By Bruce Caldwell
The 2012 Kia Optima is an excellent car and an outstanding value that’s available in three four-cylinder iterations. The Optima is by design very versatile and the three distinct engines help broaden its appeal. There’s a powerplant for every driving style and budget.
The Optima was redesigned for 2011. The base 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine was first augmented by the lively 2.0-liter 274 horsepower I-4, which was followed by the introduction of the 2.4-liter gas/electric hybrid engine. We tested both the turbocharged and hybrid Optimas — two unique variations on a common theme.
Value is a key component of the Optima equation and both versions are very competitively priced. Both cars base right around $26,000. Some of our favorite features were optional (panoramic sunroof, heated/cooled front seats, Infinity sound system, and heated rear seats), but even with options list prices barely break the 30K threshold.
Walkaround: The Kia Optima features bold, contemporary styling with an Asian flair, especially in how the grille and headlamps sweep upward. The spoilers and other fascia components are aggressive. They contribute to an overall look that is much more performance sedan than econo-car. High tech style alloy wheels gave both the turbo and hybrid Optimas significant street cred and fashion points. The SX Turbo Optima came standard with handsome 18-inch wheels, while the hybrid was shod with 17-inch alloys (instead of the standard 16-inchers) as part of the Premium Technology Package.
Interior: Technological prowess is a huge part of why Kias have become such a powerful market force, but on a day-to-day basis people are more apt to be impressed by a nice interior. The Kia Optima gets very high marks in all things interior. A commonly expressed remark was one of surprise that so much quality and content came at such an affordable price.
Optima interior designers paid great attention to details such as materials, colors, fit, and ergonomics. The interiors seem like they should be in cars costing ten or twenty thousand dollars more. Many little features such as very sophisticated theater style lighting, soft warning chimes, and even pleasant welcoming/departing messages add up to a warm, inviting environment. The glovebox is air conditioned to help keep water bottles cool. Seemingly small touches greatly increase driver and passenger satisfaction.
The optional heated and cooled front seats were a total wow at the Optima price point. Front legroom is stretch-out spacious and rear seat legroom is great for even tall passengers. The optional panoramic sunroof intrudes slightly on headroom for tall back seat passengers, but it’s not objectionable.
We felt the trunk space was above average and very useable in the turbocharged Optima. The floor was flat with ample distance between the wheelwells. The split fold-down rear seat greatly increased versatility. Hybrid rear seats don’t fold and trunk space is less due to the batteries.
Under The Hood: All three of the Optima four-cylinder engines produce at least 200 horsepower. The base 2.4-liter I-4 is exactly 200 hp with 186 lb-ft of torque. The 2.4-liter hybrid produces 206 hp with 195 lb-ft of torque. Our favorite, the 2.0-liter turbo engine puts out a stout 274 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque.
A nicely programmed six-speed automatic transmission helps all three engines perform a
t their best. A six-speed manual transmission is available with the base engine. The excellent six-speed automatic transmission is indicative of the Optima’s high technology levels. This speaks volumes as to how far Kia has come in a very short time.
Fuel economy is very respectable for all three engines. The base engine is rated at 24/35 (for both transmissions); the turbo is rated at 22/34; and the hybrid has the top numbers at 35/40.
Our turbo mileage figures were in the mid-to-upper twenties, mostly because the car was so responsive that we drove pretty aggressively. We tried very hard to balloon foot it in the hybrid, but never got above 35-mpg even on long, steady stretches of secondary highways. We consistently stayed in the 33-mpg to 35-mpg range, but we live in a very hilly area and steep hills kill fuel economy averages. There are reasons beyond raw fuel economy numbers to buy a hybrid, but judicious driving habits can narrow the gap between gas and hybrid power.
Behind The Wheel: The Kia Optima Hybrid is a sophisticated system that operates seamlessly. Except for extreme quiet in full electric mode you wouldn’t notice anything unusual. The video game style information display lets you monitor all kinds of real time data relative to just how “green” you are. This information quickly points out the pluses and minuses of your driving habits.
That the hybrid is so normal says a lot for the quality and sophistication of the system. The Kia Optima Hybrid is a world apart from early hybrids like the ovoid two-passenger Honda Insight. Suspension tuning was far less sporty on the hybrid than the turbo, but it wasn’t sloppy or unpleasant.
Whines: The battery pack compromised trunk/cargo space and flexibility. We never achieved the EPA’s 40-MPG highway fuel economy, which is a problem we’ve had with other hybrids, too.
Bottom Line: We’re big fans of all Kia Optimas. They’re roomy, comfortable, fun to drive, nicely styled, and incredible values. Our favorite is the Optima SX Turbo, but if your leanings are greener, the Optima Hybrid Premium is an excellent choice.