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2011 Kia Optima Hybrid: Saving the world in style

New midsize sedan combines good looks with good mileage
by: Courtesy of Kia Motors There's no need to sacrifice while saving gas in the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid.

At the last Portland International Auto Show, a Kia executive offered journalist a surprisingly revealing reason why his company was introducing its first hybrid. Some buyers want to know you care about the environmental, he said, even if they aren't planning to buy one.

With that explanation, it might be easy to assume the 2011 Optima Hybrid is not be very well developed. But in fact, during a week of test driving, we found our test car to be one of the better hybrids based on a gasoline-powered car available today.

The 'hybrid based on a gasoline-powered car' qualification is important. Such hybrids get better mileage than their gasoline-only versions. But they are not quite as economical as the two leading hybrid-only cars, the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.

That said, hybrids based on gasoline-powered cars have some advantages over stand-alone hybrids. For starters, they look and drive more like conventional cars. Some people - including certain celebrities - want everyone to know they are saving the world. They don't mind the quirky looks and relatively sluggish performance of the Prius and Insight. Many other drivers would rather not draw attention to themselves. And they want a car with at least a little get up and go.

Kia's first hybrid succeeds on both fronts.

One big plus is the fact it is based on the new Optima, one of the best midsize sedans on the market today. Kia and its sister company Hyundai have made great strides in recent years, and are being rewarded by increasing sales. The gasoline-powered versions of the Optima and corporate sibling Sonata have won rave reviews for their quality, styling, performance and interior space and value. They are brand new this year and come standard with an already-economical 2.4-liter four cylinder engine. The optional performance engine is a more powerful turbocharged 2.0-liter four cylinder engine.

Both are also available as a hybrid. They mate the base engine to a 30 kW electric motor that provides the power at low and freeway cruising speeds. The gasoline engine kicks in when more power is needed, and the two work together when even more oomph is demanded.

The most obvious thing about the 2011 Optima is how good it looks. The new model has clean, chiseled styling, with a long hood and low roof that produces a sleek appearance. Our test car was glossy white, which accentuated its modernist lines. The hybrid versions come with unique flat alloy wheels and a unique lower rear end that hides the exhaust tips, making it look like a longer version of the attractive extended range electric Chevy Volt.

The interior is spacious, with plenty of head and leg room in the front and rear. The elliptical dash angles back towards the driver, much like the old Saab 900s. The entertainment and climate controls are logically laid out, with knobs for the big functions and buttons for the smaller ones, an approach we especially appreciate when driving at night. The cloth seats in our test car were supportive and comfortable enough for long trips. Although the fit and finish was good, there was more hard plastic than we're used to seeing these days, something that detracted slightly from the otherwise handsome interior styling.

Like all hybrids, the gasoline engine hardly ever came on when we first pressed the start button. Instead, a series of chimes sounded and a display screen between the gauges lit up to let us know we were ready to go. When the engine did start, it fired up smoothly and could hardly be felt transitioning with the electric motor. Only during hard acceleration was their any noticeable commotion under the hood.

Hybrids get the best mileage when driven with a light touch. Driven like that, the Optima Hybrid accelerated off the line about like any other hybrid - adequately for around town driving. But the speed built more steadily than most other hybrids we've driven, contributing to its conventional car feel. We merged onto freeways without any problems, although passing required a little forethought, like all hybrids.

Kia's hybrid system operates in two modes, economy and normal. Switching to normal increases acceleration to almost non-hybrid levels at the cost of mileage. The responsive six-speed Sportmatic transmission features a manual shift mode for even better performance and slightly worse mileage, if that's your preference.

The Optima Hybrid's ride was smooth and pleasant, with a touch of old fashioned big car float that soaked up road imperfections. Only when we tried to take some corners too fast did the Optima become a little unstable. It is a family sedan, after all, not a sport sedan, despite its sporty looks.

After a full week of driving, we average over 35 miles per gallon, which is what the U.S. EPA estimates. That is better than the hybrid versions of the Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry, though not quite as good as the Ford Fusion Hybrid. The $26,500 starting price is the lowest of the four, however, edging out the Altima Hybrid by a few hundred dollars. And it comes with Kia's impressive 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

One drawback is reduced trunk space. The battery pack is placed behind the back seats in the trunk, although it is still large enough for a weekend's worth of luggage.

All hybrids cost more than equivalent conventional cars and our test car was no exception. It costs thousands more than a gasoline-powered four-cylinder model with the same features. Better mileage will decrease the price gap, especially if fuel prices increase again and stay there, something that is routinely predicted but not yet happening in the real world. Then again, some people might just want to save the world without calling attention to themselves - in which case the 2011 Optima Hybrid is well worth considering.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Optima Hybrid.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door car.

• Drivetrain: 2.4-liter inline 4 cylinder engine combined with 30kW electric motor and lightweight lithium polymer batteries (206 hp).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 35/40.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $26,500