Monday, June 17, 2013

Is this thing on?

I've never driven a hybrid. There. I said it. I did test drive a pre-production Chevy Volt, but that's not really a hybrid. And it wasn't really a test drive, either. Still, I've been a big proponent of the Kia brand since Peter Schreyer took over as design boss. I even came close to buying the top-spec Optima SX when I last went car shopping.

That said, I was delighted when Colleen and Taylor at Enterprise said they had a surprise for me this week: A black 2013 Kia Optima LX Hybrid with 300 miles on the O.D. Good lookin' out, girls.

Deafening Silence. Press the start button and the engine roars to li... Wait. The engine... does... nothing. Is this thing on? Starting a car that doesn't sound like it's starting is disconcerting at first. Ignition is signaled by a little melody and some animation on the dash. Then, dead silence. Put it in gear and it glides away from your parking spot in full golf cart mode. Go easy on the accelerator and you can sustain travel in full EV mode, provided you're not fully effaced and dilated or experiencing any other urgency. The same silence awaits you at every stop light. No idle. Just you and your tortured thoughts, goaded by the tick-tock of the turn signal. I think it's due to the lack of internal combustion drama that I found myself forgetting to turn the car OFF upon arriving at my destinations. Thankfully, the car beeps at you mercilessly until you fix that situation.

Eco Sluts Beware. There are several displays you can call up on Optima's dash to monitor your hybridworthiness, from a growing-flowers animation to more statistical views. To scroll through these options, you push a button on the steering wheel labeled "Trip". Not intuitive, Kia. I gravitated toward the display that shows you what's driving the car (electric or gas). But even if you forgo these digital spectacles, a big analog gauge on the dash constantly reminds you of the impact your right foot has on your eco-virtue.

The car can be switched from miserly Eco mode to—er—non-Eco mode, which still uses the electric motor to aid propulsion. Either way, when you need power, it's there - brought to you courtesy of gasoline. A stomp on the pedal pushes the Optima where it needs to go when passing or in emergency maneuvers with impressive thrust, for a hybrid. Driving the car hard into corners yields good grip and firmness—a real sense of control—which is surprising given the low-rolling-resistance tires. I was challenged to keep the Optima on a straight path on the highway. The stiff steering needed constant input, and it didn't help that my man hands are too big to grip the wheel between the center bottom spokes. Overall, the Optima Hybrid is smooth and connected in everything it does. And the transition from voltage to octane is imperceptible, except from a dead stop, when a precious second is lost as the car interprets your input.

Thirsty much? I took the Optima Hybrid on a round-trip adventure from the Northwest burbs to downtown Chicago. According to the live mileage display, I averaged 41mpg, with heavy inbound stop-and-go, in Eco mode.

Grins & Chagrins. Infotainment was one of the few disappointments. The low-end touchscreen audio system was not capable of providing Bluetooth voice dialing through my iPhone. It doesn't remember speaker volume from one call to the next. And the speakers, whether serving up music or phone convos, sounded tinny and one dimensional.

Some things are universal to Optima, hybrid or not. GREAT looks inside and out. First rate fit and finish. And roominess, especially for passengers in the rear. But the two deal-breakers I encountered in our search for a new car still irked me throughout this rental: the passenger seat and the armrest ergonomics.

Optima gives the pilot a comfy, 8-way power seat including lumbar. But even on the highfalutin SX with seat heat for ALL FOUR outboard passengers, the co-pilot gets a 4-way manual job. Don't like your seat height on that five-hour road trip with the family? Pull over and grab a phone book or two from the nearest recycling bin. Then bunch-up your sweater and jam it behind your lower back for some support. Or just tough it out and ask Guest Services at Wally World for the name of a good chiropractor.

The other reason is best shown in a picture.

Only a T-Rex can comfortably drop the rear windows via the driver door switches. It FEELS much worse than it looks. I'm serious - this and the seat thing disqualified Optima from a continuing role in our driveway. And the stalker salesman, too.

Rentalist Interruptus. On a sunny Sunday en route from the gym, an image of the front of the car came on screen with the warning: "Check Active Air Flap System". Then the Stability Control Active light came on, followed by a simultaneous Stability Control Off light, followed by the Brake Warning light, followed by the Check Engine light. Happy Father's Day! Enterprise Roadside Assistance arranged a swap for the next morning.

End Rant. Kia is a value brand. So there's a little tinniness to the back doors, and some of the plastics inside are bargain bin. But NHTSA awarded the Hybrid 5 stars across the board in crash testing, and its quiet comfort and confident stance are impressive. The system failure on a car with less than 800 miles is troubling, but these things happen. Unfortunately, I'll never know why this one malfunctioned.

If you like the idea of a Sharper Image digital doorstop in your driveway, buy a Prius. But if you want a sexy, roomy hybrid sedan with a sophisticated driving experience, dig your tiny raptor arms into your necessarily high pockets and shell out 26 grand to Kia. Then open those back windows and glide slowly and silently into the sunset, avoiding any tar pits you may encounter.