The Kia Optima Hybrid isn’t a particularly exciting car. It’s slow but adequate, like most wash-o-matic cars in this category. But the Optima is so much nicer and more user-friendly than the ubiquitous Toyota Camry, it makes me wonder: do midsize sedan buyers just not bother with Camry alternatives at all?
(Full disclosure: Kia lent me an Optima Hybrid EX when I went to try racing for 24 straight hours at Buttonwillow. It came with a full tank of gas and ample space to nap in the comfort of a warm car.)
See, the Camry still takes the cake as one of the least pleasant midsize cars I’ve ever driven. The infotainment system is an unusable, confusing mess, and the exterior is getting better soon but still sort of feels like a used bar of soap mated with a Transformer. I get the feeling that Toyota’s riding on the reliable Camry name it’s built up for years and isn’t really trying anymore—just sort of kludging together a car to tick that midsize box and make bank.
Meanwhile, the Optima’s design actually looks coherent, with a pretty chrome strip along the outer edge of its roofline. The car’s myriad of controls was easy to figure out without eliciting a string of expletives I wouldn’t repeat in polite company.
Why don’t I see more of these on the road? The Optima Hybrid doesn’t suck.
The Kia Optima is one of the nicer looking options you may have as an upgrade at the rental counter.
It’s a vehicle—you get in, move your arms and legs a little, get out somewhere else. The vast disconnect between you and what I might call an “engaging driving experience” is part of the appeal, if you’re into that kind of thing. And this Hybrid version is good for 42 mpg according to the EPA.
The EX trim puts a few more luxury treatments on this four-wheeled appliance like a melodious 10-speaker Harmon/Kardon surround sound system and leather seats. Blind-spot detection, automatic emergency braking and parking assist beacons make driving even more idiot-proof.
Look at that panoramic sunroof. Gaze upon its vast expanse of joy-bringing glass! That’s luxury, friends. And this isn’t the kind of car where a low center of gravity is really a priority, so you might as well go all out with comfort features.
The Optima is already quite spacious inside with ample leg room even in the back seat, but this big sunroof on the Hybrid EX trim makes it feel wide open.
Since the Optima was serving as my support vehicle in a 24-hour car race, I used it as a hotel as well as transportation and took a few naps inside.
While there’s plenty of room in the back seat to curl up lengthwise, the bucket shapes for the two main rear seats weren’t comfortable to lay across and I didn’t have a very successful nap there.
I had better luck snoozing in the front seats, which can lean way back. Crank up the seat heater, and dream sweet dreams.
The car’s 2.0-liter hybrid/four-cylinder powertrain is built for efficiency, not acceleration, and it feels like it. The six-speed automatic transmission is tuned to get you to a cruising speed at a leisurely pace, and the electronic throttle smothers your attempts to mash the go-pedal and smoke your front tires.
Kia claims that this car has 192 combined horsepower but a surprisingly high 271 combined lb-ft of torque. That torque figure in particular sounds like it should be fun enough in a car that weighs 3,538 lbs, but, no, the car’s computer controls are having none of that.
It’s all tuned for minimum drama, including the kind of drama we enjoy as car lovers. Whether you interpret that as “smooth” or “slow” depends on your attitude, but both accounts are objectively correct.
Once the car is up to speed, it is stable, a quality I appreciated when an early-morning detour to the nearest bathroom right away nearly made me late for the pre-race driver’s meeting. Its suspension combo of MacPherson struts up front and an independent multi-link suspension in the rear was competent without feeling boaty or floaty.
The hybrid system is packaged well, too, leaving a cavernous 13.4 cubic feet of cargo volume in the trunk. There was no big hybrid penalty box in the trunk like the Ford Fusion Energi hybrid has. Just enough space for my two huge bags, a small laptop bag and room for another overpacked person’s crap (or two or three) on top of that.
The Optima Hybrid EX starts at $30,990—right in line with other higher trim levels of midsize hybrids. Our tester came in at $36,840 after the addition of the Technology Package, which includes a panoramic sunroof, front seats with both heating and cooling, heated rear seats, rear sunshades, smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking and the like.
The Optima Hybrid EX nailed one important detail: its controls were relatively easy to figure out, with many of its most important infotainment features supplemented by a series of physical controls, both on the center console as well as on the steering wheel. You don’t need to physically look away to the 8-inch infotainment unit’s screen to adjust many of the car’s most vital functions.
A quick browse through the menu options was all I needed to figure out how to access settings and car data. Even the graphics were better than the usual Windows 95-like schlock you see put into infotainment units.
The interior also felt really nicely put together. Knobs had a comfortable amount of resistance. The bins opened with a gentle, flowing glide.
The controls and storage openings in this Kia—albeit one of the nicer ones—felt more secure and solid than the upmarket Acura MDX Sport Hybrid I tested immediately afterwards that came with a starting MSRP of nearly $21,000 more. I’d honestly rather spend time in the Kia.
It’s such an incredible 180-degree turn from the flimsy Kia crapcans of yore that I still can’t believe I actually typed that sentence.
I’m picking on the Camry a lot here as the standard-bearer of midsize beige, but the Camry has a hard-won reputation for reliability. The Kia’s biggest weakness showed itself as it climbed over the mountains en route to Buttonwillow: the car flashed an idiot light at me that something was wrong with the hybrid system.
The appearance of the warning light didn’t appear to affect any of the car’s functions, but I pulled over just to be safe to call the listed press contact to inform them of the issue. They weren’t sure what was going on, either. Turning the car off and letting it rest a bit were apparently enough to reset the warning light or make the issue go away, as I didn’t encounter it again on the whole trip.
Later, a Kia representative explained that this light doesn’t necessarily indicate a serious issue, as any number of system issues in the complicated hybrid system can trigger the light. So it’s as vague as “CHECK ENGINE.” And apparently sometimes appears and then, just, goes away.
Fortunately, Kia still offers a 10-year, 100,000-mile limited powertrain warranty with the Optima Hybrid EX if you have issues—one of the highlights from Kia’s quest to lure you over from Toyota and Honda. Still, even if an issue is covered, that doesn’t make up for the nuisance of having to take it in for a fix in the first place.
Also, the leather seats are weirdly stiff to the point where I had to wonder whether they were actually made of dead cow.
Sadly, I wasn’t able to whip the car around Buttonwillow to see how it handles. The racing series would’ve wanted a roll cage in it, for one, and that was ruled out by the loaner agreement.
The trick to enjoying a car that’s slow to speed up is to never slow down, and that means that handling matters. The Optima Hybrid EX turned in nicely when I did encounter a mild bend, but the straight road wasteland of central California’s flat farm country was no place to test out how a car corners.
If I had more time with the car, I’d definitely like to take it down some good roads to see if it can handle turns better than its notoriously understeery, unresponsive and numb competition in the midsize segment.
I’m also curious to see how reliable these cars really are as they age. I suppose the Camry is still a thing thanks to boring-to-a-fault midsize buyers who prioritize a long history of reliability over style and comfort. Kia’s getting better, but the bad aftertaste from old Rios dies hard, and me encountering a weird issue with a test car isn’t a good sign, either.
Hey, it’s a comfortable, easy-to-use midsize sedan that I didn’t automatically hate. It’s an attractive design that doesn’t try too hard to convince you of the car’s faux-sportiness, or beat you over the head with how green the hybrid version is with overly obnoxious badging or loud colors.
It’s a car. A car that gets good gas mileage but ultimately feels much nicer than most people would probably expect from a Kia. If you absolutely have to get a practical midsize sedan, the Optima is a great excuse to get off your lazy butt and at least do some cross-shopping.