Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 Kia Optima Hybrid

Kia got us all worked up earlier this year when it displayed the Sportspace concept at the Geneva auto show: we car folks tend to like wagons an awful lot, and this was just the right kind of wagon, with rakish lines and looks that suggested the mechanicals underneath meant business.

That the car was revealed in Geneva, however, pretty much laid to rest our hopes that Kia would add it to its North American lineup; a New York auto show reveal of the production version of the 2016 Optima sedan more or less confirmed that there would be no Kia station wagon for those of us on this continent.

(The) six-speed automatic is the weak link in the Optima Hybrid's mechanical make-up.

The 2016 model indicates that Kia is unwilling to take much of a risk in updating a car that's aged well since its 2011 redesign, one that turned the Optima into one of the most handsome family cars going. With that revised 2016 version on its way, 2015 brings little of note to the Optima line; it carries on with an all-four-cylinder trio of powertrains that includes a 2.4L, a turbocharged 2.0L, and the gas-electric hybrid under the hood of my tester.

Kia is one of four automakers selling mid-priced hybrid family sedans, which pits the Optima against formidable competition in gas-electric versions of the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. Part of what makes those cars as good as they are is the seamlessness with which they blend power produced with valves versus volts, so the key to Kia's success in the hybrid arena lies under its hood.

As it happens, that's where you'll find the most significant difference between the Optima Hybrid and its competitors: where those other three blend power sources with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), Kia sticks with the six-speed automatic used in gas-only Optimas. Perhaps that's a nod to Porsche's refusal to use un-sporty CVT tech in its performance-oriented hybrids, or maybe it was a simple cost-saving measure; either way, that six-speed is the weak link in the Optima Hybrid's mechanical make-up.

It's a fine transmission in gas-powered Optimas, but in the Hybrid's electric-only mode, it's an eerie thing to feel the gearbox moving from one ratio to the next in the absence of the gas engine's vibration. Frankly, it weirds me out in Porsche's hybrids too (the Cayenne and Panamera); from a seat-of-the-pants perspective, there's a good reason why most hybrids use CVTs, and all-electric cars take advantage of their motors' inexhaustible torque band by eliminating multiple gear ratios altogether.

The Optima Hybrid's relative lack of sophistication shows up again in its lack of a driver-selectable EV mode. As it is, the Optima's engine reliably shuts down when the car is stopped, but once it's time to go again, will only stay silent if you're particularly gentle with your right foot. After a day or two of light-footing to take advantage of whatever electric-only motion I could get, I discovered my favourite thing about this drivetrain: where CVT-based hybrids tend to let the gas engine wail in quick acceleration, the Optima relies more on electric torque for a nice kick-in-the-pants feel that mimics a light-pressure turbo engine. The downside, once more, is that transmission, which is painfully lazy about downshifting for passing power.

The Optima Hybrid's official fuel consumption ratings are 6.1/6.7 L/100 km (city/highway), numbers that look pretty weak next to the Accord's 4.7/5.3, Camry's 5.5/6.0 and Fusion's 5.4/5.8; you'd think the mechanically-similar Hyundai Sonata Hybrid's ratings would be the same as Kia's, but that car is rated 6.6/5.9 L/100 km. In my Optima tester, I saw a city-driving average of 7.0 L/100 km.

In the past, I've complained about the Optima's mushy brake pedal feel. Hybrids themselves are often criticized for grabby brake performance caused by their regenerative braking setups, but here it actually made things better, with more bite on initial brake application, and decent modulation in harder braking.

This Hybrid's ride was softer than I remember in a 2.4L Optima I tested in 2011, though a direct comparison is tough after four years and nearly 200 other vehicles driven. Handling is competent, but the lack of steering feel discouraged explorations of the car's cornering envelope.

The quality look and feel found in this car and some of its others has done a lot to elevate Kia's status in recent years.

Park a pair of butts in front seats that not everyone finds entirely comfortable (my wife liked the Optima's chairs better than I) and you'll face what is, to me, the nicest dashboard in the family sedan category. The quality look and feel found in this car and some of its others has done a lot to elevate Kia's status in recent years.

Eventually, an automaker will get around the packaging compromises that come with putting a hybrid drive system in a sedan, but it wasn't Kia's turn to find that solution. Just like everyone else, they put the battery pack behind the rear seat, where it eats about a third of the trunk's volume and eliminates a folding seatback.

Our EX Premium test car included nice stuff like navigation, blind spot warning, intelligent keyless entry, and rear parking sensors, but left out advanced safety kit like adaptive cruise, frontal collision warning/avoidance and lane departure warning. We could excuse that if the Optima Hybrid was less expensive than all its competitors, but it isn't: an Accord Hybrid with lane departure and forward collision warning systems is a grand cheaper than the Kia, giving up only ventilated front seats in the process.

It's not often a Kia doesn't sit atop the value-for-money column in any comparison, but that's the case here. We could excuse that if the Optima Hybrid included more features or drove better than its competitors, but neither is true, which leaves us cool on a car that we've otherwise come to like very much since Kia showed us that affordable pricing and upscale looks didn't have to be mutually exclusive.

That's in contrast to the well-sorted Kia Soul EV, an impressively-packaged and smooth-driving all-electric that proves this company could be a serious player in the alt-fuel segment. Unfortunately, Kia's strong EV effort leaves its hybrid sedan looking, well, sub-optimal.

5 years/100,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000 km 24-hour roadside assistance; 8 years/160,000 km hybrid components

Toyota Camry Hybrid
Honda Accord Hybrid
Ford Fusion Hybrid
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid

Model Tested 2015 Kia Optima Hybrid EX
Base Price $33,695
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,535
Price as Tested $38,530
Optional Equipment
$3,200 (EX Premium package, $3,000; Ultra Silver paint, $200)