Hybrid Sedan Face-Off: Kia Optima vs. Toyota Camry

Toyota Camry vs Kia Optima

Hybrid technology is here to stay, and while it is not a new technology on the road, it is only recently that the vehicles have started to show up with a bit more styling than their early predecessors.  Recently, I had the opportunity to test two of these rides next to each other, the 2012 Kia Optima Hybrid and the 2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and there is quite a bit to talk about between the two.

As it heads into its second generation as a hybrid, the Camry Hybrid is powered by a 156 horsepower, 2.5 liter 4 cylinder motor, mated to the drive train with a CVT.  Unlike the fully equipped regular Camry, the Hybrid model does not come with the extra trim pieces around the body, keeping the clean, smooth lines the Camry is known for. The power allows for quick acceleration off the line, and while not as smooth as a regular vehicle, it is quick enough to get to speed when necessary.

With that though, the transition from electric (EV) mode to powered comes with a physical hiccup, a delay that isn’t as smooth as the Prius model.  Even though the whole setup is very similar, the Camry Hybrid does not feel as refined as its sister, and that came as a bit of a disappointment as I cruised all over the state.  The Camry will still run on full electric up to 27 mph, but after that, the 2.5 liter motor is a bit underwhelming.

And that feeling does not end at the power.  Inside the Camry, the technology integrated feels already outdated, with analog gauges, an outdated navigation and multimedia unit, and overall inexpensive materials used for the build.  While this is not an article comparing the Prius to the Camry, it’s difficult to go from a ride that has stepped its game in regards to quality and hybrid technology to one that feels left behind.

Overall comfort of the Camry Hyrbid is there though, as the lineup has always been known for.  It’s a smooth riding vehicle able to handle rough roads and corners like most family sedans.  Even with the increased weight from the hybrid drive train, the Camry Hybrid actually felt sportier than the previously reviewed SE Limited Edition, which came as a big surprise.  Sadly, even when cruising the highway, it wouldn’t go to full EV mode except going down hill or coasting, which felt a bit like an misstep on Toyota’s end.

The controls on the steering wheel were the standard features, and overall, the vehicle left no major bad taste in my mouth as it’s just a Camry, a vehicle known for being safe, easy to drive, and sadly bland.

Now lets look at the Kia Optima Hybrid, a vehicle new to the green market, and coming fast and strong.  Powered by a 166 horsepower, 2.4 liter 1-4 motor, mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission with auto-manual, this new ride has quite a kick for a hybrid.

Pressed hard off the line, the tires were able to lose traction every now and then, and acceleration to speed was quick and smooth.  The transition from electric and to powered is quite a bit smoother than the Camry, but still has a bit of lag.  That is honestly to be expected.   The interaction between the two systems is very seamless, and aside from the physical hiccup, is of little notice while driving.  Unlike the Camry Hyrbid, the Optima is able to go under electric power up to 40 before transitioning, and uses both energy sources for hard-hammered driving.

Inside the Optima was a different story than the Camry, with a fully loaded an integrated multimedia system packed full of driving information useful and easy to access.  The screen between the two gauges provided all the information needed, from driving habits to navigation, all accessible through the steering wheel.

The quality of the interior pieces carries over the great styling from outside, with a solid touch to every aspect inside.  This is not your every day, mom and pop grocery getter.  No, this Optima Hybrid is class and style all wrapped up in curves, glass, and leather.  The glass is very important here as there is quite a bit of it, even on the roof with a panoramic moonroof.

Driving the Kia Optima Hybrid was a joy, with solid acceleration and braking, and a very sport feel even through canyon runs.  The tires that wrap the 17-inch wheels though are a bit soft though, and honestly I would replace them with a set that is provides more grip.  The suspension was able to keep up with all over the divots and bumps that come with driving, and inside road noise was minimal.

While front seat comfort was great, there is a downside to the sloping back of the Optima.  Headroom was lacking for my 6ft 1in frame, and even slouched, got a bit close for comfort.  And while the ride might not be aimed towards drivers with full grown passengers all around, it would have been nice to be able to fit in the back for those times it would be necessary.

Both the Camry Hybrid and Optima Hybrid as equally priced fully loaded, but differ in so many other ways.  From the build quality to the integrated technology, the Camry is left in the dust by the Optima.  The Camry is bland and outdated inside the ride, leaving little to the imagination when it came to driver comforts, with a few things like heated seats, navigation, and a nice clean look.  The Optima felt stuffed to the brim with everything imaginable, from heated and cooled seats to a great technology system providing all sorts of useful data, all surrounded by a solid feeling dash in a cabin that where you feel safely confined.

Hybrids may be here to stay, even against many wishes of writers like myself, but there is no reason they should be boring.  Eco doesn’t mean bland, but unfortunately for Toyota, that is exactly what the Camry Hybrid is on the road.  And with Kia bringing a better-equipped vehicle to market, costing less than the Camry, there honestly is little excuse for bland.  The Kia Optima Hybird has set the standard, and its currently out of reach for the Camry Hybrid.

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Filed Under: Car OpinionsCar ReviewsHybridKiaToyota


  • Steve

    I have to differ with the reviewer. We’ve owned our ’12 Camry XLE Hybrid for a couple of months now, and we’re very happy with it. When I’ve driven it in town and on the highway (my wife is the principal driver), I’ve never been able to tell when the car is transitioning from EV to gas. It’s been as smooth as silk in that department. Moreover, I’ve been impressed with its power. Between its 2.5 L gas engine and its electric motor, the Camry hybrid develops a combined 200 hp — unmentioned by the reviewer. (The Kia Optima Hybrid delivers a combined 206 hp, something this reviewer also omitted.) My other car is a 2007 3.5 L, 6-cylinder Toyota RAV4 that produces 268 hp. While our Camry hybrid is not as powerful as our RAV4, I find that it performs quite respectably when power is required, such as in merging onto freeways. It also pulls away from stoplights faster than other vehicles and it takes grades without noticing them. We’ve been getting better than 40 mpg on extended freeway trips and I’ve sometimes topped 50 mpg in local driving in stop-and-go traffic.

    As for the reviewer’s rap on the Camry for failing to go into “full EV mode” “even when cruising down the highway,” “except when going downhill or coasting,” I think that’s misleading. What does the reviewer mean by coasting? My understanding is that the car coasts whenever you ease up on the accelerator, and in point of fact, I’ve gotten our Camry into EV mode, briefly, by doing this in level freeway driving at 60-plus miles/hour. “Briefly” is the operative word, because a hybrid can run on its batteries only so long as they are sufficiently charged and once the juice is depleted — which driving in EV mode will do — the gas engine will kick in again to power the car and recharge the battery. I haven’t driven the Kia Hybrid, but I know its technology works the same way and to imply otherwise is deceptive. Finally, the reviewer makes a point of noting that the Kia hybrid combines “both [gas and electric] energy sources for hard-hammered driving,” after having failed to mention that the Camry hybrid does likewise.

    As for styling comparisons, all I can say, pardon my French, is “a chaque son gout.”

  • Elripster

    Nice to see Toyota getting what it deserves. It’s 1995-esque Pontiac interiors combined with bland styling are just below the standard of today. But Toyota-files seem immune to this. For those of us who can see beyond brand loyalty, better options are clearly out there from both sides of the Pacific.

  • kyle

    Toyota is relying more on there name with this camry hybrid, than styling and performance. I have driven both and the Optima far out performs the Camry in handling, features and performance. Price wise the Optima is still less but you do get awhole lot more bang for your buck.
    Not too mention warranty toyots 3 yr, 60,000km bumper to bumper 5 yr 100,000km powertrain, compared to Kia 5 yr, 100,000 km bumper to bumper it covers the entire vehicle.

    Toyota needs a revamp of the Camry Hybrid and the Optima holds the guiness book of world records title for best fuel economy in its class of hybrids in the guiness book it got an amazing 74mpg, although its rated for 58 mpg. Optima is a truly amazing car, if you have not driven one, go drive one you will not be dissapointed.

  • Joe

    I just picked up an Optima Hybrid and I agree that Kia gives you much more for the money than Toyota. I actually traded in my Toyota truck as part of this deal, and while I will dearly miss my truck, the Optima is truly an amazing deal for the money. I was originally looking into getting a used Lexus GS450h but they are extremely scarce (in good quality) and quite frankly, the Optima Hybrid matches it feature-to-feature (except for acceleration, of course). The Optima gives you much more bang for the buck, and this has been a recurring theme ever since Hyundai bought into Kia but even the last couple of years have shown a greater emphasis on value. And with the emphasis on styling by acquiring one of Audi’s gurus, the Optima doesn’t make you feel that you’re driving a ‘sedan’. This is our third Kia (we still have all three) and we are very happy with all of them.

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