Gareth Butterfield wonders if the hybrid Kia Optima makes sense in a diesel-dominated world
Despite hybrid propulsion being a relatively new technology in the motoring world, the range of vehicles available is, if you’ll forgive the awkward choice of adjective, rather polluted.
Even in the key battleground being contested by Kia’s new Optima there’s plenty of choice. Lexus wades in with its IS, Volkswagen has a hybrid Passat and BMW and Mercedes have models to choose from.
But hang on, I hear you exclaim, can you really compare a Kia to a Mercedes? Well, in this context, yes, you can. If you’ve not sat in a Kia recently you’d be surprised at how upmarket it feels. Gone are the days when they were the Korean odd-ball poor-relation.
But I digress. Although the merits of hybrid technology are somewhat conflicted, cars powered by petrol and electricity combined are selling well.
And while there is a lot of choice in the premium saloon segment, I’ve been testing the Kia Optima Sportswagon, which has the bonus of being an estate car, with a large, practical boot.
Sales of estate cars have taken a bit of a nosedive in the wake of the huge rise in popularity of SUVs, but they are still relevant for most people and so Kia’s choice to turn it into a hybrid is fine by me.
And it’s not just a Toyota Prius clone, either. Much like the hugely popular Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV SUV, which interestingly the Optima now sort of pits itself against, it has a plug-in hybrid system.
This means that its batteries can be charged not only by the car’s engine and its kinetic energy, but also by plugging it into the wall.
And that means you get bigger batteries, a much longer range, lower emissions, and plenty more miles per gallon of fuel.
So it sounds perfect. But there are compromises. It’s 200kg heavier, for starters, which is a shame as it eats into the benefits slightly. And the weight added by all those batteries is noticeable, when you compare it to the rather poised fossil fuel-powered versions.
You also sacrifice a bit of boot space and there’s still a question mark hovering over the cost-savings of powering your car off a constantly-rising electricity supply.
But the maths will work for a lot of people, hence the success of the plug-in hybrid. Especially when tax and company car savings are factored in.
The thing is, Kia suggests you can plod on for 38 miles on electricity alone, which sounds pathetic compared to a Nissan Leaf or another such all-electric vehicle but, for many people, it might cover their entire commute. It would for me.
The other great thing about having a more significant set of motors helping you along, is the electric shove that’s provided in tandem with the two-litre petrol engine. It’s surprisingly quick off the mark.
It’s a shame then, that its handling doesn’t really live up to the promise of its acceleration. It’s by no means wayward, but it’s far from a dynamic masterpiece, either. The steering is nicely weighted, but the car’s sheer density shows up when you’re entering corners in a spirited manner.
That won’t bother everyone, I grant you, but the hybrid version of the Optima is priced at a level that puts it uncomfortably close to its rivals, including BMW’s offering. And the BMW drives far better and has that prestigious badge.
But don’t let that put you off. It’s comfortable, looks lovely, has loads of space and is obviously very economical to drive, even over distances.
It could be argued that some diesel estate cars might match its MPG on certain journeys, but that’s not the point. Diesels are becoming increasingly difficult to own, let alone costly, and the benefits of owning a hybrid are becoming more obvious.
Sure, if you want a sporty estate car, you’ll probably go and buy a BMW. But if you want a comfortable, quiet and spacious car which will cost as little as possible to run while still offering a few creature comforts and gadgets you’ll not go far wrong with the Kia.