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2011 Kia Optima Hybrid (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
2011 Kia Optima Hybrid (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

First Drive Kia Optima Hybrid

Optima joins the hybrid party Add to ...

When hybrids were first introduced to the Canadian market, we were told by car makers that this was “bridge” technology. That is, hybrids were meant to bridge the gap between conventional internal combustion-engined cars and pure battery-powered electric cars until the technology could be perfected. The main problem was, they explained, battery technology, and the fact that you simply can’t get the same kind of range out of an electric car as you can out of one with a gas or diesel engine.

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Not much has changed on that score. Hybrid cars, it seems, are here to stay, and Kia is the newest player in the hybrid car sweepstakes.

“By 2020, hybrids will control 10 per cent of the total car market in North America,” explained Kyle Buller, brand strategy supervisor for Kia Canada, at the launch of the new Optima Hybrid, on Vancouver Island. “They own about 2.4 per cent of the market right now, and the trend is upwards.

“Toyota, for example, is predicting 100 per cent availability for hybrids on its entire line by 2020. We think this is a good opportunity for Kia to take advantage of the Optima’s momentum and penetrate the intermediate hybrid market.”

Utilizing the same technology found in the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, the new Optima Hybrid will be up against the likes of the Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and even the well-entrenched Toyota Prius. Where it will have the edge, even on its in-house rival, the Sonata, is in price. The base Optima Hybrid will start at $30,595, some $500 less than the Hyundai.

It also has something else many of its competitors lack: a six-speed planetary gearbox. CVTs seem to be the transmissions of choice for many manufacturers, but Kia engineers decided to give the gears to the new Optima. The Fusion, Camry, and Altima hybrids all use CVTs, but Kia feels that a planetary transmission is the way to go, particularly during highway driving.

“Most people spend a lot of their time driving on the freeway,” Buller says, “about 55 per cent of the time, we figure. CVTs can let you down, and the Optima Hybrid will have among the best highway fuel economy numbers in the industry – better than most of our competitors.”

Power for the new Optima Hybrid is provided by Kia’s “Theta” 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine, mated to a 40-horsepower permanent electric motor and the six-speed automatic. The engine is of the Atkinson cycle variety, which means the valves remain open slightly longer during the power stroke and, as a result, the engine suffers a slight power loss, but delivers better combustion efficiency.

Output is put at 206 horsepower, and the battery pack is a 72-cell lithium polymer. This was chosen over the more common nickel metal hydride because it lasts longer and is more powerful, according to Kia. Interestingly, Nissan also utilizes a lithium battery pack in its new Leaf all-electric car.

Behind the wheel, the Optima hybrid, quite frankly, doesn’t feel like there’s more than 200 horsepower lurking under the hood. If you want to get moving in a hurry, you have to bury the gas pedal and power delivery is a little on the leisurely side. As well, compared to rivals such as, say, the Prius, the switch between combustion power and electric power is not perfectly seamless.

That said, the Optima Hybrid will run for about a minute on battery power alone, up to speeds in the 100 km/h neighbourhood. A dash-mounted readout provides current fuel economy and during our five-hour run over to Tofino and back on the west coast, we were averaging 6.4 litres/100 km to 6.9 litres/100 km on a steady basis, up and down hill and dale and through various driving conditions. The Optima hybrid has an “Active Eco System” that allows you to regulate the engine management system as well as change the transmission shift points, for increased/decreased performance. A nice feature.

Also intriguing is the innovative front dam air flap, which automatically closes at speeds around 100 km/h and remains open during low speeds. This reduces wind resistance and, in the process, gives a 10 per cent increase in fuel economy on the highway.

Other highlights of the new Optima Hybrid include a hill-holder control, regenerative braking, automatic engine shut-off/restart, a vehicle stability management system, vehicle “smart” key, voice command radio control and the usual roster of convenience and safety features. Typically for Kia products, the Optima Hybrid comes better equipped than its rivals, with a high standard issue content.

You won’t be able to spot it easily. The only real stylistic difference between it and the garden-variety version is found in a discrete badge, different wheel discs and a special Light Platinum Graphite paint job –although other colours are available as well. It also has low rolling resistance tires and various wind-cheating deflectors, but they’re all hidden from view under the car.

Look for the new Optima Hybrid right about now.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2011 Kia Optima Hybrid

Type: Four-door intermediate hybrid sedan

Price Range: $30,595-$35,495

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder with 270-volt electric motor

Horsepower/torque: 206 hp/195.4 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/ 100 km): 5.6 city/ 4.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Prius

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