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First drive: Kia Optima hybrid

Not for Oz: The Optima Hybrid sedan joins the Optima Turbo and Optima turbo-diesel as the latest Kia that won't see the light of day in Australia.

It’s no-go for Australia, so we drove Kia’s Optima Hybrid in LA to see what we miss

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Kia logo4 Dec 2012

By MIKE COSTELLO in LOS ANGELES

KIA Australia says it would not offer the Optima Hybrid sedan here even if it were to be made available in right-hand drive, sparing Toyota competition for its locally made petrol-electric Camry.

While Kia’s local arm admits it would be a good look to offer an environmentally friendly version of the sharply styled family sedan, it also claims the low uptake of hybrid vehicles in Australia makes it an impractical addition.

This is despite a growth in hybrid sales of almost 50 per cent in Australia this year, largely on the back of a wave of new or facelifted models such as the Toyota Prius C and Prius V, Lexus GS and RX, and Honda Civic Hybrid.

The Optima Hybrid joins the potent US-market Optima Turbo and the supply constrained Optima turbo-diesel sold in Europe as non-starters for the Australian market, something Kia Australia public relations manager Kevin Hepworth chalks up to local attitudes toward petrol-electric cars.

“Politically, it would be good to have one of the eco range in the country, but practically it’s way down the scale,” he said.

“Hybrid cars in Australia are not big sellers, people don’t want to buy them and they don’t want to pay a premium to be seen to be green.”

The fast-growing Korean car-maker’s first hybrid model commands a premium of at least US$4500 in North America, which, when extrapolated to local pricing, suggests Kia would have had to consider a starting price close to $40,000.

In the US, the Optima Hybrid goes up against an array of rivals including the Camry, Ford Fusion hybrid and the Sonata/i45 hybrid from parent company Hyundai.

Incentives including dedicated driving lanes, as well as a general propensity to steer clear of frugal European diesels, make hybrid cars more popular in the US than in Australia.

GoAuto grabbed the keys to a US-specification model on a recent trip to the Los Angeles motor show, taking a quick spin in North America’s greenest state to see just what we’re missing out on.

For our money, the Optima is far and away the sharpest looker in the hybrid sedan race. We seldom discuss subjective vehicle styling, but the edgy design has been widely acknowledged as a key factor in turning around Kia’s fortunes and changing brand perceptions since it first appeared more than two years ago.

Mechanical details for the US-spec Optima Hybrid we drove closely resemble those of the hybrid Sonata (which Australia also misses out on), with a 30kW/205Nm electric motor combining with an Atkinson-cycle 2.4-litre petrol engine producing 124kW/209Nm.

Combined system output is 154kW of power and 265Nm of torque (up 6kW and 15Nm on the regular Optima), with combined-cycle fuel consumption of 6.2 litres per 100km – much better than the petrol model’s 7.9L/100km, but 0.5L/100km thirstier than the rival Camry Hybrid.

A less powerful but more frugal 2.0-litre version of the Optima hybrid is sold in Europe.

The two-mode hybrid drive system uses a 70-volt lithium battery pack, while drive is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission rather than a more common (for hybrids) continuously variable transmission (CVT).

Despite the more complex drivetrain, the 1583kg Optima Hybrid is said to weigh only 32kg more than the regular Platinum model.

Behind the wheel on a selection of LA’s congested concrete freeways, we felt a bit underwhelmed by the petrol-electric drivetrain – something we’re content to chalk up to growing pains more than anything else. After all, the likes of Toyota have a big head start in hybrid technology.

The switch from electric propulsion to petrol is less subtle than we would have liked. At speeds under 40km/h, the Optima is happy to potter about in EV mode, but planting your foot causes the engine to cut in with more clunk than comfort.

Furthermore, the six-speed auto is significantly more fussy and inconsistent in its shift patterns than in the regular Optima, holding onto low gears for too long and offering a strangely monotone drone similar in character to a CVT.

In typical hybrid form, the regenerative brakes – which capture expelled energy and funnel it back into the batteries – felt wooden, but did an acceptable job of reining in the car before we ran into the bumper of some of LA’s more errant, indicator-avoiding locals.

Thankfully for Kia, this is where the bulk of the shortcomings end because, overly light electric steering and ridiculously ugly alloy wheels aside, the petrol-electric Optima hybrid is a sharp and stylish tool.

Driving a US-spec car on American roads is not exactly reflective of driving an Australian-spec car locally, especially as Kia offers market-specific suspension tune in each country, but we were impressed by the Optima’s super-quiet ride.

There was nary a hint of tyre noise – and we thank the high-walled hoops and 16-inch wheels for that – or wind noise, even at speeds above 120km/h. Only the droning engine note – a product of the confused transmission – spoiled the serenity at pace.

Perhaps the lack of wind-noise stemmed from the reduced drag courtesy of aerodynamic features like the ‘active air flap’ in the front grille, smooth underfloor panels and low-drag wheels.

Inside, the instrument panel has a cool and techy ‘ECO Guide’ to promote economical driving habits, while the driver-oriented cabin fascia was as well-made and packed with features as Australian-market Optimas.

As with the standard model, rear-seat legroom is a strong suit, and the absence of the space-eating sunroof frees up substantially more headroom, although this is still tight for taller passengers like yours truly.

Boot space is a pokey 280 litres, reduced greatly from the 505 litres of the regular Optima due to the location of the battery pack.

Our brief time behind the wheel of the Optima Hybrid yielded few real surprises as it builds on the already excellent package offered by the regular model with an extra dose of fuel economy and high-tech instrumentation.

The trade-off is an unrefined drivetrain and, frankly, a price premium that would be unwelcome in Australia. Kia’s local line-up might benefit from the added diversity from selling a hybrid, but its reticence is understandable.

The 204kW Optima Turbo, which we drove in LA last year (see separate story linked below), is another matter entirely, however. The force-fed model appears to be a no-brainer for Oz.

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