It’s a bit of a brave step to purchase a purely electric car. Prospective buyers must carefully evaluate their driving patterns and foresee few or no cases in which they’ll need to drive farther than their car’s range between any two charges.
Accordingly, many eco-minded buyers prefer plug-in hybrids – vehicles whose batteries can be charged up on electricity, but which also have a built-in gasoline engine that can switch on once the range is used up. The most famous plug-in hybrid is the pioneering Chevrolet Volt, but green credentials also hide in some more innocuous packages.
One such example is the new 2017 Kia Optima PHEV. The standard Optima is a popular midsize sedan, a roomy and quiet family-friendly four-door. It’s also available as a standard gas-electric hybrid, a vehicle that uses the engine’s power and the brakes’ friction to recharge the batteries as you drive normally.
But the tested PHEV, standing for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, offers a more Volt-like experience. The Optima PHEV is rated for 29 miles of all-electric range before it begins operating like a normal Optima Hybrid – meaning 29 miles of gas-free motoring, followed by as many miles as you’d like of fuel-sipping hybrid driving. In a weeklong test, three charges – even with battery-draining air conditioning use – ranged from 30 to 32 miles, and the normal hybrid operation also allows some all-electric driving. The EPA’s overall rating is an equivalent of 103 miles per gallon, including an excellent 40 mpg even after the plug-in range is used up. The Optima PHEV can recharge in about eight hours on a normal household outlet or about three hours on a 240-volt car charger.
On top of the fuel savings, the Optima PHEV gives you the standard Optima experience: crisp, non-goofy styling; a spacious interior; a smooth and quiet ride; a well-finished, ergonomically sensible dashboard; and a long warranty. And drivers of plug-in vehicles can ride solo in Maryland’s I-270 and U.S. 50 HOV lanes.
Sticker shock is a risk: The Optima PHEV starts at $36,105, compared to $23,490 for the base gas-powered Optima LX. But the difference isn’t as big as it looks. You can subtract $4,919 in federal tax credits for the PHEV, and $980 in Maryland tax credits under the state’s newly signed Clean Cars Act of 2017. Meanwhile, the PHEV’s standard feature content makes it more equivalent to the mid-level Optima EX ($26,370) rather than the base LX. An Optima Hybrid starts at $27,285 ($32,280 for the EX) with a rating of 42 mpg – depending on the options you’d like, it could actually be more expensive than the plug-in version after applicable tax credits.
There are surprisingly many competitors to the Optima PHEV. The Ford Fusion Energi, which has been on sale since 2013, is the most direct challenger. But buyers can also choose Ford’s C-Max Energi tall compact station wagon and the Optima’s mechanical cousin, the Hyundai Sonata plug-in hybrid. One size smaller, there’s a plug-in hybrid version of the Toyota Prius and the pioneering Volt.
The Optima PHEV cuts out a respectable niche for itself: It blends style, refinement, interior space and user-friendliness, along with its impressive all-electric range. Give it a look if that combination and price point sound appealing.
The best-selling Toyota Corolla is a compact sedan – four doors plus a trunk. But responding to the popularity of five-door hatchbacks from such competitors as Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Subaru, Toyota added a compact hatchback to its lineup for 2017 called the Corolla iM.
But the iM is no ordinary Corolla. While the iM and Corolla sedan share some of their components under the skin, including a 1.8-liter 137-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the iM comes to the U.S. from Europe. There it’s sold as the Toyota Auris, competing for buyers who typically demand sportier handling than Americans. That flavor carries through intact to the Corolla iM – there’s a more fun and sophisticated driving experience than the Corolla sedan, which is humdrum at best.
But the Corolla iM (previously called the Scion iM before Toyota discontinued its Scion brand last year) has a number of notable shortcomings. It’s a flawed vehicle compared both to competing hatchbacks and – in some ways – to the Corolla sedan.
The engine is a big issue. It’s seriously outgunned by most competitors, especially others that try to offer a sporty vibe like the iM. Yet there isn’t even a fuel economy benefit, with EPA ratings coming in at an unexceptional 31 mpg with an automatic transmission and 30 mpg with the tested manual in mixed driving.
Meanwhile, the Corolla sedan is newly updated with a host of valuable safety features as standard equipment – features like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping automatic steering, which aren’t offered at all on the iM hatchback. And neither Corolla offers the useful Android Auto or Apple CarPlay smartphone integration. You can get all that technology, though, on the Honda Civic five-door.
The Corolla iM offers a comfortable and versatile cargo hold, and it offers a respectable ride/handling balance. But the weak engine undermines its sportiness and refinement, and it doesn’t come with the latest cutting-edge features. Prices start at $19,635.