I have to say up front that buying any hybrid vehicle will not turn you into a fuel-sipping, eco-friendly Captain Planet. The higher gas prices go, the quicker the payback for the extra cost of the hybrid powertrain compared to a conventional one. But people often disregard or not consider the second cost, and this one may be more important for those who buy a hybrid for its eco-friendliness: the environmental cost to manufacture, run and dispose of a new hybrid vehicle is exponentially more than just buying an existing, fuel-efficient, used car. There, I said what automakers don’t want you to hear. However, I see no slowdown in the hybrid market, and there really are some good choices out there. I just implore you that if you’re going to buy a hybrid, don’t think you’re saving the planet; buy it because you truly NEED a new car, the hybrid beats the competition, it’s in your budget and you plan on keeping it for a VERY long time.
Now, why would I go into that rant right before reviewing the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid (one that was provided to me by Kia for a week, mind you)? Well, I’m not the normal auto journalist, who tend to focus on driving dynamics, crazy metaphors and superlatives and 0-60mph times. I really care about whether I, and the general public, will be satisfied buyers and owners of the vehicle long-term. It’s why some manufacturers are sending “press cars” to bloggers like me (or moms or other demographics), because they want more than the typical magazine reviews full of superlatives like “thrashing” and “canyon carving”.
The 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid with Premium Package
I received the Kia Optima Hybrid a few weeks ago, and I have to say that even though I am biased against hybrid owners (really just Prius owners, especially the ones hogging the left lane going 10 under the limit), I was really looking forward to this week-long test drive. I think the Kia Optima is one of the sexiest designs on the road today, and you have a former Audi designer to thank for that. And when you’re looking for a budget-conscious new vehicle that looks good AND is well-equipped AND well-warrantied AND well-appointed, then this Kia may be your one-stop shop. Seriously. The only thing stopping me from going out and buying one right now is that it’s not a pickup truck.
Since I’m not geeky enough to explain how the conventional gas engine pairs with the electric motor, I’ll just say the final numbers are a combined 206hp and 195 torque. But it all depends on how you’re driving, if you’re passing and the gas engine is already “spun up”, etc. to determine whether you’ll be pleased with the overall driving experience. I’ll say that in my 6 days (I had to turn it in a day early for business travel), I put on over 350 miles in a good mix of city and open highway driving. I did want for more get-up-and-go on the highway, but I’ll take the blame because I was so focused on that MPG number that I didn’t want to risk lowering it by mashing the throttle. Also, I didn’t take it out of ECO mode the whole time to see how it performed. Also, unlike other test cars, I didn’t get it up to a “lead foot speed” on the highway, again because of my attempts to save fuel.
Fuel Economy? Well, there was some fuss recently that Hyundai and Kia inflated their MPG estimates and the EPA lowered them, so older reviews show higher numbers. I just went on fueleconomy.gov and found that it’s rated at 34mpg City and 39mpg Highway, for a combined expected average of 36. In my 6 days of driving, not always staying around the speed limit (cough), I averaged 37.3mpg. So far, that’s better than the sub-compact Kia Rio (which I didn’t take out on the highway much) and the compact Mazda3 (which I drove the same distance and even to the same friend’s house in PA). Getting anything over 20mpg really makes me rethink keeping my truck which struggles to get above 17mpg lately (mostly city, although I’ve gotten 20-24mpg many times on highway-only tanks). Match that economy up with a pretty large gas tank for a car, and you’re probably looking at 600-650 miles per tank, if not more (I showed just shy of half a tank left after 350 miles).
But this leads me to a very interesting note about hybrids: I changed my driving style drastically when I “owned” a hybrid. And it’s almost an immediate change because I geek out over all the driver feedback, fancy graphs and even a spinning Earth (which I have no idea what it meants). If I could fill my tree branch with more flowers and leaves by the end of the drive, then it was a success! I’ve noticed my changed habits in other cars that provide even basic MPG feedback, but with a hybrid, it’s almost overwhelming information, like a diagram when the engine is powering the wheels or the wheels are recharging the battery (regenerative braking) or the battery is running, which it can do at over 65mph unlike some competition. Yep, the Optima Hybrid can run on battery alone at highway speeds, kick on the engine when it needs a charge, then go back to battery only again. It’s not just a city-driving only deal for this hybrid; it does better than most hybrid competitors out on the highway.
Driver Goodies and Impressions
I already mentioned that I couldn’t wait to have this car in my driveway, due to its design, but I’ll also add that my wife was very impressed with the styling and materials both inside and out. This Optima had the $5350 Premium Package which certainly helped impress, but only put it slightly over $30,000.
But let me pause here and say that when I got into the Kia, felt all the surfaces, pushed some buttons, mushed my butt into the seat and started driving, I felt like I was in a Lexus. No seriously, I’m comparing a Korean mass-market car to a Japanese premium segment vehicle, and I think that many others who sit in both would back me up. We’re talking about a car maxed out around $32,500 against one that starts at over $36,000 and isn’t even a hybrid (that starts at over $38k). Tack on some of the features you get in the Premium Package, and you’re spending about $10,000 more for the Lexus. Sure, you get other stuff in their packages you might not get in the Kia, but is $10k or more worth it?
The center stack is very similar to the Rio, but more options and better materials (including the goodies down in the Premium Package section…)
I won’t go through the laundry list of basic features you get on the Optima (not even the Hybrid model), but here are some highlights:
- 4 wheel disc brakes w/Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Vehicle Stability Managements (VSM), Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Traction Control (TCS), Brake Assist System (BAS), Hill-Start Assist Control (HAC), Tire-Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), side mirror LED turn-signal indicators, front fog lights. All of these are safety items that come STANDARD.
- 16″ tires w/alloy wheels
- Dual-Zone automatic temperature control w/rear vents
- Clear-Lens Project Headlights
- Awesome LCD instrument cluster screen with trip computer and stuff
- Cooling glove box
- Rear reading lamps
- In-glass antenna so you don’t have one poking out anywhere
- AM/FM/MP3/SiriusXM Audio System with Auxiliary/USB input jacks (iPod/iPhone cable extra, but it works) and Bluetooth with media streaming (oh, and the bluetooth downloads your contacts, unlike the Mazda and Mitsubishi I previously reviewed. Nice).
- Auto-dimming rear-view mirror (that you can turn off)
- Smart key & push button start (don’t need to ever take your key out of your pocket)
- A bunch more safety and comfort features that you can find here.
So you can see that even the basic Optima is well-equipped. Try getting a Camry with the same features without having to check a dozen boxes on the order sheet. Looking at the “Hybrid Includes” section of the site, I see that everything is Optional, which basically means that if you want them, you need to get the Premium and/or the Convenience packages, except for the optional auto-dimming rear-view mirror with Homelink and Compass.
The Premium Package that I had on my loaner has all of these features. We’ll discuss cost-effectiveness later:
- Navigation System w/SiriusXM Traffic (with subscription) & Rear-Camera Display
- Infinity Audio System & 8 speakers (vs 6 speakers and the audio mentioned above)
- The mentioned Auto-dimming rear-view mirror w/Homelink and Compass
- Panoramic Sunroof w/Gloss-Black B Pillar (the pillar between the front and rear windows)
- Power-Folding Outside Mirrors (which work when you’re flying down the highway for some reason. Best when used in parking situations though)
- HID Headlights w/Auto-leveling (great visibility!)
- 17″ tires w/alloy wheels
- 4-way power adjustable driver’s seat with TWO seat memory buttons, but still no friggin lumbar support!
- Heated AND air-conditioned front seats AND heated rear seats (bottoms only)
- Wait for it…a heated steering wheel
- Leather seats with cloth trim (I think the cloth trim was unnecessary and a bit tacky)
- Leatherette-wrapped center fascia (i.e. dashboard and stuff. This is part of what made the car feel near-luxury)
- Door mood lights (for when your doors are angry or something) and overhead pin lamp (so you don’t have to turn on the lights to find your something or other)
- Illuminated Door Scuff Plates (they say “KIA” in lit-up letters. Hmm, not as cool as, say, Lamborghini, but still a nice touch)
Whew, and that’s the Premium Package. If you’re wondering about the Convenience Package, which I don’t think I had, it adds an 8-way power adjustable driver’s seat FINALLY with lumbar support, and a Microsoft-powered Infotainment system called UVO (which I hear is better than the MyFord Touch system, but I haven’t tested it yet).
Is the Premium Package worth $5350?
I should note that when you build your car on Kia.com, and you select the Premium Package, the Convenience Package is selected by default. Now I can’t remember if I had lumbar, and I didn’t get the window sticker this time to know for sure. Oh well. In the end, the car, with destination, is $32,500. Outside of some dealer-installed options like wheel locks and all-weather floormats, that’s it. No fussing around with 50 checkboxes to get the right configuration.
But you almost never see a single package over $5000 in a mass-market vehicle, so it could most definitely be a hard box to check at the dealer, but I guarantee you that if you drive on a cold morning, you’ll see the benefit of the heated steering wheel. I never thought I wanted one until now. And when you feel the nice heated leather (or cooled on warmer days) and realize you don’t need to use the HVAC system when your bum and hands are warm, you’ll also realize you’re saving fuel/battery.
But certainly a warm bum and hands aren’t worth $5000+. And neither are leather seats with weird cloth inserts (they look cool from afar, but odd up close). Neither is an illuminated door scuff plate. And I always say “buy a high-end Garmin or Tom-Tom and saved $1500 or so on the built-in navigation. The screen is nice for the rear camera (which I think will be required on all vehicles in a few years for safety) and for navigating through menus such as navigation, phone, stereo, options, etc. But still, is it all worth over $5000?
If you’re the type who doesn’t want to mess with aftermarket gadgets cluttering your dashboard or installing a rear-view camera and screen (which you can) and you really want a toasty bum and hands (and cool bum when applicable), then check the box. But if you want to save a chunk of change and are fine with a slighter “lesser” interior (although it appears you can order one with the Convenience package which gets the UVO Infotainment system with screen and the 8-way seats) for just over $27,000, then go that route.
Either way, I don’t think you’d be disappointed with the Kia Optima Hybrid, except…
I’ve been raving about the car so far, except for the price of the Premium Package, but there were just a few dislikes I found during the week I had the car. The first, which also applies to the Kia Rio, is that there is no vertical adjustment for the passenger seat. In some cars, this is fine, but in a Kia, apparently the design across the brand means that short people (i.e. my wife, who is 5’1″) have trouble seeing over the dashboard from the passenger seat. Our MINI Cooper has a seat adjuster, my truck doesn’t but doesn’t need one because of the dash design, but how hard or expensive is it to really add one to the seat so short people can see over the dash? Otherwise, my wife loved the ride comfort, quiet cabin (Lexus-like is applicable here) and amenities.
Another problem, and this goes for most hybrids because the battery pack is in the rear, is a small trunk. Plus, the rear seats don’t fold down; there’s just a small pass-through. If you have kids, it may be a problem getting all their stuff inside, but otherwise I think it was still good enough. However, I don’t think I checked to see if it came with a spare tire or an inflation kit. I’m thinking to save weight on the car, they wouldn’t include the tire, but too late to check.
Funny enough, earlier in 2012, a friend and I visited the DC Auto Show together. He was looking for a replacement for their somewhat new Honda Accord because he wanted more space in both the front for him (he’s around 6′ and 400lbs) and the back for their pending new baby. He was 100% convinced he was getting the Kia Optima Hybrid because of its features, space and pricing, but knowing him, I steered him towards the 2012 VW Passat TDI (diesel). For him, it had the fuel economy he wanted, much more space all around, especially in the back and truck (where you need it as a parent), and was around the same price. We weren’t comparing with the Premium Package, but he wouldn’t have cared for those features for the most part.
In the end, my friend bought the Passat a week later and LOVES it. However, for someone without young kids (who need strollers and car seats), I think the Kia Optima Hybrid can be a great fit, and if you’re willing to shell out $5350 extra, you won’t be disappointed with the goodies in the Premium Package. But my word of advice is to first try out a regular Optima Hybrid without the Premium Package, if you can find any hybrids on Kia lots, AND an Optima Turbo, which has more sport and zing for less $$. Then get in a Premium version and see if it really makes sense.
Like I said up top, I would definitely have the Optima Hybrid Premium on my short list due to the exterior sexiness, the interior quality and all the bells and whistles, especially for $10k+ less than a comparable Lexus, but with the same quality feel, quiet ride and amenities (give or take).
Kia, when are you going to make a truck now???
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