By Barbara & Bill Schaffer
Lonepine, Mont. – When the invitation to Bill’s nephew’s wedding in Lonepine, Montana arrived, we had no idea where Lonepine was, even though Bill was born and raised in Western Montana. A quick check of Google Maps showed a small dot, in the middle of nowhere – about 20 miles southwest of Flathead Lake. We put the information into Google and determined the total trip would be about 1,600 miles from our home near Portland, Ore.
Normally press cars are not available for trips that long, but after some checking we discovered that a Kia Optima Hybrid was available for the road trip. That was perfect, we love the Kia Optima and we hadn’t driven the hybrid version in several years. This drive would give us a good indication about performance at modest elevations (2,000 to 4,000 feet) and fuel economy at higher speeds. And after 600 or 700 miles in the car in one day, you get to know what’s comfortable and what’s not.
The higher altitudes always present a performance challenge for non-turbo charged cars. The freeways in Montana are a good test of real world fuel economy numbers because of the higher 80 mph speed limits. Even narrow two-lane highways have often 75 mph limits and of course, we can’t drive under the speed limit. (It’s easy to see why the higher speeds are allowed, because on the rural Montana highways, you only pass another car every three or four miles.)
For 2017, engineers replaced the hybrid’s original 2.4-liter four-cylinder with the new 2.0-liter engine. Fuel economy was further improved by using an electric water pump and a new electric oil pump. The new powertrain includes a 154-hp 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder engine with Continuously Variable Valve Timing and a 50-hp electric motor giving the Optima a total 192-hp and with 271-lb.ft. of torque. The electric motor and clutch replaces the traditional automatic transmission torque converter and helps produce better acceleration and passing power. The electric motor is powered by a 56Kw Lithium polymer battery which is tucked nicely under the rear seat leaving cargo space at 13.4 cubic feet or a couple of cubic feet less than the gasoline version.
Unlike many hybrids, the Optima uses a six-speed automatic transmission rather than a CVT (continuously variable transmission). We applaud the use of the regular automatic transmission because we find most CVT transmissions have a “mushy” response. This traditional automatic transmission also allows the driver to shift manually when desired using the gated shift linkage. This was especially helpful in the curvy mountain roads where engine braking was helpful.
The Optima Hybrid performed much better than we expected. The electric motor boosts performance just like a turbocharger boosts the output of a gasoline engine. Numerically a buff magazine listed a 6.8 second 0 to 60 mph time. The big surprise for us was the excellent fuel economy. Driving our usual 5 to 7 miles per hour above the posted speed limits of 75 and 80 mph, we were averaging 45.1 mpg according to the trip computer, and the numbers were confirmed at the gas pump.
Advanced High Strength Steel is used for more than 50 percent of the chassis along with various other high-strength steel alloys. Those elements combined with hot-stamped components and the use of structural adhesive create a strong rigid platform for the four-wheel independent suspension. The result is very good handling and control and a comfortable slightly soft ride.
The Kia Hybrid is available in two trim levels Premium and EX. The Premium is priced at $26,890, including the destination charge, and the EX is $31,885. The only options available on the EX are a $395 White Pearl paint and the $5,000 Tech package which added a long list of features including a panoramic sunroof, heated and ventilated front seats, Smart Cruise Control, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection, auto bending LED Headlights with High Beam Assist, Cross Traffic Alerts, and several other convenience features.
In addition to five Optima gasoline-powered models, the midsize Optima is also available as a plug-in hybrid with a full parallel hybrid system. In all-electric mode, it has a range of up to 29 miles and the EPA fuel economy equivalent of 103 MPGe. The plug-in hybrid would have offered us no fuel economy advantage on this trip, but around town, and being able to plug in, the all-electric capability it could yield significant fuel economy improvements.
The 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid turned out to be even better and more comfortable than we expected for the Montana Road Trip. With soft but well bolstered seats we didn’t feel worn out as we stopped every couple of hours for a break. We like the full complement of safety features and interior appointments which gives it the feeling of being a few steps up from a typical sedan.
Audio books are an important element of our travel regiment, and Kia’s premium Harmon Kardon audio system sounded great and more important it was easy to operate. After stopping, we’d get back in the Kia, drive away and the audio book we were listening to started up right where we left off. It wasn’t necessary to press buttons or find the story, the Bluetooth and audio system did all the work.
No new car would be complete without the latest and greatest technologies, and the Kia Optima has its share with features like the UVO connectivity system which provides a large selection of infotainment features, emergency assistance, security, maintenance, reminders, and some other conveniences. The system also allows access to Internet functions through the new Android Auto™ and Apple CarPlay®.
When we arrived in Lonepine, Mont., for the wedding, there wasn’t much more than the dot we saw on the Google map, and there were no pine trees, only a few Cottonwoods. All we found was a few ranches scattered in the area and a community center with a pig roasting on the fire coals outside.
Sure, the 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid looked out of place in the parking lot filled with heavy duty pickups and a few SUVs, but we’d been willing to bet we had traveled more comfortably and with at least two or three times better fuel economy than any of the others.