The 2017 Kia Optima PHEV adds plug-in capability and EV-only operation to the Optima hybrid’s already well-rounded attributes and agreeable personality. That said, its familiar shape does get a few touches shared with the Optima hybrid that are aimed at reducing drag: a slightly redesigned, model-specific front fascia with active grille shutters that close at speed, a reshaped rear bumper with a diffuser that shrouds the exhaust tip, and a more aerodynamic wheel design.
Roomy in front, quiet ride, nearly transparent hybrid operation.
Small real-world fuel-economy benefit, limited trunk space and rear headroom.
Things take a similar tack beneath the skin, the Optima PHEV sharing its 154-hp, direct-injected 2.0-liter inline-four and six-speed automatic transmission with the conventional hybrid. To maximize the efficiency of the gasoline engine in this application, however, Kia swapped in a high-voltage electric oil pump to replace the two (one mechanical pump and one low-voltage electrically driven pump) units used in the hybrid. Cooling for the plug-in’s transmission is by means of a liquid-to-air heat exchanger.
A transmission-integrated 67-hp electric motor/generator and a 9.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack, which is capable of putting out 68 kilowatts (91 horsepower), has more zap than the 51-hp motor and 56-kW battery combo of the regular Optima hybrid. In terms of combined output, this means 202 horsepower and 276 lb-ft of torque for the plug-in versus 192 and 271 in the hybrid. If these numbers leave you with a case of spec-sheet déjà vu, it’s likely because the entire setup is already in use in the 2017 Hyundai Sonata PHEV.
We appreciate how deftly the hybrid powertrain sorts out the particulars of meshing internal combustion with an AC motor. Part of this credit goes to Kia’s decision to use a six-speed automatic transmission teamed with the electric motor supplanting a traditional torque converter. Although this setup goes against the prevailing industry practice of employing a two-motor CVT (or power-split transaxle) for hybrid powertrains, the six-speed imparts a welcome sense of familiarity to the hybrid driving experience by downshifting perceptibly under heavy acceleration.
At the test track, the PHEV performed virtually identically to the Optima hybrid. An 8.0-second zero-to-60-mph run and a 16.2-second quarter-mile time put it just 0.1 second behind its plugless—and lighter—hybrid sibling. The plug-in model also registered 0.80 g of grip on the skidpad and took 185 feet to reach a stop from 70 mph, neither of which have us extolling its dynamic virtues, but the 215/55R-17 Kumho Solus TA31 Eco tires at least give plenty of warning via understeer before push comes to wreck. Few details of what’s happening at the road surface travel upstream through the synthetic-feeling steering, but responses to inputs at least are linear. Special mention goes to an improved regenerative-braking system that reaps a 10 percent gain in energy recovery by refining the collaboration between the hybrid control unit and the brake actuation. Although this may sound like a recipe for dull and schizophrenic brake-pedal feel, it manages to work reasonably transparently.
According to Kia, the Optima PHEV is 250 pounds heavier than the hybrid. Our scales revealed that the PHEV weighs 3892 pounds, or 252 more than the 3640-pound Optima hybrid. Kia’s claimed weight of 3788 pounds for the PHEV may have been a little optimistic, but the company nailed the difference between the two. The Optima PHEV’s claim of a 29-mile electric-only range (recommended for urban driving and capable of speeds up to 75 mph) proved not far off from our real-world testing, which yielded 27.1 miles of EV-only operation before the battery gave up.
In addition to choosing either Hybrid or EV-only modes, drivers can select Charging mode, which increases the amount of juice fed to the batteries at higher speeds. This refills the battery as much as possible, saving electrons for when EV-only mode may be desired for the last few miles of a journey. Other energy-saving measures include Kia’s Coasting Guide, which uses a blinking icon in the dash and a single audible alert to prompt the driver when to lift and when to brake for maximum efficiency. There’s a driver-only HVAC setting that shuts down ventilation and seat heating to all areas of the car except for the driver. Both work as advertised, but the hot, humid weather we experienced during testing made the latter virtually unusable.
The Price of Efficiency
Unlike the standard hybrid, which comes in a base version as well as EX trim, the PHEV is sold exclusively as an EX (EX resides between LX and SX in the Optima hierarchy). With a base price of $36,105, the plug-in hybrid requires a not insubstantial $9215 premium over the $26,890 ask for the base Optima hybrid and $4220 more than the $31,885 hybrid EX. (As of this writing, however, the Optima PHEV was still eligible for a $4919 federal tax credit, which brings its price right in line with that of the hybrid EX; additional state incentives may be available.)
Besides the aforementioned powertrain upgrades and exterior streamlining, the PHEV also has an instrument-cluster display detailing powertrain operations and energy usage, plus an enriched set of UVO infotainment features—not to mention the plug-in capability. Connecting one end of the cable to the single port in the Optima’s left-front fender and the other to a standard 120-volt household outlet fully charges the battery pack in less than nine hours; hooking up to a 240-volt (Level 2) source cuts that time to less than three. As for the UVO telematics, along with the requisite Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the PHEV adds LTE wireless connectivity that communicates directly with the car via the UVO smartphone app to perform remote functions including start/stop, preconditioning of the cabin temperature, and lock/unlock. Also included in the app are Kia’s My Car Zone features, including curfew, speed alerts, and geofencing capabilities, which ought to help helicopter parents keep tabs on their offspring. A charging-station locator and the ability to check your vehicle’s charge status and schedule charging sessions are provided as well.
Those looking to enjoy the typical mod cons will want the $5250 Technology package, which consists of a panoramic sunroof, a gloss-black B-pillar, a 10-way power driver’s seat with power lumbar support, ventilated front seats, heated outboard rear seats, rear-window sunshades, LED reading lamps, forward-collision warning, automated emergency braking, LED headlights, automatic high-beams, rear parking sensors, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise control. That was the sole option on our test car, and it brought the as-tested price to $41,355.
The most relevant number for the plug-in are its fuel-economy figures, however. EPA-rated at a combined 40 mpg, our Optima hybrid returned 40 MPGe overall with the help of some electrons and 44 MPGe in our 75-mph highway test. Those are respectable figures, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that a plugless 2018 Camry hybrid matched them. As previously stated, we did manage to get 27 miles of travel in EV-only mode, which could significantly trim gasoline usage for drivers with short commutes and/or charging facilities at their place of employment. Then again, that battery range pales in comparison to the 53-mile battery-only figure we recorded in the smaller but similarly priced 2017 Chevrolet Volt, let alone the 238-mile marathon we extracted from the batteries of the much smaller Chevy Bolt EV.
But for individuals who reside in certain traffic-heavy urban areas and are still wary of making the leap to a full EV such as the Bolt, that charging port in the Optima’s fender may ultimately reap benefits that far outreach any financial arguments or environmental altruism, real or perceived. After all, it grants them legal access to HOV lanes so they can leave behind much of the rush-hour gridlock.
Listed MSRP is for a Optima LX Auto Box base trim with no options. Includes destination fee. Does not include sales tax.
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VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
PRICE AS TESTED: $41,355 (base price: $36,105)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter inline-4, 154 hp, 140 lb-ft; permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor, 67 hp, 151 lb-ft; combined output, 202 hp, 276 lb-ft; 9.8-kWh lithium-ion battery pack
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