The Rental Drive: 2013 Kia Optima Hybrid

I rent a lot of cars in the course of my work, so I though I might make the long hours behind strange wheels more interesting by actually reviewing the cars I drive. More interesting for me anyhow, no promises this will be at all interesting for you.

Off to Wickenburg

So last weekend a client in Wickenburg was having problems and I needed to drive down. It’s about a 2-1/2 hour drive (each way) so I decided to rent a car for the day, rather than put the wear/tear on my car. The nice folks at National Car Rental supplied me with a 2013 Kia Optima Hybrid in “Blue Medium” a color so popular Kia has apparently decided not to offer it on the 2014 Optima Hybrid. Can’t really blame them for that one, the color is really not good. Luckily, the car sort of is.

Interior

The strength of this car is the driving controls. From the breathtaking dashboard that greets you with exciting graphics when you get in the car to the power seats and the ample controls on the steering wheel this is one of the better vehicles I’ve driven in its class.

The center display is extremely configurable and offers a lot of different information sets that it can display for you. It’s pretty easy to display your current gas mileage, the speedometer is easy to read and, once you find it amongst all the blinky stuff, the gas gauge is as well. Some of the available displays on the center screen don’t make a lot of sense. There are a couple of different “Eco Screens” (this being a hybrid and all) which might make more sense if this is your daily driver and you’ve figured them out, but for a one-day rental I tilted my head at them momentarily then moved on to the next screen.

I like having stereo controls and some of the display controls on the steering wheel where they’re easy to use without taking your hands off the wheel and the Kia has one of the most function-packed wheels I’ve seen in the class.

The powered seat was comfortable and visibility from the driver’s seat was not a problem (as it occasionally is in mid-size vehicles).

One thing I especially liked about the Kia was that the aux jack (and a USB port) were located right in the front console where they were easy to use and access. I recently had a VW Jetta rental and as I recall the only Aux jack I could find was inside the center console. Not exactly convenient.

This 2013 Optima Hybrid features keyless ignition. Which means you just have to have the key in the car and press a button to start it. That’s a nifty feature though it tripped me up once or twice. At a rest stop I got out of the car to use the restroom and took the key with me. The car, being a hybrid, was so quiet though I’d forgotten it was still on. It made a long quiet beep at me to warn me that the key had left the running vehicle…and once I realized the problem it was trivial to get back in and push the “Engine Off” button.

Later however I was at a gas station, had shut the car off and gotten out with the key…but the car insisted upon giving me the same low beep. I never did figure that one out, even after starting and stopping the engine a couple of times.

Driving

So the interior is pretty good…how is it to drive? It’s good, but not brilliant, actually. My biggest complaint with it would be the ride. For a midsize sedan it was awfully busy/choppy. I’m not sure I’d want it as my daily driver unless I lived somewhere with extremely smooth roads.

My other complaint is that occasionally, at low speeds, the automatic transmission would make a particularly harsh shift and you could actually feel it slamming into the next gear.

Once you got to highway speeds it was fine. The cruise control was sort of unremarkable – I have to say that I missed the digital readout of the Chevy Cruze that told you exactly what speed you had the cruise control set to, so if you wanted it at 74 it was easy to set it there. The analog imprecision of the Kia felt like a bit of a step back. But it held speed well and the engine never felt like it was having to work too hard to maintain speed.

Gas mileage was fine as well, this particular trip was a lot of highway driving, so not exactly the strength of the hybrid, but it managed to average about 34MPG even though there was a fair bit of elevation change on the drive and the Optima is a fairly solid-feeling sedan – no lightweight Prius here.

TIP: If you want to improve performance – especially when accelerating on a highway on-ramp, turn off the ECO mode with the handy steering wheel button. When I did so coming out of Carefree it felt like a turbocharger had kicked in – the improvement was immediate and dramatic. I turned ECO back on once I reached 65.

Handling was fine – not terribly exciting or disappointing, but it’s a Kia hybrid, not a Porsche 911.

I didn’t do any especially hard braking, but overall I felt like the braking was quite good. It felt smooth, controlled and level all the way.

Looks

Have to say, picking up the car in the morning I was a bit put off by the color which I can only describe as sort of a charcoal blue/purple. As I noted above it appears Kia has discontinued this color and that’s probably a good call. That said when I dropped the car off at night I had to admit the color looked a lot better in the dark. I can’t fault it there, I look a lot better in the dark too.

It’s not desperately pretty though. Not as boring as the late model VW Jetta’s but nowhere near as pretty as the Ford Fusion.

Conclusion

The Ford Fusion is still my favorite vehicle in National’s mid-size fleet. The conventionally powered Kia Optima is a nice drive and the hybrid variant is right there with it. The Chevy Cruze I had a couple of weeks ago was a pleasant surprise and I think those three vehicles are my top 3 in the class right now.

At the end of the day I’m mostly about driver experience, comfort and controls. I don’t care that the Kia isn’t very pretty. I wish the ride were a little more comfortable, but otherwise I’d be fine with driving it again.

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