster's LCD, you can view either your trip Eco score or your long-term Eco score, both of which add leaves to a virtual branch as you drive more efficiently. In the large LCD at the center of the dashboard, there are also two more Eco score screens: one shows leaves blowing off of a moving vehicle, with more leaves indicating that you are being more green; a second shows a rotating planet Earth on which you can watch pollution grow or forests flourish as a response to your miles per gallon. It's all very gimmicky and we found that we usually defaulted to the most basic green driving screen: a simple rolling graph displaying fuel economy over the last half hour in 2.5-minute intervals.
In theory, the Optima's hybrid power train should be good for an EPA-estimated 35 city mpg and 40 highway mpg. In practice, we weren't able to reach either of those numbers. Even with testing done primarily in Eco mode and skewed heavily toward highway driving--an area in which Kia tells us the Optima should excel--and treating the accelerator pedal like an eggshell, we were only able to get the trip computer to hang just below the 31 mpg mark. That's only 3 mpg better than we were able to squeeze out of the standard Kia Optima EX's GDI engine. Granted, during our week with the Optima Hybrid, the vehicle was driven by a few different drivers with potentially different driving styles, but we almost never see a hybrid miss its EPA estimated range. Of course, your mileage may vary.
The Optima's Technology package is built around an 8GB solid-state memory-based navigation system that, while basic in appearance, performs quite well. By basic, we mean that the maps are only available in a two-dimensional, top-down view with no fancy 3D or three-quarters view available. Map resolution is very good and easy to read at a glance, which we think is more important than the lack of eye candy. Traffic data is included with navigation, as an add-on to the standard Sirius Satellite Radio connection. Turn-by-turn directions feature text-to-speech spoken street names. The touch-screen interface is intuitively organized and includes a display for an optional rearview camera. However, switching between the various modes available (navigation, destination input, audio source selection, and so on) requires using a bank of physical keys that is located a few inches below the touch screen. After a week of heavy use, we still had to take our eyes off of the road for a few seconds to find the button that switched the display from audio playback to showing the map. However, this is a minor hurdle that we're sure a driver would eventually surmount.
Speaking of audio sources, our Optima EX was equipped with a number of them. USB and analog auxiliary connectivity are standard, as are Bluetooth audio streaming and satellite radio. Using an Apple product with Kia's audio system requires a $35 adapter. Browsing a connected iPod or iPhone is easy thanks to a responsive interface that allowed us to quickly sift through our longer playlists. More conventional audio sources include a single-disk CD and MP3 player and AM/FM radio.
If you select the Technology package, the stock six-speaker stereo is replaced by an eight-speaker Infinity audio system that includes a small subwoofer. Audio quality is balanced with a nice neutral sound that, at its flat setting, is neither muddy nor harsh. Bass output can be tweaked for a nice thump, but this is not a boomy system. However you choose to tune the three-band EQ, the Infinity system is difficult to put out of sorts, providing mostly distortion-free playback at most reasonable volumes and great staging thanks to its thoughtful speaker placement. (Oddly, the button for adjusting sound settings disappears when the system is streaming audio over Bluetooth, so you'll have to jump to another source to pump up the bass, for example.)
All of the Optima Hybrid's tech goodies come as part of a $5,000 package that includes navigation, the backup camera, a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled front leather seats, a heated steering wheel, heated leather rear seats, 17-inch wheels, HID headlights, and the fantastic premium audio option, making it quite a good value for the money.
If you elect to pass on the Technology package, the Optima Hybrid still comes well equipped with Kia's answer to Ford Sync, a new Uvo voice-command infotainment system by Microsoft. An incompatibility between the systems prevents navigation and Uvo from being installed at the same time, so we weren't able to test Uvo this time around. However, we did get.
Hands-free calling connectivity comes by way of the same standard Bluetooth connection that provides audio streaming. After a quick and easy pairing process, the Kia's hands-free system will automatically download address book entries from a compatible phone, and its voice recognition system enables you to initiate calls without having to assign voice tags. Simply press the talk button and say, "Call Wayne at work," and--provided that Wayne is in your address book--the Kia will figure out the rest. Voice command for audio playback and destination entry would be nice, but aren't supported in this model.
We really liked the Kia Optima EX, so it's no surprise that we also really liked the Kia Optima Hybrid. On the outside, it's practically the same car, with the same head-turning, "Wait, that's a Kia?!" styling and fantastic cabin technology that we recommended previously. However, the whole point of going hybrid is an increase in fuel economy over the non-electrified model. We understand that mileage varies so we're keeping the EPA's 35 city and 40 highway mpg in mind for scoring, but seeing is believing, and at an observed 32 mpg for the Optima Hybrid, we didn't see much of an improvement over the Optima EX with the 2.4-liter GDI engine.
As tested, our 2011 Optima Hybrid in Satin Metallic came to $32,250. That's $26,500 base, plus $5,000 for the Technology package, which we highly recommend, and a $750 destination charge. That price puts the Optima Hybrid squarely in competition with the, a smaller vehicle with arguably better cabin technology and fuel economy that we observed at about 36 mpg combined. The Optima's primary advantages are more interior space and potentially better highway fuel economy than the Ford, but the latter will largely depend on your driving habits. When the dust settles, the Optima doesn't have what it takes to wrest the Editors' Choice Award crown from the Ford, but Kia does find itself in good company near the top of the heap.
|Model||2011 Kia Optima|
|Power train||2.4-liter Atkinson cycle hybrid|
|EPA fuel economy||35 city, 40 highway mpg|
|Observed fuel economy||32 mpg|
|Navigation||optional solid-state-memory-based with Sirius Satellite Traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||basic voice command, phonebook sync|
|Disc player||CD/ MP3|
|MP3 player support||analog RCA auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection|
|Other digital audio||optional Bluetooth stereo streaming, Sirius Satellite Radio|
|Audio system||Infinity premium audio|
|Driver aids||optional rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$32,250|