As one of the first steps in Kia's ambitious 5-year green car program, the 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid will come to America next year, to be followed later by its even more fuel-efficient, and Kia's first, Plug-in Hybrid model. We recently drove domestic-market versions of both in Korea, where the Optima carries a "K5" designation. While the K5 Hybrid had just gone on sale there, the K5 Plug-in was still a prototype and as such remained cloaked in full body camouflage for our early-access on-road test session. 

Both of these new Hybrid offerings are based on the standard Optima. Fully redesigned for 2016, the Optima recently rolled off with our 2016 Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Award in the Midsize category and all of the upgraded comfort/convenience/safety basics that made it a winner remain in place here. Beyond a number of bespoke cosmetic AND functional enhancements, the key differences lay in the powertrain elements and related energy recovery/optimization systems that increase economy and lower emissions.

Also: Class of 2016 -- New Cars Ready to Roll 

More power, greater efficiency  

Not surprisingly, the drivetrains in the Optima Hybrid and Plug-in Hybrid mirror those found in their corporate cousins, the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Sonata Plug-in Hybrid. Both share a 2.0-liter/154-horsepower naturally aspirated direct-injected 4-cylinder engine that makes 139 lb-ft of torque compared to the 185/178 relative output stats of the 2.4-liter in the base 2016 Optima. The new "Nu" engine is teamed with a 51-horse electric motor in the Hybrid - up from 47 in the present car - that's isolated from the engine by a clutching system but directly mounted to a bespoke 6-speed Shiftronic automatic. This "Transmission-Mounted Electrical Device" (TMED) replaces the conventional torque converter and permits both hybrid and pure EV operation. Rounding out the package is a new integrated power control unit and a lithium-ion-polymer battery pack which can store 1.56kWh of charge. Boasting 13 percent more energy and 19 percent more power than the 2016 Optima Hybrid, it contributes to a projected 42 mpg combined EPA number, which matches the Ford Fusion Hybrid.

The same basic hardware is used in the upcoming Plug-in Hybrid, although total pony count on that vehicle rises to 202 and torque -- which has not yet been finalized -- also will be higher. So too will be its EV range, thanks to a larger-capacity 9.8 kWh split battery pack located behind the rear seat as well as in the area normally occupied by the spare tire. Top EV speed in both cars will be 75 mph, but Kia projects the Plug-in Hybrid will be able to travel 27 miles in zero-emission mode and earn a 40-mpg combined number along with a 99-MPGe thanks to its pure EV capability. 

With seat time limited and traffic conditions less than ideal, our evaluation of these non-U.S. cars served more as an exploration of potential than any sort of definitive test. Mechanically, the hybrid system represents an impressive update from the 2016 Optima Hybrid with the new Plug-in further sweetening the deal thanks to its extended EV range. In addition to more power, less weight, tidier packaging and greater efficiency found in key components of both basic systems, each offers numerous other subtle enhancements. The latest iteration brings smoother and 20 percent quicker Hybrid-to-EV transitions, a 10 percent gain in regenerative braking efficiency and a new navi-linked Predictive Energy Control that reads the terrain ahead and can optimize charge usage/conservation on both downhill as well as on uphill stretches. 

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016

Aero-optimized profile  

Visual changes to the new Optima Hybrid and Plug-in are understated but well focused, helping drop the coefficient of drag to an impressive 0.24. Highlighting the list are edgier fascia treatments, active grille shutters, aero-enhancing wheels, an integrated decklid spoiler and a bespoke rear diffuser that also hides the exhaust outlet. Depending on market and trim, these new Kias will either come with or offer a full range of active/passive driver assists as well as nifty touches like hands-free trunk opening, a wireless smartphone charging tray and surround-view monitoring. The 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid is slated to hit showrooms here in the spring with the Plug-in Hybrid arriving in the fall. Pricing will be announced closer to the actual on-sale dates.

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