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.
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%