I’ve just crested the mountainous spine of Vancouver Island and, as the convoy behind a trundling RV snakes around yet another leisurely corner, a road-sign pops into view bearing auto enthusiast’s the three most welcome words in the English language: “Passing Lane Ahead.” You know what that means — I’m about to have some fun in the vehicle I’m driving, which is the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid.
In less than a minute, I’m stitching together fast downhill sweepers towards Surf City, Canada: Tofino, B.C. I should be marvelling at the Optima Hybrid’s ability to go full-electric at highway speeds and maintain those speeds through tight corners. I should be impressed with the six-speed autobox’s rapid kick-down and the well-weighted steering. I should be gaping at the gorgeous backdrop and grinning at the gas needle, which refuses to deviate from the Full position as though it’s just painted on.
Instead, I’m gobsmacked for another reason. This is the same manufacturer that once built the humdrum Sephia? Really?
For all the clever range-extending tech of the Optima Hybrid, the real story here is the transformation of Kia from Korean also-ran to sporting arm of Hyundai. Less than a decade ago, Kia’s entire range was the automotive equivalent of lumpy porridge: bland and slightly unpleasant. Next thing you know, it’s haute-cuisine hybrids? Wow. This one in particular looks like a Jag and drives like a Bimmer. How the hell did that happen?
Like big sister Hyundai, Kia appears to have taken a good look at the success of Lexus in the early ’90s. To the German marques, the idea of a Japanese luxury brand was laughably improbable. We all know how that worked out.
Equally improbable: the idea that Kia, formerly a producer of inexpensive dullsville, might emerge from its chrysalis with glittering products that make competing vehicles from Honda, Nissan and Toyota look dowdy by comparison. Yet Kia has indeed done this. Certainly with the redesigned Optima, complacent Japanese manufacturers should start wrenching at their neckties and gulping nervously.
A major coup for Kia was the wooing of designer Peter Schreyer, the pen behind designs like the Audi TT. Heading up Kia’s worldwide design department since 2006, Herr Schreyer’s sense of style has transformed Kia almost overnight.
You can see the Teutonic touch on the Optima’s styling: Swap the Kia badges for a Mercedes three-pointed star, BMW roundel or Audi interlocked rings and none would look out of place. From the rear three-quarter view, the Optima Hybrid also channels sporting versions of Jaguar’s mid-size lineup.
Lofty editorial comparisons? Sure, but that’s how far out in front the Koreans are on styling these days. Conservative buyers might continue to troop towards traditional best-sellers, but the Kia’s aggressive curb appeal will win many a convert.
Speaking of aggression, bringing a hybrid sedan to Canadian customers is a bold move. Hybrid power-trains are Toyota’s territory, and the hybrid sedan market is a tiny sales segment in Canada. That said, Kia seems confident that there’s room for the Optima Hybrid, which uses trick aerodynamics like a speed-sensing flap behind the grille to cut down drag to a slippery 0.26 coefficient (less than a 370Z’s). Low drag means excellent highway fuel economy, not normally a hybrid strong suit.
Speaking of highways: On my test drive, the last sweeping corner brings a glimpse of shimmering blue triangle — the first view of the ocean. Here on the edge of the Pacific Rim, you can see the surfers gathered in the water, waiting for the big waves to cross the ocean. Sitting in the Optima Hybrid’s driver-focused cockpit, swathed in high-tech and surrounded by stylish sheet-metal, I can’t help but think that I’m watching Kia catch a wave of its own.
2011 Kia Optima Hybrid
Starts at $30,595
Image courtesy of theKCB.