Vehicle Comparisons

Kia Optima

Kia Optima

Kia has decided that the second generation of its mid-sized Optima model should get the hybrid technology that the UK was previously denied. The MK2 model gets this engine in a more sophisticated Plug-in form and in this guise, the saloon and Sportswagon estate variants on offer can travel up to 38 miles before the 2.0 GDI petrol engine cuts in. There's also an incredible 201.8mpg average fuel showing.

The Optima Plug-in Hybrid is powered by a 9.8 kWh lithium-polymer battery pack paired with a 50kW electric motor, allowing it to operate in pure-electric mode for up to 38 miles at speeds as high as 75mph, placing this Kia among the leaders in the Mondeo-class D-segment for pure-electric range. The innovative powertrain employs Kia's efficient 2.0-litre 'Nu' four-cylinder GDI engine at its core, which on its own generates 156PS and 189Nm of torque. The engine is coupled with the electric motor, which allows the car to operate in charge-sustaining mode once the battery runs out of charge.

The powertrain's total power output is 205PS, with the application of the electric motor facilitating immediate engine response to throttle inputs. With the addition of electric power, the Plug-in Hybrid's total torque output is a high 375Nm, so you shouldn't want from grunt through the gears. Power is applied to the road through the front wheels via a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic gearbox. The 62mph from rest sprint time occupies 9.4s. As for handling, well there will be more involving cars in this segment you could consider, but you'll be buying this car for its technology, not to throw it around.

You'll have to look closely to visually identify this Plug-in Hybrid Optima model from its diesel stablemates. This petrol/electric variant gets special chrome trim with a clean metallic blue finish for the rear bumper, grille surround and wheel arches, as well as special 'EcoPlugin' badging. The charging port is integrated into the driver-side front wing. There's a choice of both saloon and 'Sportwagon' estate body styles.

The Optima Plug-in Hybrid offers a high level of safety from its lightweight, high-strength body and high levels of passive and active safety, with the maximum possible five-star Euro NCAP safety rating. The bodyshell benefits from the extensive application of Advanced High-Strength Steel, which makes up 51% of the body. This has been used to reinforce the car's A and B-pillars, side sills, roof, floor pan and front wheel arches.

The neat integration of the batteries behind the rear seat and in the spare wheel well, along with a 15-litre reduction in the car's petrol tank, means the Optima PHEV is still able to offer a generous 307 litres of luggage space in saloon form - or 440-litres in Sportswagen estate guise. This PHEV model also gets Kia's latest audio-visual navigation functionality, with an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system featuring DAB digital radio. The monitor features a series of menus to show the car's current EV range, as well as a useful function to locate nearby charging stations. Buyers can also sync in their smartphones using the Apple CarPlay or Android Auto systems.

We can understand why Kia didn't offer hybrid technology in the first-generation version of this Optima. Back then, it didn't really offer enough to prise buyers away from diesel power. With Plug-in power though, things are different. No, it won't really work for high mileage company buyers - or those without access to garage charging facilities. For everyone else though, this is a car that might well make sense if you can make the ongoing figures work for you and finance the slightly higher up-front asking price. It's nice to see this approach provided more cost-effectively in this segment.

Click here to find out more about our Kia Optima range
Toyota Prius

Toyota Prius

The second-generation plug-in version of the Toyota Prius is a much more credible contender in the growing market for plug-in hybrid models. It can run up to 30 miles on pure electric power (twice as far as its predecessor) and EV power is up by 83% thanks to a freshly-developed Dual Motor Drive System. It's the faintly unbelievable figures though, that could sell you on this car: fancy 283mpg on the combined cycle and 22g/km of CO2? Thought so.

Go for the standard Prius model with its old-tech nickel metal hydride battery and you'll find that it doesn't go very far on battery power alone. From start off, it's great fun to waft around in virtual silence, but you only need to have gone a mile or so down the road before the petrol engine thrums smoothly into life. This Prius Plug-in model is different. It gets a more sophisticated lithium-ion battery that can be charged from the mains, a unit that's twice as large in this second-generation model, its capacity having increased from 4.4 to 8.8kWh. The downside of that is a 50% increase in battery weight, but thankfully, the bulk has been mounted very low down in the vehicle, which helps keep an admirably low centre of gravity.

All-electric driving range is rated at around 30 miles, though you won't get anything like that if you start to really use the increased EV power of this MK2 model. This has risen by 83% thanks to a new Dual Motor Drive System that boosts EV driving power to 68kW, giving better acceleration and more engaging performance. The handling's more engaging too, thanks to this second-generation design's use of Toyota's New Global Architecture platform. This stiffer set-up reduces body roll and improves refinement.

This second-generation Prius Plug-in model is longer, wider and lower than its predecessor, just like the standard variant. Distinguishing Plug-in aesthetic touches include prominent acrylic grille treatment at the front and thin, ultra-compact four-LED adaptive headlamp units. In profile, this variant gets a longer rear overhang, a lower cowl and a rear spoiler, plus special two-tone 15-inch alloy wheels that are specific to the model and are designed to provide extra brake cooling. At the rear, the cross section of the distinctive Prius 'double-bubble' screen is carried through into the curve of a spoiler flanked by unique LED light clusters.

Inside, there are fewer changes over the standard Prius, though Plug-in buyers do get smarter satin chrome-plated trim, while the dual 4.2-inch TFT meter in the revised instrument panel features PHV-specific graphics. Otherwise, the dash is very similar with a clear structural arrangement of layered information which places the driver's meters at a distance and the displays closer at hand. A large eight-inch infotainment screen dominates the centre of the fascia. The front seats too, are shared with the conventional Prius, offering improved cushion comfort to reduce driver fatigue. In the rear there are two seats separated by a centre console. Out back, the luggage deck has been raised by 160mm to accommodate the larger plug-in hybrid system, resulting in a maximum load space volume of 360- litres. That's 142-litres less than you'd get in the conventional model.

Is this logical extension of hybrid technology the future of motoring? Probably not - but it's an important step along the way. It won't be very long before Plug-in technology is the preferred route for hybrid buyers - at which point you'd hope for more cost-effective pricing.

But would you buy one of these today? We think a significant number of Prius owners might. Now that the Prius Plug-in has a credible driving range, is easier to charge and has a bit more EV power, it makes some sort of sense as an everyday proposition.

Ultimately, as before, this Toyota is aimed first and foremost at Prius people and we don't doubt that those who can afford it would love one. Whether it can reach out for broader acceptance beyond this folk will depend largely on whether the whole concept of Plug-in hybrid technology continues to capture the public's imagination. We wouldn't bet against it.

Click here to find out more about our Toyota Prius range
Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

Audi A3 Sportback e-tron

The Audi A3 Sportback e-tron plug-in hybrid makes some interesting numbers. It's claimed to return 176.6mpg, emit 37g/km of CO2 and get to 62mph in just 7.6 seconds. Real world economy is around a third of this number, but you'll still be getting yourself a very efficient car indeed. Recent improvements add a little extra showroom sheen.

The A3 Sportback e-tron is powered by a 150PS 1.4 litre TSI petrol engine and a 75kw electric motor that's tucked between the gearbox and power unit, driving front wheels. Together, they produce a combined output of 204PS. Rather cleverly, Audi has designed the electric motor to replace a conventional starter motor. Power is then directed through a six-speed sequential twin-clutch transmission which is quick-witted enough to handle the rapid spooling of the electric motor. There's actually another clutch in this adapted gearbox which allows the motors to decouple, permitting the car to coast with less friction which, Audi claims, is a more efficient than trying to scavenge energy back through recuperation.

The result of this is a car that defaults to electric power on start-up and will drive up to 31miles on electric power alone. It'll even motorway cruise at speeds of up to 80mph on batteries, although not for too long. The petrol engine can instantly be engaged by either kickdown or by toggling a switch from pure EV to hybrid mode. With both power sources operating, the e-tron will step smartly off the line, getting to 62mph in 7.6 seconds and running onto a top speed of 137mph. Handling is excellent, helped by a lower centre of gravity than the standard A3 and better weight distribution too, thanks to a light engine and the repositioning of the fuel tank.

The e-tron is offered in the larger five-door A3 Sportback body and doesn't look a whole lot different to any other Sportback. That means you get the same changes recently visited upon this model. So, the front looks a little more purposeful, courtesy of sharper lines for the familiar and now broader Single frame grille. The headlights are flatter, with distinctive outer contours and can now be ordered in Matrix LED form, so they are significantly brighter and constantly adapt themselves to avoid dazzling other road users, plus of course they never need to be dipped. Equally subtle changes at the rear aim to accentuate the width of this car - with the horizontal illuminated graphics of the rear lights and the separation edge above the redesigned diffuser.

This e-tron model's charging point is typically Audi-slick. You slide the four-ringed grille badge to the side and that reveals a socket that plugs into your wall with a supplied lead. Audi has done quite a bit of fairly fundamental shifting under the skin though. The fuel tank has been moved to the rear of the car, now sitting beneath the boot floor, while the 8.8kWh, 125kg battery resides under the rear seat. Total boot space drops by 100-litres to 280-litres as a result, which is just about the only practical caveat here.

Otherwise it's largely business as usual. At 4,310mm long, this A3 Sportback body is only 178mm shorter than the original A4 Avant but the wheelbase is actually longer, making it feel more spacious inside for both driver and passengers. The interior features a dial pack that includes the car's range, with bar graphs showing how far you'll travel on petrol and electric power. You can also choose an energy flow schematic. Audi have even swapped out the conventional heater and air con systems for low-energy consumption electric units.

Although the headline numbers of 176.6mpg, 37g/km of CO2 and a 0-62mph time of just 7.6 seconds make the Audi A3 e-tron appear an instant game-changer, look behind the numbers and you'll find things not quite so clear cut. In fact, a counter perspective might well be that you're paying around £10,000 over the top of an A3 Sportback 184PS diesel and getting a car that's slower, drinks more fuel, carries less luggage and offers inferior touring range.

Of course, the e-tron has other benefits. It can run in a pure EV mode, it offers better weight distribution and it feels a far more special piece of kit than a diesel hatch. Can you put a price on that? You can perhaps if you measure the savings you'll make in company car tax. And this model certainly scores as a car you can drive as an EV on short commutes to work, but which is capable of long weekend trips. As a technical showpiece, it's an intriguing thing. As a sales proposition though, you might need to scour the small print quite carefully.

Click here to find out more about our Audi A3 Sportback e-tron range