Plug-in hybrid Optima is a practical, tax-efficient PHEV that undercuts rivals and fulfils its main remit well, but keen drivers need not apply

What is it?

Kia’s first plug-in hybrid, complete with the credibility-stretching fuel economy and emissions figures we’ve come to expect from cars of this type. The Kia Optima PHEV combines the efforts of a normally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine and a 50kW electric motor to deliver a peak system output of 202bhp.

There will be more interest among company car drivers in the Optima’s price and CO2 figure. At £31,495 after the UK government’s £2500 plug-in incentive, it undercuts both the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and Volkswagen Passat GTE, the VW by nearly £5000. The 9.8kW/h lithium ion polymer battery, which is located underneath the rear of the car, is powerful enough to deliver a claimed 33 miles of electric-only range, and because the official EUDC consumption test allows plug-ins to start with a full battery and finish with a depleted one, the Optima scores a 176.6mpg rating and 37g/km of CO2.

Getting anywhere close to those figures in the real world will mean lots of short journeys between charging stations, of course, and a little patience. Kia says the battery pack can be replenished from flat in three hours by a 240V domestic supply.

Although it is Kia’s first plug-in, the Optima PHEV is mechanically pretty much identical to the Hyundai Sonata PHEV already on sale in some markets. Like its sister, it uses a six-speed automatic gearbox rather than a CVT, with the electric motor effectively replacing the torque converter at low speeds. Thereafter it can either supplement the petrol engine or, in EV mode, power the car by itself at up to 75mph.

Other changes from a standard Optima are limited. The most obvious is the PHEV’s active radiator grille, which closes when not needed to reduce air resistance. There’s also a subtle blue tint to the headlights and chrome trim. Equipment is generous and includes a powered driver’s seat, wireless charging pad, 8.0in touchscreen and 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.

Although it is the most powerful Optima until the forthcoming GT variant arrives, the PHEV’s performance figures are barely better than those of the 139bhp CRDi model. For an explanation, look no further than the plug-in’s 1780kg kerb weight, 200kg more than its diesel sister.

What's it like?

The PHEV copes well with the sort of short, low-speed journeys for which it has been designed, but dynamically it never rises above competence. So don’t come here looking for excitement because that would be the emptiest of quests.

At urban speeds, the transmission does a decent job of blending the efforts of the petrol and ion-fuelled motors, and left in the default hybrid mode, most low-speed progress is done electrically. The driveline isn’t quite as smooth under gentle use as a CVT system, but the auto's real ratios mean that it doesn’t suffer the slurred engine note of a stepless transmission when you want faster progress.

The electric motor supplies the low-down torque that the petrol engine lacks and the PHEV feels respectably brisk at real-world speeds, although acceleration tails off noticeably above 80mph. The EV mode works as intended and the ride quality is good at urban speeds. The petrol engine makes some gruff noises when worked hard, but otherwise refinement is good.

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The PHEV has no enthusiasm for faster progress, though. Grip levels are predictably modest and the handling balance is as nose heavy as that of a thrown hammer. Even at everyday speeds, the front nudges wide in tighter corners. There’s no encouragement for more spirited use, with low-geared anaesthetised steering and springs and dampers that struggle to keep the PHEV’s considerable bulk under control on rougher road surfaces. This car feels well short of even the modest dynamic standards of the Toyota Prius. 

There are plenty of pluses, though. The cabin is spacious and the battery pack has been accommodated with only a minimal 15-litre reduction in boot capacity. As is often the case with hybrids, the PHEV’s pricing has moved it into a part of the market where some of the interior trim feels low rent, but build quality feels solid throughout. 

Should I buy one?

As always, a plug-in hybrid is suited to only a small minority of buyers – those who travel between plug-equipped parking spots frequently enough to forgive the considerable compromises forced by the weight of the electric side of the powertrain. Based on our experience, everyday economy with the battery depleted won’t get beyond mid-40s to the gallon on anything but the most gentle of use. 

But if you are looking for a PHEV, then the Optima needs to be on your shortlist. It’s cheaper and more tax efficient than any of its rivals and is backed by Kia’s peerless warranty. Its appeal is also certain to grow as zero-emission zones spread. It’s just a shame the rational attraction isn’t matched by any emotional one.

Kia Optima PHEV

Location Korea; On sale Autumn 2016; Price £31,495 (with £2500 government grant applied); Engine 4 cyls, 1999cc, petrol, plus 50kW electric motor; Petrol power 154bhp at 6000rpm; Petrol torque 139lb ft at 5000rpm; Combined power 202bhp at 6000rpm; Combined torque 276lb ft at 2330rpm; Gearbox 6-spd automatic; Kerb weight 1780kg; Top speed 119mph; 0 60mph 9.1sec; Economy 176.6mpg; CO2 rating/tax band 37g/km, 7% 

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Mike Duff

Mike Duff
Title: Contributing editor

Mike has been writing about cars for more than 25 years, having defected from radio journalism to follow his passion. He has been a contributor to Autocar since 2004, and is a former editor of the Autocar website. 

Mike joined Autocar full-time in 2007, first as features editor before taking the reins at autocar.co.uk. Being in charge of the video strategy at the time saw him create our long running “will it drift?” series. For which he apologies.

He specialises in adventurous drive stories, many in unlikely places. He once drove to Serbia to visit the Zastava factory, took a £1500 Mercedes W124 E-Class to Berlin to meet some of its taxi siblings and did Scotland’s North Coast 500 in a Porsche Boxster during a winter storm. He also seems to be a hypercar magnet, having driven such exotics as the Koenigsegg One:1, Lamborghini SCV12, Lotus Evija and Pagani Huayra R.

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HiPo 289 30 August 2016

Beware Regressive Luddism

There are lots of reasons to like new tech, instead of being afraid of it. Hybrids can be mechanically interesting and the huge global sales figures of Toyota hybrids alone didn't happen by accident - clearly millions of people like them.

There are two other reasons to approve of hybrids. Unlike diesels, they aren't choking us to death everyday. Also unlike diesels, they don't sound like a dustbin full of rusty nuts.

Soren Lorenson 30 August 2016

Too much money

I dispute the idea that a PHEV only works for a few people. Anyone who has a regular commute of around 10 miles each way each day will benefit. Anyone who mainly does local journeys, such as school runs, will benefit. Best of all you can enjoy the benefits of an electric car during your regular daily chores but also are able to drive to Scotland or the South of France too without range anxiety.

However, most of us doing comparatively short runs wouldn't be looking to spend £32K on a KIA so I doubt many of these will find homes. You'd be far far better off with a petrol Skoda Superb and keeping £10K to spend on fuel.

This is where Mitsubishi has been so smart. As SUV's cost so much more anyway, it doesn't look stupidly expensive to opt for the PHEV version.

The price of this tech needs to fall before the fuel savings make any kind of financial sense.

bowsersheepdog 29 August 2016

Backward step

Without the petrol engine this car is less worthwhile as transport than a pair of shoes. Electric cars are going nowhere.