Review: 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

This is a vehicle I was very much looking forward to.  It’s tough to explain, but it was a curiosity – almost a morbid one.  Is it as good as they say it is?

Kia hasn’t always had a stellar reputation, but it and its stable-mate, Hyundai, have risen from those ashes and have become relatively celebrated marques with good quality products – offering styling, tech, convenience, performance and value in spades.  Not only that, we’re seeing innovation from these playahs, and that’s a good thing.  Competition always ends up benefiting us – the consumers.

This was the Premium line of the Optima, which is pretty darn loaded up.  Everything I’m going to talk about here is included in the price of CDN $35,495.

Under the hood, in a clinically tidy engine bay, you’ll find what sets this baby apart from its same-name brothers.  The parallel hybrid drivetrain uses the industry’s first lithium-ion polymer battery – it holds a charge 25% longer, which allows for a smaller battery to be used saving weight and space.  The drivetrain can work in full electric mode, and also in parallel mode, using the power from the gas engine as well as the electric motors to drive the wheels.  Braking, and even coasting, charges the battery, and under load, the battery will also charge from the engine.

The combined power rating of the drivetrain is 206 HP @ 6000 RPM, and 195 lb.ft of torque – all found in a very clinically clean-looking engine bay.  Those numbers don’t sound earth-shaking, but hybrids are funny that way.  The immediate torque of the electric motor(s) will make up for the major lack of torque from the Atkinson-cycle 2.4 Litre inline-4, and together, they do just fine.

Part of the success here is the weight of this vehicle.  This is not a small car, yet it weighs in at 3223 pounds, in its heaviest trim – this hybrid with an automatic transmission.  That is incredibly light for a vehicle this size, especially when it offers so much.  I wonder where they saved so much weight.

The transmission I mentioned is a 6-speed automatic box, and it did its job well.  It has a manual function, where you slide the lever to the left and you can slap the shifts up or down manually – no wheel-mounted paddles in this car.

Fuel economy is rated at 5.6 L/100 km (42 mpg) in the city, and 4.9 L/100 km (48 mpg) on the highway.  I drove this car as I normally would – occasional heavy foot, mostly conservative driving, a little highway/freeway driving, and lots of commuting in bumper to bumper traffic.  I observed 7.7 L/100 km (31 mpg) during my time with it, which isn’t even close to the rated mileage.  I’m not sure why that is, but with that said, the mileage is pretty good for a vehicle this big.  I would have expected better though with a hybrid.



The styling of this vehicle is great.  The designer responsible is Peter Schreyer, formerly from Audi and the man responsible for the Audi TT design.  This isn’t nearly as industrial, but the lines are smooth, with some hints of aggression.  The grille wears Kia’s new “tiger nose” which, if you look closely, is continued at the top of the windshield.  A pretty neat detail.  The lines are clean, and in addition to aggression, I felt there is some sportiness – a good amount for a bigger car.  I particularly liked the black roof – it stands out from certain angles and changes the whole car.  There wasn’t much to interrupt the lines and the styling.  A black shark-fin antenna on the black roof, and one simple “Hybrid” badge on the trunk.

Two things didn’t cut it for me in terms of the exterior – the silly faux side-air vents serve no purpose, and they don’t even look that great.  But the biggest crime here is the wheel styling.  Honestly, I hated it.  I can’t imagine the inspiration for these came from anywhere else than a food processor blade.  It’s not the end of the world, but I think they missed an opportunity to get outstanding marks for the styling.  To be honest, others indicated they didn’t mind the wheels.  Maybe it’s just me?  The wheels are shod with low-rolling resistance 17″ rubber which looks a little small on this car – I think 18″ rims would do a lot for it, and they’re available on other Optimas.

In terms of public reaction, we were stopped on a number of occasions by people who asked what the car was, and were taken aback that it was a Kia – their take on the styling was exclusively positive.



Come on in – the water’s warm!  I liked the interior in this vehicle a lot.  Honestly, one of the nicest I’ve been in in quite a while.  You’ll find yourself surrounded by nice materials, including leather seats, soft-touch rubbery plastic with nice textures on the dash, classy stitched leatherette surrounding the driver’s gauge cluster.  The fit and finish appear to be excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed the quality of the materials.  How well they last is a different story and there’s no way of telling with any vehicle unless you’re spending a year or two with it.  The mechanics of the interior function very well too.  The buttons felt very Japanese in their design and their responsiveness – this is a big compliment in my books.  On top of all of this, I felt the ergonomics were well thought-out too – as with any vehicle, there are a few issues, but overall, it was well done.

Step over the stainless sill, with the red-illluminated KIA logo (looks great at night!) and get into the comfortable seats.  The seats are firm, very adjustable, and provide adequate bolstering.  For everyday driving, and highway cruising, they were nearly perfect for me.  Both front seats are power adjustable, heated and cooled – and the driver’s seat has a 2-position memory.  The seats have perforated inserts in the back cushion and bottom cushion – they look very nice.  I enjoyed the red instrument and button backlighting – it felt Audi-ish, which is also a compliment.  I guess imitation being the sincerest form of flattery is a great way to describe a lot of facets of this vehicle.

I liked the gauges, but had an issue with the left one.  It confused me.  Because it’s not really a gauge.  It looks like a tach, with a needle, but it turns out to be an “eco” meter.  It shows where the drivetrain is drawing power from.  It’s more interesting than useful, and truthfully, I’d prefer a traditional tach there instead.  But hey, you buy a hybrid, you better be ready to be convinced at how much you’re doing to save the planet, right?

The top of the center stack has a nice, bright touchscreen – below that are a series of buttons that control the screen – media, phone, navigation.  Below those buttons, you’ll find the climate controls.

I also enjoyed a small detail in the door panels – perforated inserts which look classy.  The leather-wrapped steering wheel, with a nice fat rim, was easy to grip and comfortable.  An old-school touch – a traditional pedal-based parking brake.  Ugh.



This might be a long section.  This car offers the buyer a lot, especially for the money.  I’ve been in significantly more expensive vehicles that barely offer half of the tech in this car.  The argument stands that this car has to give something up, but I have yet to find it.

The car has a great keyless entry system, and push-button starting.

The gauge cluster, as noted, is good.  On the left, you’ll find that eco gauge, and a nice speedo on the right.  It’s what’s in between that I found more interesting.  There is a driver’s information screen nestled in there, and it offers a wealth of information.  You’ll find a digital tach on the left, and a drive gear indicator on the right.  Variable information comes as fuel range, average speed, elapsed time, two trip meters, the outside temperature, distance to service and interestingly, a distance to tire rotation reminder.  There are also some hybrid specific screens – the eco level with flowers and leaves you can grow as you drive more efficiently, “total eco score” which I have no idea about (I was at 45!  Yay?) and a useful instant/average fuel economy screen.  What bothered me was that I couldn’t get more than one of those on the screen at one time.  I ALWAYS want to know what the outside temperature is, people.  They should let you combine information as you see fit.  The way Ford does that centre screen system works pretty well and other manufacturers would do well to take some notes there.

That touch-screen shows the driver what’s going on in the navigation world, on the media system, the Bluetooth phone system, and other vehicle functions.  Touch responsiveness was excellent.  The screen felt a little small at times, but that’s less of a complaint than an observation.  In reverse, you’ll see it quickly switch to a rear-view camera mode – picture was decent, not great, and there are guide bars.  You won’t find the moving trajectory bars, nor an audible alarm for parking distance – a bit surprising considering the other tech present in this car.

Pairing my phone was a breeze, but for some reason, there were two occasions where the car just didn’t find my phone.  Bluetooth was on, everything as usual, and no pairing occurred.  I had to re-pair the phone those two times.  Irritating.  Other than that, I liked the phone functionality a lot and sound quality in and out was excellent.

The sound system was the upgraded Infinity one – using 8 speakers to make its point (including a center channel and a seriously meaty subwoofer in the back deck) – driven by 530 watts of clean power.  I thought it sounded fantastic!  Sources draw from AM/FM/Sirius satellite, a CD slot, auxiliary in plug and USB.  You’ll find the aux and the USB plugs in the open bin at the front of the center console, along with two 12V plugs.

The navigation system was quick, accurate and very well thought-out, if not a bit persistent.  I probably don’t need to be reminded to make a certain turn 5 times, but I suppose it’s better than not being reminded.

The climate control system is fully automatic and has two zones – it worked well in a variety of different temperatures – hey, we’re in Edmonton, and we see it all within 24 hours.

That comfy aforementioned steering wheel is heated (nice!) and has buttons for media controls, cruise control, the hands-free functions, the info-screen by the gauges and the “eco” mode, which I’ll tell you about in The Drive.  That sounds busy, but it’s not, and it worked very well and was easy to navigate.

The power windows, mirrors and door locks (THANK YOU, KIA!) are found on the driver’s door panel, along with trunk and fuel release buttons.

Other goodies are a 3 setting HomeLink transmitter for your garage doors, and 2 nice moon roofs (I kept wanting to call them rooves) – the front one tilts and slides back, and the rear one stays put.  Both have sunshades, which are power actuated, and very quick – and there’s also a rain-sensing windshield.


Rear Seat

This was one of many surprises in this car.  The rear seat is a great place to be.  Honestly.  The seats are very comfortable, and not just because they’re heated.  The leg and foot room in the back is shocking.  My friend, who is well over 6 feet tall, sat in the driver’s seat and I sat behind him – with plenty of room to spare.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find a situation requiring more rear seat room unless you need a La-Z-Boy.

The doors have power window buttons and the seat heater buttons.  There are small door bins, usable and with a cupholder – but somewhat obstructed by the speaker cabinets.  You’ll find an air vent that you can turn on and off, and position the air flow from, at the back of the center console.  There’s also a ceiling-mounted reading light.

The middle rear seatback folds down to become an armrest, and it has two cupholders in it.  There’s a nice map pocket on the back of each front seat.

The sloping roofline requires the car to pay a price for that somewhere, and so the ceiling needs to have scallops cut out for headroom above each seat.  I’m guessing 6 foot plus people might find it snug back there, in terms of headroom – it was great for me.

I had all three of my kids back there, using a variety of child seats.  They were very comfortable – width-wise (which is usually the biggest issue with all those seats) and legroom-wise.  They also liked that they could see out easily.  There are two LATCH anchors, and three top-mounted seat anchors.

In terms of adults, you’ll do well with two of them back there.  The seats are clearly sculpted for two adults, including two headrests and two of those head divots in the ceiling.  I felt that sitting back there would be great for a road-trip – it was comfortable, visibility was good, and it seemed airy with the panoramic sunroof above the second row.



There is a decent amount of storage to be found here, with some idiosyncrasies along the way.  The glove compartment is typical.

At the front of the center console, you’ll find a great rubberized open bin, about 2-1/2″ deep – perfect to throw things in when you get in the car, and easily retrieve them later.  Behind the shift lever are two cupholders, and behind them, a lidded bin which is a nice size and has a removable tray in it.

All four doors have nice-sized door bins/pockets, with cupholders, but all are not nearly as accessible as you might be used to, because the Infinity speaker cabinet sits above them, and intrudes into the space above.  Weird.

The trunk is a usable size, though smaller than you’d expect of a car this big.  That’s owing mostly to the fact that the battery is behind the rear seats – this also prevents you from folding the rear seats down to accommodate longer items in the trunk.  There is a hilarious “pass-thru” when you fold the middle seat back down – it results in a porthole about 3″ by 7″ from the trunk.  It’s actually funny to look at.  I don’t think you could get more than one pair of skis through it.  It would be perfect if you transport a few broomsticks on occasion.  There is a traditional spare tire and jack assembly under the trunk floor.


The Drive

Alrighty then, so how was this Kia Optima Hybrid to drive then?  Well, it was OK.  Actually it was good, but definitely had a few issues.  I don’t think they’re problems, but they didn’t suit me.

The hybrid drivetrain always starts in “eco” mode, which means it will absolutely maximize fuel economy.  It will invariably turn the engine off when coasting, and start with electric power, only turning on the engine when it needs to.  That’s great when you’re creeping around in a parking lot.  It’s a slightly less smooth experience in everyday driving.  I found that, especially under a light throttle application, there would be a very noticeable hiccup between the tail end of the electric power and the start-up and setting in of the gas power.  It was a slingshot effect, and a bit unnerving.  Especially if you want to get going quickly.  Because it ain’t happening.  The effect is lessened if you’re stepping on it from a stop.

The “eco” mode can be deactivated with that steering wheel button, which makes things seem instantly peppier.  The acceleration is less leisurely, if you will.  I’m guessing this would impact your mileage.  I never deactivated the eco mode for longer than a minute or two at a time.

The suspension is tuned well, in terms of being almost impossible to upset.  I never felt as though I was throwing this car for a loop.  With that said, the suspension is tuned quite softly.  The ride is firm enough, and is great on the highway and on the straights.  But throw this car into a corner, and those soft edges will leave that lovely bodywork rolling in a big way.  The body roll is very noticeable, and it is clear that the Optima prefers not to encounter the curves at speed.  The handling is competent, and as I mentioned, I never thought the car couldn’t handle what I threw at it – it just seems more comfortable cruising down the highway or the freeway.

The steering is electric, and the effort is absolutely minimal – which is great at low speeds and when it comes to maneuvring around parking lots and into tight spaces.  The turning circle was quite small, and made u-turns fun, as far as u-turns go.  I call a fun u-turn one where I rest easy with the knowledge that I’m not going to plow into the opposing curb.   Now, when it comes to more spirited driving, and focusing on what you’re trying to achieve behind the wheel, that over boosted steering makes things feel numb and vague, and off center.

Driving in electric vehicle mode (particularly when starting from a complete stop), the drivetrain had a grindiness to it.  I think it’s common to hybrids, as I felt it on the Lincoln hybrid I drove as well.  I have a feeling that you’re just hearing and feeling normal feedback and noises, but they’re more noticeable because it is running almost silently, instead of competing with the engine noise.  There is an electric whine as the vehicle comes to a stop and starts in electric mode.  I read that they’ve added the sound so pedestrians can hear the car.  Is that true? I’d add the exhaust sound from the Ford Raptor if I was trying to get pedestrians’ attention – pipe that sweet music through some external speakers!

I read a review on this car where the writer wrote he forgot it was a hybrid when he was driving it.  I’m sorry, but I can’t see that as possible.  It was a good car to drive, without a doubt, but there were definitely things that gave its hybrid-ity away.  It’s not a bad thing, just a different experience from driving a purely gas-powered vehicle.

Outward vision was good in this car.  Forward and backward views are great, and shoulder-checking was average.



I did take issue with a number of things – some grated on my nerves with what felt like 10-grit sandpaper.

Most noticeable was that the satellite radio lost its signal an average of four times per drive.  I know this because I started keeping track after a couple of days.  It always takes about 4-5 seconds to acquire the signal again, and there didn’t seem to be a trigger event or a particular location that caused it.  It just did it.  And it drove me crazy!  I’ve never experienced that in a vehicle before.

The voice recognition for the handsfree functions was brutally slow.  It seems like it takes forever for it to process what you just told it.  And it’s not always right.  I talked to a sloth about this, and even he was perturbed at how long it took.

As mentioned already, it drove me a bit batty that I couldn’t customize the driver’s information screen to contain more than one piece of information.  I’d love to be able to see the outside temperature AND the fuel range all the time.  Or however I want to configure it.  Just let me!

I heard a strange pinging/ringing sound from the engine bay a number of times when the car was idling – running but parked.  It was intermittent – it didn’t always happen when it was idling, but it did a few times.  It’s loud enough for others to notice – people walking past the car had a good look at the hood, signifying that the sound was catching their attention more than the styling.

This might be trivial, but I felt the switchgear on the doors was poorly lit.  They are backlit with a lovely red, but were difficult to see in the dark.  I often had to look a few times to find what I was looking for.  That’s not the case on the dash where everything is lit well – so why couldn’t they get it right on the door?

My observed mileage came in at 30% below its ratings.  That’s not cool.

The Verdict

I liked this car.  I was excited to give it a shot, and those who had a chance to sit in it, get a ride in it, and just check it out were, without an exception, impressed by it.  It’s a nice car – styling was done well, except the food processor wheels.  It gets good mileage – for a car this size, although I expected better, and it’s rated at far better.  I’m still a bit puzzled why that happened.

The styling says sporty sedan, and I think that’s a bit rich.  The styling speaks sportier volumes than this car wants to hand over when you ask it to.  It looks more aggressive and sporty than it really is.

This car would be awesome for a relaxed driver – I really wish I’d been able to see what my retired parents thought of this car.  They’re in less of a hurry more often than me, and I have a feeling this would have suited them very well.  If you take it easy in the city and on the highway, you’ll rarely take issue with this car’s performance, and maybe it’s trying to teach us all a lesson to simmer down and enjoy the ride, AND save the planet in the same breath.  I don’t know.

I wouldn’t count on any exhilarating moments in this car, and maybe that’s the biggest strike against it.  But that’s because of how I enjoy my driving.  You can enjoy driving just as much as I do, but just enjoy it differently, and this might be the perfect car for you.

With that said, the amount of luxury, tech and convenience, comfort and toys this car offers, never mind at the almost unbelievably low price – coupled with KIA’s warranty…  this car is a value of epic proportions.  If this car stands up to years of driving, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value out there.  Pending on where KIA’s reliability ends up in the next few years, meaning if this current crop of offerings stand the test of time, the competition should be concerned.  This is a lot of car for relatively little money.

I’d likely consider the turbo for myself, which brings 274 HP and 269 lb.ft of torque to the party.  It’s also rated to achieve some really good mileage numbers, especially for that kind of performance.  I think the handling would be delivered with a slightly harder edge if you’re an enthusiastic driver.  Also, it allow you to choose from a couple of handsome 18″ rim options, allowing you to kick the retarded Hybrid wheel design to the curb.

I give the Kia Optima Hybrid Premium an enthusiastic 7 out of 10.  I really enjoyed my time with it.  It’s not the car for me, but it probably would be if I was 15 years older.  Ouch.  OK, where was I?  WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was quite high – she liked driving it, and she liked being a passenger in it.  She also liked the comfort and the luxurious toys, and the fact that all three of our offspring were comfortably ensconced in the back.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by KIA.

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