My earnest belief in these days of the ever-normalized ubiquity of hybrid technology - hell, even those mass-market folks at Ford have a mid-sized Fusion variant that gets 47 mpg without even breaking a sweat - is that the benchmark for hybrid success is ... well, not noticing that it's happening, at all.
Take the new Kia Optima Hybrid, a moderately more affordable entry in the mid-size hybrid arena. In the dark ages of hybrid technology, the cars were an enormous pain in the butt. They shuddered terribly when they switched between electric and gas. Their brakes were like drag chutes. They made weird noises, and they were all ugly.
None of those apply to the Optima, which starts at $25,700. It rolls along quietly and quickly, with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine supplanted by a new, weight-saving lithium-polymer battery co-developed by LG (who made your flatscreen TV).
Science and magic mix together to craft a vehicle which can be cruising along in EV mode (no gasoline combustion, batteries and generators only) at 75 mph, easily generating more than 39 mpg in the process.
Total system output is just 206 horsepower, but that's plenty to get the relatively light Optima cruising, and the electrified system also means more instantaneous torque for passing or uphill jaunts.
All of this is quite well-sorted and, as mentioned, almost entirely lacking the roughness of old hybrid systems (the Koreans' earlier-generation efforts were pretty herky-jerky, as I remember).
On top of that, Optima's a very nice-looking vehicle, futuristically sculpted in that 2012 kind of way, and the car is actually quite comfortable, particularly for rear passengers - who will appreciate real leg room, unlike those in a new Accord.
The price point might make you think you'd be getting an empty shell of a car filled up with plastic junk but Optima's surprisingly well-crafted, with a pleasant interior and - should you go for the $6,000 in options my test vehicle sported, you get the added prestige of leather-trimmed seats, an Infinity stereo and a competent touchscreen navigation system, plus a panoramic sunroof.
True, the solid 17-inch alloy wheels are certainly crafted more for air resistance than looks (they're the only gaudy part of the car).
And the suite of not-so-subtle hybrid driving reminders and incentives can make it a little more like a fancy iPad game than a real car, but if they help, they help. To that end, the "eco points" you earn for high-MPG driving may blossom into flowers or help spin a globe - I have a feeling you'll figure it out on your own. The car does start each time in active eco assist mode, meaning the pedal pressure is muted to dissuade your leadfooting, but that can be turned off with a handy button on the wheel.
Ride is a bit brisk, partially the fault of low-resistance tires (which would clearly have to be swapped out for any high-altitude seasonal residencies by the car) and the steering just more than a bit resplendent in all-electric anonymity, but it's otherwise comfortable and responsive. And the brakes don't feel like they came off a steam locomotive, either.
Much like the Chrysler 200, the doors also seem to have been crafted for drivers possessing arms like an orangutan - I simply couldn't easily reach them to close them when seated, other than grabbing at the floppy plastic edges of the in-door bottle holder bins. At the same time, there's also limited head room, even with the seat at its lowest setting. I guess Koreans are shaped differently than me.
There's a pleasant, stitched-leather motif around the instruments, armrests and center stack, and the layout for the whole info-tainment system is dynamic and easy to use. Nav graphics themselves leave a bit to be desired.
You will end up tabbing through a whole lot of information if you need, say, mileage information on the video trip computer - it has about a dozen pages of info and you've got to scroll through them all to get what you want, each time.
Trunk space is also somewhat awkwardly compromised by the admittedly smaller battery package, complete with a ventilation snorkel tube that looks like an afterthought.
Perfect? No. Pleasant and energy efficient, and affordable? Yes.