2011 Kia Optima Hybrid review: 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Antuan Goodwin

Antuan Goodwin

Reviews Editor / Cars

Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and performance to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.

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8 min read

Editors' note: Portions of this review were taken from our evaluation of the 2011 Kia Optima EX, since the two vehicles are very similar.

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

The Good

Bluetooth and USB connectivity are standard and well-implemented in the <b>2011 Kia Optima Hybrid</b>, even at the most basic trim level. The Technology package is a fantastic deal, combining navigation with traffic and premium audio.

The Bad

It's necessary to choose between Uvo voice command and the tech package. We found braking performance to be inconsistent, and observed fuel economy is below the EPA's estimates.

The Bottom Line

The Kia Optima Hybrid wowed us with its advanced drivetrain and great cabin tech, but slightly disappointing fuel economy and odd cabin tech packaging keep this green car from getting top marks.

Photo gallery:
2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Kia reuses the 2.4-liter engine block from the standard Optima in its hybrid, but makes a few changes to the head. Gone is the direct-injection system; it's been replaced with a more traditional port-injection setup and a change to the Atkinson combustion cycle. We, at first, scoffed at this perceived aspirational downgrade, but Kia's engineers tell us that when combined with the electric motor, the Atkinson cycle proved to be as efficient as the direct-injection setup, and was also less expensive for the consumer--and Kia's all about making things less expensive.

Working in tandem with the gasoline engine is Kia's hybrid electrification system, a doughnut-shaped electric motor and generator that sits between the engine and the six-speed automatic transmission. The engine, motor, and gearbox are all connected with a wet clutch, which ideally is more efficient than the more common automatic transmission torque converter.

The motor is able to accelerate the vehicle from a stop under pure electric energy--and usually does so up to about 18 mph to 20 mph. Once up to speed, the motor can also provide electric assist, boosting the power of the gasoline engine, or allow the vehicle to cruise for periods in EV mode. We were surprised to look down at the instrument cluster and see the Optima occasionally illuminate the EV mode light at upward of 70 mph (on a slight downgrade, of course) despite the fact that Kia's materials state an EV cap of 62 mph.

The Optima pairs an Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine with an electric motor and lithium polymer battery pack.

Of course, when it's not motivating the vehicle, the motor can also act as a generator, sending power back to the battery pack through regenerative braking. There was an obvious difference between the regenerative braking and when the conventional brakes activated, which led to some pretty inconsistent stopping distances during our testing. At low speeds, such as during parallel parking, the brakes were grabby and difficult to modulate. At higher speeds--for example, while rolling to a stop at a traffic light--the brakes didn't shave off speed as quickly as we felt they should, leading to a few hair-raising close calls. Stabbing the brakes for an emergency stop always produced immediate and sharp deceleration, so perhaps the regen blend just takes more getting used to.

Power comes from a 95-pound lithium polymer battery pack that sits just aft of the rear seats at the front of the trunk. This pack is some 30 percent to 40 percent lighter than the battery pack in other automakers' first- and second-generation hybrids. The 270-volt battery holds about 1.4 kWh of energy and features its own active cooling system that draws air through the battery pack and out of the vehicle.

The Hybrid also has a few other green tricks up its sleeve. For example, an active shutter behind the grille shuts at about 35 mph, redirecting air underneath the car, limiting the amount of air slamming into the radiator at high speed, and reducing drag. Beneath the vehicle is an air shroud that helps that redirected air to pass quickly and smoothly. The flush wheels are designed to reduce turbulence and wind resistance and are shod with low rolling-resistance tires. All in, Kia was able to lower the Optima Hybrid's drag coefficient to a slippery 0.26. For comparison, the 2010 Prius hangs out at a slightly slipperier 0.25 and the average sedan in the Optima's class runs about 0.30 to 0.35.

Kia also gives us a variety of dashboard systems to help drivers maximize their fuel economy. Primarily, this consists of a default active Eco mode that further optimizes the vehicle's performance, throttle mapping, and electric assist for increased fuel economy. This system can be deactivated with a steering wheel button. In the place where the vehicle's tachometer once lived, you'll now find a temperature gauge, a battery charge gauge, and a sort of efficiency meter that shows how thriftily you're driving on a scale of green to red. There are also a few hybrid monitoring displays in a new color LCD that sits at the center of the instrument cluster.

The Optima offers a number of goofy Eco score screens, including this one where drivers can kill or save a virtual Earth with the accelerator pedal.

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.

Cabin technology
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.

The 8-speaker Infinity audio system provides fantastic sound at a fantastic value.

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 a peek at Uvo in a different vehicle at CES 2011.

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.

The EPA sets a lofty fuel economy goal for the Optima Hybrid owner, one that we were unable to achieve.

In sum
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 Ford Fusion Hybrid, 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.

Tech specs
Model2011 Kia Optima
Power train2.4-liter Atkinson cycle hybrid
EPA fuel economy35 city, 40 highway mpg
Observed fuel economy32 mpg
Navigationoptional solid-state-memory-based with Sirius Satellite Traffic
Bluetooth phone supportbasic voice command, phonebook sync
Disc playerCD/ MP3
MP3 player supportanalog RCA auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection
Other digital audiooptional Bluetooth stereo streaming, Sirius Satellite Radio
Audio systemInfinity premium audio
Driver aidsoptional rearview camera
Base price $26,500
Price as tested$32,250
2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 8Performance tech 7Design 8


See full specs Available Engine HybridBody style Sedan