In the science of the plug-in hybrid, there's little new. The combination of gas and electric motors is intended to reduce the carbon footprint of a conventional drivetrain. Add a motor, install more battery capacity and enable that battery to be recharged over a long lunch or overnight, and you have a plug-in hybrid with up to 29 miles of electric-only operation. With the gas tank included, you get roughly 600 miles of combined driving range. (That's DC to Atlanta, had Jefferson wanted to visit Atlanta.)
Visually, there's little to distinguish this PHEV from a conventional Optima. Its alloy wheels are aerodynamically cleaner and front fascia less disruptive - and includes an active air flap, no less. The exterior design, though dated, still impresses.
A spacious interior is what you'd expect from Kia. And so, regrettably, are some hard plastic surfaces. That plastic is appropriate in a $20,000 Soul, less so in a $40,000 Optima Plug-In. Nothing here is completely off-putting, and we've always liked Kia's integration of audio and A/C controls. But so much is good about the Optima that you expect something nicer as you slide behind the wheel.
The front seats are both supportive and accessible. Our test vehicle, equipped with $5,250 of EX Technology, offered a panoramic sunroof, heated and ventilated front seats, a power front passenger seat with adjustable lumbar, and heated outboard rear seats. That same package also includes a bundle of safety technology, including a forward collision warning system, advanced smart cruise control, blind spot detection, lane departure warning, and rear cross traffic alert.
A modern hybrid generates a lot of info, and learning to access it all will require more than the few hours we had in the car. Your economy – the Optima's innate efficiency and your driving style – is available at the push (or two) of a button. And you can choose from all-electric EV or hybrid mode by using Kia's Mode Select control.
Under the hood, Kia has chosen a 2.0-liter normally-aspirated inline-four, delivering 156 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque. Both numbers are unspectacular until blended with the additional 66 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque from the hybrid's electric motor, available from zero to 2,300 rpm. The system's combined horsepower is 202, with 276 pound-feet of torque available from just 2,300 rpm. That's a bunch, and while throttle tip-in isn't explosive, the Optima's hybrid performance is constantly reassuring.
Also reassuring is the fuel efficiency. The EPA estimates city/highway/combined miles per gallon at 38/43/40. And in a combination of moderate and aggressive driving on two-lane roadways from Middleburg, Va., to Charlottesville, the computer indicated we were achieving 44 miles per gallon in a midsize sedan weighing – with two passengers – over 4,000 pounds.
Of course, one of the considerations when opting for a plug-in hybrid is the vehicle's all-electric range. Here Chevy's Volt is the benchmark, with roughly 50 miles of all-electric propulsion. The 29 all-electric miles available on the Optima Hybrid will get you a round trip to the supermarket, daycare, or office, if that office is less than 15 miles away or provides some level of charging.
With any EV or plug-in hybrid, the charge times are relevant. Notably, you can recharge "on the go" in the Optima's Charging Mode, whereby more aggressive regenerative braking will bring the battery to a full state of charge while you're driving (which is probably more useful in European cities with zero-emissions zones). You can also plug-in (you knew that) with either 120V or 240V. The household 120V will provide a full charge in less than nine hours, while 240 volts do it in three.
The Kia differentiates itself from the Camry or Accord by its six-speed automatic transmission. Everyone using a CVT, as you'll find in the Honda and Toyota hybrids, has improved the responsiveness of the continuously variable transmission. But there's something satisfying about driving an unconventional drivetrain that feels utterly conventional.
Kia's Optima Plug-In Hybrid does everything well. And with the federal tax credit, available state tax credits, and a Kia dealer's willingness to negotiate, a fully optioned Optima Plug-In Hybrid can be in your driveway for $35K and change. If he were car shopping, Mr. Jefferson could embrace both the science and – we think – the math.