It s important to feel good about a car, as they are major purchases that we live with for a long time. It s easy to be tempted by the fuel economy of a hybrid, and heck, as an air breather I d love to help out the environment. But historically, their sheetmetal has never been considered haute couture. Prius certainly makes the eco statement but few consider it high fashion.

Kia wants to change that and the Kia Optima Hybrid is proof. Like the regular Optima, the design is striking. One person asked if it was the new BMW i8. Against Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry hybrids its design clearly pops. It doesn t look dramatically different from the gas-only Optima; the nose is unique, so is the rear fascia and spiffy aerodynamic wheels. I m driving a base model with no options, which retails for $27,250.

Brother and Sister

Hyundai owns a little less than half of Kia but technically they re two different companies that share a lot of engineering and development. Remember, Sonata is available in a hybrid so it only makes sense that platform mate Optima would get it.

The drivetrain is the same, a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 166 HP (154 lb-ft of torque @ 4500 rpm) and a 40 HP electric motor (151 lb-ft @ 0-1,400 ) for a total of 206 horsepower and 193.4 lb-ft of torque. The four-cylinder runs on the Atkinson cycle. Unique to Optima and Sonata s segment is a six-speed gearbox. It even gets a manual shift mode on the console. Most hybrids use continuously variable transmissions.

Unlike hybrids made by Ford and Toyota, this one is modular. The electric motor is separate from the transmission. In theory, it means the company has the option of installing a larger motor and battery pack to make a plug in hybrid. It s also less costly to repair should any one of the components need replacement.

The battery is also different, using lithium polymer cells which is lighter and smaller than the nickel metal hydride units common in hybrids. LP cells are flat so packaging is more efficient than cylindrical NiMh cells. The lithium polymer pack is 20-30 percent lighter, 40 percent smaller in volume and 10 percent more efficient. LG Chem, the manufacturer, claims these batteries are more durable and hold a charge longer.

All The Usual Hybrid Tricks

Optima generally pulls away on electric power alone, staying in that mode longer than most other hybrids before the gas engine smoothly feathers in. Kia says it can stay in electric-only mode up to 30 miles an hour, but I generally see it kick in at around 10. Zero to 60 happens in about 8.5 seconds, a full second quicker than a Prius. It shuts down at stoplights to conserve fuel (of course). Put your foot in it and it s fairly quick and responsive.

Optima s ride quality is firmer than sister Sonata, cornering noticeably crisper. Body roll is minimal for a mainstream sedan. At highway speeds the hybrid is the quietest version of the Optima I ve driven. That could be due to the low rolling resistance tires. We re not talking Buick hushed, -- it s average; other versions of Optima have more road noise than I prefer.

Toyota and Ford systems are more efficient in city driving, Kia s goes for maximum highway MPGs. The EPA rates it at 35 city, 40 highway, good for a roomy family sedan. This is about the same as Fusion hybrid (41 city, 36 highway) substantially better than a 2011 Camry hybrid (31 city, 35 highway) but not as good as the upcoming 2012 Camry hybrid (estimated EPA scores are 43 city/39 highway). I m seeing 32 MPG on mostly city driving, but I m not driving it easy. One particular afternoon a was very light on the throttle and saw 41 on the trip computer

An efficiency gauge that replaces the tachometer helps to eek out better fuel economy. A crisp hybrid energy flow graphic in the gauge cluster shows what s happening with engine power and battery regeneration. The more efficiently you drive, the more leaves and flowers you ll get on the screen, similar to the rewards program with Fusion. The brakes have a nice linear feel something not all hybrids can claim.

One gripe I had with the drivetrain in the Sonata was that the six-speed transmission was easily tripped up in hard cut and thrust city driving. That s been taken care of, it s much smoother now. The folks at Hyundai confirm that Sonata is using the revised transmission calibration.

Look Familiar

Other than a different gauge cluster, the interior is much like a gas-only Optima, the center stack tilts ever so slightly toward the driver. iPod and phone integration is standard, so is a leather wrapped wheel and dual-zone climate control. Worth noting, start-up and warning chimes are very pleasant.

The standard seats are well bolstered and covered in a decent cloth. The driver s chair is powered, the passenger chair is manual. Materials are of good quality, a mix of soft and hard plastic and there are lots of small places to stash things.

Kia has teamed up with Microsoft to create UVO. It can read incoming text messages and makes many electronics voice active. Generally, voice activation systems don t work well with mine. By simply reading the quick startup manual I was calling up songs I loaded on the 1 gig jukebox and making phone calls just by saying call home . Many will compare UVO with Sync but the Ford system is more powerful. Still, UVO is a good place to start.

A standard touch screen is on the small side and the rear vision camera image a bit dark (though useful). There are no hard radio preset buttons, you have to scroll to use them on the touch screen (or use UVO voice command I suppose).

Moving To The Back...

The back seat is roomy enough for three adults. The cushions are well sculpted and the floor is flat so the middle passenger doesn t have to straddle a hump. There s storage in the doors and both seat backs. No power port though.

My biggest gripe is about the option. That s right, option. There s really only one, a Premium Technology package that bundles a panoramic glass roof, heated seats (cooled for the driver) satellite navigation and much more for $5,000. It s an all or nothing deal. If all you want is a better sound system (and audiophiles certainly will) it s quite a commitment.

Why I Do The TP Trunk Test

Optima Hybrid is the perfect example of why a constant test metric is a good idea. The standard Optima holds seven packs of the two-ply (a decent sized cargo hold by the way). In a pinch the rear seatbacks can be dropped to expand the space.

The hybrid has its battery pack in the trunk and despite its compact size the Lithium Polymer battery (and the standard 12v unit also located back here) takes up some space. Seats do not fold, there s only a small ski pass through here. Not sure how, but somehow the hybrid can swallow six bundles. Personally I would have guessed five.

Summing up, this Kia is a great all-around package for those who want an attractive, roomy, efficient sedan. The price is right too. No, it does not have the fuel economy or distinctive I drive a hybrid shape of Prius but not everyone likes that silhouette. Let s just say it s a benefit of living in a free market society. We have choices. Optima Hybrid is an appealing one.

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