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Kia Optima Hybrid Rolls Out Upscale Thrift

Rick Newman is the Chief Business Correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and a longtime car buff. He reviews automobiles here on a regular basis, as well as writing about all things vehicular. Below is his "micro-review" of the 2011 Kia Optima Hybrid.

What it is: Part of a growing stable of hybrids that combine a large battery and electric motor with a conventional gas engine to boost mileage by about 45 percent.

Starts at $26,500

Mileage : 35 MPG city/40 MPG highway

What’s worth knowing: Kia is part of the Korean company Hyundai, which has aggressively upgraded the quality of its vehicles over the last several years and grabbed a significant share of the U.S. market. The Optima is similar to the Hyundai Sonata, and both models have impressed reviewers with comfortable interiors, crisp handling, handsome styling and a generous set of features that usually undercuts the competition on price. The hybrid versions of each sedan are the first Hyundai/Kia hybrids on the market, but there are sure to be more, since virtually every automaker has been adding hybrids to its fleet as the technology becomes mainstream.

Who it’s for : A base price in the mid to upper 20s makes the Optima hybrid an upscale vehicle for families who want a few luxuries, decent space and great mileage. Since it’s the most expensive of four trim lines, it comes with jazzy standard features such as Bluetooth, a dual-zone climate system and a rear backup camera.

What’s good : Like the conventional Optima, the hybrid version feels light on its feet, with firm cornering, plenty of pickup and easy maneuverability in tight spaces. Dashboard controls are canted toward the driver for easy access. A touch-screen display for controlling the radio and Bluetooth phone system is a notable standard feature.

What’s bad : Mileage may not hit the advertised range. In a mix of local and highway driving, I averaged less than 30 MPG, which is considerably below the official numbers.

How it stacks up: The closest competitor is the well-regarded Ford Fusion hybrid, which costs about $2,000 more; with a similar set of standard features, the Optima hybrid is a valid alternative. The most popular hybrid—the iconic Toyota Prius—costs less and gets better mileage, but it’s smaller, slower and less refined car.

What to do if you want one : The first question is whether the extra cost of a hybrid is worth it. Cheaper versions of the Optima have many of the same features and still get good gas mileage, for a mid-sized sedan. And a sportier turbo model offers better performance for roughly the same price. Buyers should estimate their annual fueling costs (assume that gas will cost $4 per gallon) and do the math to figure out when they’d reach the break-even point at which the extra cost of a hybrid pays for itself through savings on fuel. If it’s under five years, then the hybrid might be the way to go.

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