By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Hybrid math is hard to calculate because the variables are still in flux and very subjective. Consider the 2012 Kia Optima hybrid.
The base price of this car is $25,700 vs. $19,500 for the base non-hybrid Optima. That’s a difference of $6,200 – a very large difference, up front.
But the hybrid Optima gets 35 MPG city, 40 highway – vs. 24 MPG city and 35 MPG on the highway for the regular Optima. Also a big difference – but down-the-road.
On the one hand, you could buy 1,550 gallons of gas (at $4 per gallon) with that $6,200 – and assuming you average about 28MPG (with the non-hybrid Optima) that would keep you going for 43,400 miles “for free” – relative to paying the extra $6k for the hybrid.
Then again, if gas goes to $5 a gallon (or $6 or more) then the math does a parking brake 180 – in favor of the hybrid. And much sooner.
But you see the dilemma. Either way, you can’t really know going in which version – the hybrid or the standard version – makes the most sense given the info currently available.
There’s just too much flux.
Buying the hybrid Optima could be a very smart move. On the other hand, you might have just bought yourself some neat technology – at the cost of six grand extra you didn’t really need to spend.
WHAT IT IS
The hybrid Optima is the (bada-bing) hybrid gas-electric version of Kia’s mid-sized Optima sport sedan – which is itself the corporate cousin of the Hyundai Sonata.
It competes with other hybrid mid-sized sedan like the Toyota Camry hybrid (base price $25,900) but with a twist. It’s sportier in looks and layout and its gas mileage is a bit better on the highway than around town. The Camry hybrid, in contrast, gets its best-case mileage in city driving – as most hybrids do.
The hybrid Optima was brand-new in 2011, so changes for 2012 are slight. Kia’s UVO voice-command system is now standard on all but the base model (non-hybrid) Optima and the seat design is slightly different.
Like the regular Optima, the hybrid Optima is a slick-looking car; unlike the doughy and old mannish Camry.
Potentially big down-the-road fuel savings, if gas goes up to $5 a gallon or more.
If you do more highway driving, this is the hybrid to get.
Lots of room up front.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
The doughy-looking Camry hybrid is noticeably quicker.
If gas prices stay around $4 a gallon (or less), it’ll be a long time before you make up your up-front outlay.
If most of your driving is stop-and-go, the Camry hybrid is the better choice.
I experienced occasional short delays between depressing the accelerator and experiencing acceleration.
Headroom is tight for taller (over six foot) drivers – at least, with the optional sunroof.
Back seat legroom is much less than in the Camry.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Optima hybrid has the usual tag-team combo of a small gas engine (2.4 liters) supplemented on-demand by an electric motor for a total max output of 206 hp – which is 6 hp stronger than the standard engine (200 hp) in the non-hybrid version of the Optima.
This will get you to 60 MPH in about 8.3 seconds, which is about a half-second quicker than the base non-hybrid Optima – though not even in the same ballpark as the turbo Optima, which has 274 hp and gets to 60 in about 6.4 seconds.
But your reward is 35 MPG city, 40 highway – vs. 22 city, 34 highway for the turbo Optima and 24 city, 34 highway for the non-turbo, non-hybrid Optima.
The more direct comparison is the hybrid version of the Toyota Camry. It is very similar, output-wise, with its hybrid powertream delivering 200 hp. However, the Camry hybrid is significantly quicker somehow – getting to 60 in 7.4 seconds. I smell a rat here because both cars weigh about the same (3,490 lbs. vs. 3,435 for the Camry hybrid). A 55 pound difference shouldn’t translate into a full second’s difference, 0-60. Either the Camry’s actual power is under-rated, or the Kia’s is over-rated. Or one is geared more aggressively than the other. Something.
The Camry hybrid also offers a different mileage dynamic. It is a substantial 7 MPG better in city driving (43 MPG) and almost matches the Optima hybrid’s best-case highway mileage (39 MPG vs. 40 for the Kia).
ON THE ROAD
First, the good news.
In mixed driving, including sustained highway driving at 75-80 MPH, the Optima hybrid never returned less than 33 MPG average during the week I had it. I have no doubt it could do even better if driven a bit more gently than I usually drive.
The technology is impressive – especially the way the gas engine turns itself off at pretty high highway speeds, allowing you to coast for several minutes at a time on level ground at 60-ish MPH without burning any gas at all. Like some of the other hybrid cars, the Optima hybrid coaches you with a digital display that scores your driving habits for better or worse economy.
It pulls well once you’re moving and like almost all new cars, has very long legs – much longer than you can really use much in this country, at least. A steady 80 is as serene and effortless-feeling as 45 was in the typical 1980s-era lux-barge. Only you’d get half the gas mileage at 45 in the ’80s-era lux-barge that the Optima hybrid will give you running 80 all day long.
Now, the bad news.
There is some driveline hesitation at low speed, such as when you want to rapidly accelerate from a complete stop. There is a long second between the moment you push down on the pedal and actual acceleration – as if the car’s brain is trying to decide which system (gas engine or electric motors?) to deploy and in what proportion. Which of course is exactly what’s going on. You learn to give the car a little extra time to gather its wits – kind of like you did Back in the Day when you had a car with a carburetor that had an off-the-line stumble or flat spot before the secondaries kicked in.
Other hybrids do this, too – so FYI.
Second downside is headroom. I could not own this car – at least, not with the really pretty smoked glass panorama sunroof, which takes away a critical inch or so of headroom and leaves 6 ft 3 me canting myself to the right, toward the center of the car, to keep from rubbing my head up against the roof. If you are more than six feet tall, you will likely not want the sunroof – which is (fortunately) optional.
The ride and handling are on the sportier side relative to other hybrids I’ve driven – and also relative to the old Camry, which was in my opinion the best ’87 Buick Century the Japanese ever built. The new Camry is supposed to be much less Grampy – but I haven’t had a chance yet to test drive one so I can’t vouch for that either way. If you are shopping the Optima hybrid, you should most definitely cross-shop the new Camry hybrid, which I know for sure is quicker and may have other charms, too.
AT THE CURB
This car’s lines are fine – striking, even – and perhaps its most appealing attribute. In my opinion the Optima is one of the (if not the) best-looking sedans in its class and compares very favorably with mid-sized luxury brand cars like the Caddy CTS, Audi A3 or the BMW3 in terms of its stage presence.
But, you do pay a price for this in terms of things like headroom, which is tight with the optional sunroof because of the sharply angled windshield and low-cut roofline. The good news is the new Camry hybrid – the Optima’s primary competition – is even tighter in this regard.
Without the optional sunroof, the Kia has 40 inches of front seat headroom; the new Camry only has 38.8 inches. And the Kia absolutely slays the Camry on front seat legroom: 45.5 inches vs. a coach class 41.6 inches in the Toyota.
Then, however, there’s the backseats.
In the Kia, headroom for rear seat occupants is a bit less than in the Toyota: 37.6 inches vs. 38.1. That’s not a noticeable difference. But when it comes to legroom, like OJ used to say, look out. Remember all that up-front legroom the Optima can brag about? It comes at the cost of the circulatory systems of your rear seat passengers, who get 34.7 inches vs. 38.9 inches in the Camry.
So, if you mostly drive alone or with just one passenger, the Kia’s the hot ticket. But if you regularly carry passengers in the back, the Camry’s more inviting.
My tested Optima had a sticker price of $32,250 – which to me obviates the fuel economy issue. If you spend $32k on a car – any car – do you really care about saving 5-6 MPGs relative to a similar car with a gas engine? Or, for that matter, a diesel engine? You can get into an Audi A3 diesel for about the same money (less, actually – $30,250) and get better mileage (43 highway) and you’ll also be driving an Audi.
As I see it, the key to making the math work with this car – or any hybrid car – is to keep the buy-in price within reason. Which to me, means close to the Optima hybrid’s as-it-sits price of about $26k before adding stuff. You won’t have heated (and cooled) seats or or auto-leveling headlamps (or the headroom-snatching sunroof), all of which are part of a $5,000 Premium Package. But Kia fits the “base” Optima hybrid out with all the equipment that comes with the very nicely equipped EX version of the (non-hybrid) Optima, including dual-zone climate control control, wood and leather interior rim, LED tail-lights, a beverage cooler glovebox, power everything, a nice stereo with Sirius satellite, iPod hook-up and Bluetooth plus a set of very attractive “aero” style 17-inch wheels.
Put another way, the “base” hybrid Optima is already fitted out like a mid-trim non-hybrid with plenty of bells and whistles. Buy options like the $5k Premium Package if you want the additional luxury amenities, but they’re not necessary to have a very nice car as it sits.
Then, if gas prices stay reasonable, you’ll be in the green sooner.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The regular Optima’s an extremely nice car – a personal “recommend” that I’d consider buying myself. The question we can’t really know the answer to at the moment is whether the Optima hybrid (or the Camry hybrid) makes financial sense.
I guess we’ll have to wait until summer… .