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First Drive: Kia Optima Hybrid

Korean automaker’s fuel sipper loves the freeway, but how is it around town?

by on Apr.12, 2012

The Kia Optima Hybrid advances the state of the art for hybrids by allowing the gas engine to shut off at higher speeds.

As automakers get better at making electrified cars, the line is going to start to blur between hybrids, extended-range electric vehicles and electric cars.

Take this Kia Optima Hybrid. The early hybrids could hardly attain or maintain any speed with the gas engine shut off. Soon, hybrids were able to maintain 25 mph on electric power alone and then the mid-40s. But the goal for any hybrid is to drive longer distances with their gas engine turned off.

It just makes sense. If the gasoline engine isn’t running, the car uses less fuel.

So we were somewhat surprised to watch the EV Mode light glow – at 80 mph – for brief stretches along I-94 near Ann Arbor after returning from a concert. The engine never stayed off for long, and even the hint of a hill caused the engine to restart.

Yes, we reviewed that!

What was truly amazing was the Optima’s complete seamlessness with which it transitioned back and forth between gasoline and electric power, even at freeway speeds. There is literally no way to discern when the engine starts, other than watching the tachometer lift off 0 rpm and EV Mode light go dark.

The gasoline-electric powertrain has come a long way in just 13 years since the first Honda Insight hit the U.S. market in 1999. (more…)

First Drive: Kia Optima SX Turbo

Gorgeous sedan eschews V-6 for lusty little force-fed four cylinder.

by on Dec.08, 2011

Kia's Optima Turbo shows that a small four cylinder turbo can replace the V-6 as the performance option for midsize sedans.

For several years, the engine formula for your basic midsize sedan was fairly well known. The standard model came with a four cylinder, but a V-6 was optional.

But in 2010, Kia – and it’s sister brand, Hyundai – changed that formula by announcing that its new Optima would only come with four-holers. No V-6 would be offered. Instead, the optional performance engine would be a little 2.0-liter turbo.

It’s become a familiar refrain in the auto industry. Redesigned models are ditching larger engines for smaller ones, often with high-tech features, allowing them to make horsepower similar to their larger predecessors.

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Kia’s answer for replacing that V-6 is one impressive little mill. Direct injection allows a 9.5:1 compression engine, which is stratospheric for a turbo engine. Pumping out 274 horsepower – remember, this is just a 2.0-liter – the engine also delivers excellent fuel economy. It’s rated at 22 city and 34 highway. We saw a 25 mpg on mostly freeways and rural two-lanes.

But V-6 buyers also paid the premium to gain a little smoother engine. Could a four cylinder really stand in for a six’s creaminess?


First Drive: 2011 Kia Optima

Known for cheap-and-cheerful offerings, Kia comes up with a styling benchmark with plenty of upscale features.

by on Sep.01, 2010

Striking good looks and plenty of features could help the new Optima win a new generation of buyers for Kia.

It’s not often that a single car can redefine a brand.  The original BMW 3-Series, for one, the new Hyundai Sonata at the other end of the spectrum.  Can Kia pull off the same sort of brand remake when it launches the 2011 Optima, later this year?

The Kia brand has been around for decades, though in its original incarnation its products were used to flesh out the low end of the Ford line-up, cheap-and-cheerful offerings like the Ford Aspire.  After it launched its own U.S. dealer network, in 1994, Kia continued to pursue the low end of the spectrum where only three things matter to buyers: price, price and price.

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But the automaker’s new crossover, the Kia Sorento, suggests that things just might be in for a big change, and the 2011 Kia Optima, which made its world debut at this year’s New York International Auto Show, is a sign of just how far the Korean carmaker is ready to reach.

Optima is the work of Peter Schreyer, the inordinately talented former Audi chief of design, who joined Kia several years ago with the promise of revamping the maker’s entire line-up.  If Sorento and, now, Optima are any indication, Kia could push past its big brother, Hyundai, which took control of the smaller Korean manufacturer in 1997.