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The Everyman Test Drive: Kia Optima Hybrid

Primer’s first car review, built for the average guy.

 

Most car reviews are done by die-hard car guys that provide a fantastic technical evaluation of a vehicle, but when it comes down to the everyday realities of “Is it fun to own?” technical jargon and track specs aren’t very helpful. I proudly introduce Primer’s first Everyman Test Drive, a review that skips the gearspeak in favor of what the average guy will think of a car. Hope you enjoy!

I’ve always had one gripe with car manufacturers. The difference between how a Ford Taurus looks and how a BMW 5 series looks is one thing: molded plastic. It always seemed like great looking cars were few and far between under the $35,000 mark, especially for mid-size sedans. The thinking was people who bought those cars were buying family cars, not sports cars. But that ultimately was misguided. Just because you have a family doesn’t mean you should be stuck driving mini-vans and station wagons.

Manufacturers have wised up over the last few years, producing cars that aren’t only practical but are sexy and fun to drive too, all while maintaining a reasonable price tag.

Perhaps this realization was no more dramatic than for the folks at Kia. If you’re like me, Kia has always been that cheap Korean car company that people bought when they needed a car on a living man’s wage. They looked the part.

That is until very recently. In 2006 Kia realized the significance the shape of their molded plastic meant and snatched the head of design from none-other than Audi – the company consistently featured in films set in the future because of their aggressive and sexy design lines.

So what do drivers get from a company who has a generous warranty, a history of creating modestly priced vehicles, with a design head who has always given BMW a run for their money?

One hell of an affordable car.

Rated by Edmunds as a top pick in the midsize sedan category, the Kia Optima Hybrid is aggressively styled and intelligently engineered. Hybrids have had somewhat of a rocky start in the States, mostly, in my opinion, because car companies insisted on making them look like they were a hybrid. Between a car that gets 25 mpg and one that gets upwards of 40 for a hybrid, what everyday-driver wouldn’t choose the hybrid? Well, a lot of folks who don’t want to drive around in a tall, small-wheeled hatchback. (Looking at you Prius.)

Kia got the Optima styling right– it’s an automotive cocktail of BMW, Audi, and Volkswagen design notes. You don’t need to be an ad exec to know that “compression ratios,” and “peak torque,” don’t sell cars. One of the biggest factors in which car a person buys is how it makes them feel.

Is it fun to drive? Can it maneuver around bad drivers effortlessly? Are you proud to pick your boss up in it? Are you embarrassed to drop it at the valet when you’re on a date with your girlfriend? Will your friends be uncomfortable sitting in the back seat on a weekend trip to the beach? Are there comfortable places to rest your elbows while driving long distances?

The reality is, these things matter much more to the everyday gent than a spreadsheet of specs, and the Optima intelligently addresses them.

The interior is a roomy cockpit with modern luxuries that come standard like Bluetooth connectivity, iPod & USB integration, and steering wheel mounted controls. The GPS and media center are nice, and the iPod features are a real-world acknowledgement to younger drivers who haven’t purchased a CD in a decade.

The car that I test drove had the optional Premium Technology package, which supercharged the driving experience with heated and cooled seats, a giant full cabin sun roof, and Infinity sound system among other things.

I received the vehicle to drive for a week, and I put it to work. Driving to San Diego and back, and all around town, putting well over 300 miles on it, and I only filled it up once.

The Optima has a solid safety rating, and features a 6 point airbag system.

The Optima Hybrid isn’t flawless however. If you’ve never driven a hybrid, the experience is different. Many hybrids have sluggish responses to the gas pedal and brake, and the Optima is no different. Sometimes it felt like I had to push the gas half way down before getting a sense of change from the engine. This is largely due to the way a hybrid balances the use of the engine and electric motor. I’ve driven a Ford Fusion Hybrid and the feel from the pedals is much stronger. Though Edmunds cites that the Optima beats the Fusion in the 0 to 60 test 8.4 seconds to 8.7 seconds, respectively.

That’s not to say it lacks power, you just have to get used to driving it. Negotiating sudden speed increases and decreases on LA’s freeways were handled positively during my test drives. Overall if I were to have one major complaint, it would be sluggishness in pedal response.

A decked out hybrid like I received has a price of $32,500, and would be best suited for a guy who has been working for a few years. The Optima Hybrid starts at $25,700, and if the hybrid aspect doesn’t interest you, you can get the same great styling in the standard Optima that starts at $21,200.

If you’re in the market for a sexy midsize sedan that balances power with efficiency, the Optima Hybrid may be for you.

Primer’s verdict: Test Drive It.

About

Andrew is the founder and editor of Primer. He's a graduate of American University and currently lives in Los Angeles. Read more about Primer on our About page.

 
  • William

    Love the concept! My buddy bought a regular Optima last year. He seems to like it.

  • Ron

    I actually liked this. I was all ready to be upset about it because of the preface of “I’m not a car guy so this is just an everyman review” but you at least seem to have done some research and know some basic car information. As a car guy I’ll still prefer car guy reviews; however, this isn’t a bad perspective on things.

  • Josh

    This is awesome! I’ve been test driving cars for the past few weeks and one of my biggest indicators for a car is how it makes me feel. My dad, whom I’ve brought along to dealerships, says that I’m paying too much attention to ‘silly’ things. Thanks for being straightforward but also catering your review to normal guys like me.

  • Jeremy

    I wonder how much Kia paid you to rave about their new lineup. I expected more from you, Primer.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

      Jeremy,

      I’m sorry you feel that way. Kia didn’t pay me at all. Cars are one of a guy’s first major purchases and Primer is getting to the size where we can get press vehicles to review. Expect to see a few more in the coming months, I’ve already driven another from a different company. Sponsored content is always clearly marked on Primer, if it ain’t marked, it ain’t sponsored. :) Thanks for reading!

  • Jean

    I have bought a non-hybrid 2013 Kia Optima EX+ two weeks ago. It is the best car my money could buy. I have tested many other cars in the same category, and it was by far my first choice. I even test a BMW. The feel is very similar.

    It features an ECO mode, where you can lower the power output for every day city drives to save on gas. The handling is a little sportier than a Malibu for example. I am in car nirvana. I am tempted to sleep in it. It is that nice.

    As stated in your review, I am proud to drive around my girlfriend and my friends. If I’d have to give it one negative, it would be the standard speakers that are a little lacking.

    If you are shopping for a new ride, you owe it to yourself to try it.

  • David

    Just made my first car purchase last week and it was a 2012 Kia Optima LX… basic model of the Optima line but I absolutely love it. It’s got some great get up and go and the mpg is unreal… especially in the city.

    I’m tempted to say the non-hybrid is the way to go just because the basic mpg is so great. But nevertheless, Kia has outdone itself in terms of styling on both interior and exterior. Great value and great ride.

  • ultimatewarrior

    I know the hybrid isn’t available with a manual transmission but do you know if the non hybrids can be ordered with one? A quick glance at the website suggests no.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

      I believe it’s only available in automatic, according the build options on Kia’s site.

  • Ricardo

    Great article! I’m currently in the market for a new car (my Jeep of 10 years is getting retired from day to day vehicle to weekend beach work). This gives an interesting bit of perspective :)

    Also, if any readers are interested in further perspective on buying a car…

    http://www.primermagazine.com/2011/spend/how-to-buy-a-car

  • John

    Andrew, this is a great review, especially because it’s geared toward the regular guy. I really like that you focused on handling. I don’t care how fast my car can go from 0 to 60 and unless it’s a truck, couldn’t care less how much torque blah blah blah. But everyone needs to know how a car handles.

    BTW, how was the turn radius? How was the headroom and leg room in the backseat? Did it feel like you were laying down (sports car feel) or sitting up (truck/mini van/Toyota/Honda) feel when driving?

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    John,

    Great questions! I’ll be sure to include them in the next review.

    Headroom and legroom were strong in both the front and back, it’s a decent size car. The trunk space is good, but shortened by the Hybrid business they put back there. It was low like a sports car, but not so low you felt like trucks are going to drive over you. I get that feeling with my 78 Corvette quite a bit. ;)

  • Rahul

    Great feature concept! Would love to see a few others come out quickly as I’m in the market for a new car :-) Especially compacts!

  • Tyler

    The exterior styling isn’t bad, but those wheels are hideous!

  • http://mylifemytruths.blogspot.com Damon

    I was thrilled to see this review, because I may be able to answer some of your questions. I just bought the fully loaded Hybrid about 5 weeks ago, and so far I absolutely love it!

    Sure the gas pedal takes a bit to get used to, but the fact that I am getting almost 600 miles per 16 gallon tank pretty much nullifies any “problems” with the accelerator. As for your driving posture it is a good balance between sporty and luxury sedan. Definately not an upright mini van or suv posture.The cockpit is well laid out with everything right at your finger tips, and yes the arm rest is in the perfect position for maximum comfort! The cabin is very roomy and having made 3 road trips so far with two kids in the back seat, they didn’t seem to miss having the extra space of our mini van.

    I am a salesman and so I drive anywhere from 450-600 miles a week and with my last car that had good mileage that was still 2-3 fill ups per week. All of those miles are also all nearly in the city limits of Chicago, so aggressive driving is the name of the game. Let me just say the Optima does not disappoint. The accelerator can take a few weeks to get used to, but after that the car drives with very little input. Sure the turning radius isn’t as super as my Scion xB, but the Optima is probably a foot or too longer, or atleast it sure feels like it.

    Afterall is said and done about how little gas the hyrbid uses and all of that, what it really comes down to is looks, and this car has ‘em in spades. A few days ago I mistakenly started heading towards a 2013 BMW 5 series thinking it was my Optima in the fading light of dusk. If that isn’t a ringing endorsement for its good looks then I don’t know what is. I had looked at other cars like the Camry and Passat based on MPG’s but the Optima stole it because of its stunning looks. The fact that the car is priced WELL below what it looks like just can’t be beat. Many of my coworkers thought I had paid $50,000+ when they saw it across the parking lot, not realizing it was a KIA.

    Once you open the door and get in, the good times don’t end. Having never driven a hybrid, I am still awestruck everytime I start the car, mostly because it is absolutely silent. If it weren’t for the informative instrument cluster, you wouldn’t even know the car was running. Hit the button for the cooled front seats, throw a water bottle in the cooled glove box and you are ready to roll. Your reverse camera keeps the back end of the car ding free, while the large audio/nav system get you to where you need to be.

    I can’t say enough good things about this car, if anyone has any specific questions feel free to ask.

  • Ryan

    I agree that the Optima is a sharp looking car. I get my car serviced at a dealer that also sells Kia and when I drop it off I usually find myself walking a circle around the Kias in the showroom. The design overhaul has served them well.

    I like the “not-by-the-numbers” concept for the review; I think it made the review easier to read for folks who don’t shop using more than the basic stats about a car. I have a suggestion or two on future reviews along the style of this review, with some real-world standard examples of how people would evaluate a car. For “roomy interior,” pile a couple of friends in the back seat and say if the 6′ tall guy felt comfortable (even better if there’s a road trip over which to evaluate the space), or if anyone felt like they were running out of headroom. For trunk space, can you put your bag of golf clubs in without having to set it at weird diagonal angles (or taking out your woods), or can you fit a decent camping kit (tent, supplies, cooler, whatever) in the back easily. I know that when I read by-the-numbers reviews, I find them less than helpful because I don’t have any context for how “interior cubic feet” translates into headroom or legroom–but it seems like your style here would fit well for providing that sort of context. At any rate, good review, and if I was in the market for a new car I’d be adding an Optima to my potentials.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

      Ryan, I love those ideas! I’ll work some things like that into the next one. Thanks!

  • Haddon

    Exactly what I look for with the back seat and trunk space. Does it pass the weekend camping trip test? Definitely a key benchmark for the everyman’s test drive.

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