Hybrids don't usually look this good

by: KIA NORTH AMERICA - The Optima has the sharpest looking hybrid on the market.The 2013 Optima Hybrid is something of a mystery. The sleek Optima is already one of the sexiest cars on the road today, and our test hybrid model was even better looking than the base version that to flat 16-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and chrome accents.

But set in the Eco mode to maximize mileage, it drove like almost every other hybrid, which is to say relatively pokey and unresponsive until it built up speed. Our test car performed better with the Eco mode off, of course, but the mileage also suffered. After a week of driving, the onboard information system was showing just under 30 miles per gallon. That's pretty good for a well-equipped mid-size car but only so-so for a hybrid.

So it seems the 2013 Optima Hybrid is for environmentally conscious drivers who don't want to flaunt their green credentials but still want to look good. The only evidence they're driving a hybrid is a small badge on the trunk and the relatively slow acceleration, at least for the most dedicated of them.

But we didn't have to think too hard about the puzzle while driving down the road. The interior of our test car was a driver's dream, roomy and decked out with heated and cooled leather front bucket seats and leather trim on the dash and door panels. The gauges and controls were enclosed in a large pod angled towards the driver, much like the classic Saab 900s. And the large sunroof let plenty of light stream in to both the front and back seats, even on cloudy winter days.

And, once we got used to the underwhelming Eco mode, our test Optima Hybrid drove great. The ride was much firmer than most hybrids, giving the car a rock solid feeling. The steering was precise and the brakes were good, especially for what is basically an affordable family car. Since it was introduced a few years ago, the Optima has been a big hit for Kia and it's easy to see why. Until the revamped Ford Fusion, was released this year, the Optima practically had the whole knock-em-dead family car niche to itself.

The Optima also rates high in safety. Standard features on the 2013 Kia Optima include four-wheel antilock disc brakes, traction and stability control, side airbags, side curtain airbags and hill start assist. A rearview camera is optional. In government crash tests, the Optima earned a top five-star rating for overall safety performance, with five stars awarded for both overall frontal and side-impact tests. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Optima a top score of "good" in frontal-offset, side-impact and roof strength tests.

Still, after a week of switching the Eco mode on and off to compare how it performs under different conditions, our test hybrid finished well below the EPA average rating of 36 miles per gallon for the 2.4-liter inline four engine and electric motor combination. But that's better than the ratings for the other two engine options. The base 2.4-liter engine is EPA rated at an average 28 miles per gallon, while the turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is rated at 26 miles per gallon.

If we really worked at it, we might have been able to get better mileage. With a light foot, we were able to get up to around 30 miles per hour on electric power alone. Enough of that and our mileage figures might have gone up.

Then again, the hybrid model costs more than the other two versions of the Optima. That's not a surprise, since practically all hybrids still cost more than equivalent versions of conventional cars. We're not exactly sure how much more our hybrid cost because it also had the full array of options.

So potential buyers need to decide for themselves if the additional cost is worth it. But if not, that only means the base and turbo models need to be test driven. The Optima is simply too good of a car not to be considered when shopping for an affordable mid-size vehicle.

Facts and figures

• Model tested: 2013 Optima Hybrid.

• Manufacturer: Kia.

• Class: Midsize sedan.

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

• Style: Four-door car.

• Engine: 2.4-liter inline 4 and electric motor (206 hp, 195 lb-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with Eco mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway/mileage: 36/39/36.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,000 ($32,500 as tested).

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