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Kia Optima Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive Review

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ADDITIONAL MODEL INFORMATION

author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2015

Although a fully redesigned version of Kia's popular Optima midsize sedan recently went on sale, the brand has not yet released an updated version of the Optima Hybrid, the standard Optima's extra-efficient stablemate. But a revised Kia Optima Hybrid is coming soon -- and we recently had the chance to drive it, along with an all-new Optima Plug-In Hybrid, at the brand's Namyang Research and Development Center near Seoul, South Korea. Here's what we thought.

The Details

Before we dive into our driving experience, it's important to understand exactly what we've driven -- especially since the new Optima Plug-In Hybrid represents a totally new direction for the Kia lineup.

So, to be clear, the new Optima Hybrid lineup will now break into two models. First, there's the regular Optima Hybrid, just like there was last year: a handsome 4-door sedan with a fuel-efficient hybrid powertrain whose numbers should roughly match that of the Sonata Hybrid at 193 horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, 6-speed automatic transmission, and fuel economy figures that reach as high as 40 miles per gallon in the city and 44 mpg on the highway.

Unlike today's Sonata, however, the Optima Hybrid lineup is also adding another model: a Plug-In Hybrid with an electric motor and a range-extending gasoline engine that will act as a backup for when the electric powertrain runs out of juice. This is an all-new model in the Optima range, and Kia says it will travel around 27 miles on electric power alone, while a full recharge will take about 3 hours with a 240-volt power outlet.

The Drive

So what did we think of the hybrid-powered Optimas? Simply put, they aren't the Kia models of years past. They're smooth, they're stable, and they're quiet -- and they're capable of competing with the best that Toyota, Honda or Ford have to offer. They're also roughly the same to drive, with no noticeable differences, save for a few badges, a revised gauge cluster and a small cubby on the front fender where you plug in the Plug-In Hybrid model.

We'll start with ride quality. While the Optima Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid aren't exactly luxury-car smooth over bumps and pavement imperfections, they insulate you from the road surprisingly well -- noticeably better than the outgoing model, which always felt a bit too crashy for our liking. As for handling, the hybrid-powered Optima models offer a stable, strong feel with smooth steering and limited body roll. No, these aren't sports cars, but as driving experience goes, they're hardly at the bottom of their segment, either.

Although we rode in a pre-production version of both the Optima Hybrid and the Optima Plug-In Hybrid, fit and finish appears to be excellent in either car. This is, once again, a step up over the outgoing Optima, whose interior -- while impressive when it debuted -- isn't quite up to the level of the latest model. Wind noise is also hushed, and the operation of the hybrid powertrain never intrudes on your driving experience.

Speaking of that hybrid powertrain, it hardly transforms the Optima into a sports car when it comes to acceleration, but the sedan isn't slow, either, regardless of whether you choose the Hybrid or the Plug-In Hybrid model. Sophisticated drivers will notice that the sometimes discomforting regenerative-braking feel has been mostly eliminated, which means these models barely distinguish themselves from a gas-powered Optima when you're slowing down to a stop.

Although we didn't get to carry out a sincere fuel economy test in various driving conditions, it's worth noting that the Optima Hybrid's in-car fuel economy gauge generally read over 40 mpg while we were behind the wheel -- not bad for a midsize sedan, and roughly on par with major competitors like the Toyota Camry Hybrid and Ford Fusion Hybrid.

Our Take

We went into our test of the Kia Optima Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid with a good idea of how the sedans would drive, given that we've driven their Hyundai Sonata stablemate -- and the gas-powered version that serves as the basis for their existence. With that in mind, we weren't especially surprised -- but more importantly, we weren't disappointed.

These two sedans offer minimal compromises compared to standard gas-powered Optima models, while simultaneously boasting excellent fuel economy numbers. As a result, midsize sedan shoppers with an eye on fuel economy should include the Optima Hybrid -- and the Plug-In Hybrid -- on their shopping lists, right next to major players like the Ford Fusion Hybrid and the Fusion Energi Plug-In Hybrid, the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the Honda Accord Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Kia Optima Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid: First Drive Review - Autotrader