News that Kia has entered the hybrid segment is unremarkable considering the tardiness of the South Korean automaker in inserting themselves into that discussion. That is until you consider other factors that have accompanied this announcement. Most significant are the broad improvements that have taken place at the company, particularly with the release of the new Forte. The success of this car is a demonstration that production quality and style are now at least on par with compacts from Honda and Toyota, and at a reduced price. Similarly, the release of new Kia hybrids is perhaps the strongest signal yet that the premium price that has typically been attached to owning a hybrid, (the main obstacle for many potential buyers), is on the verge of being eliminated.
While the first Kia Hybrids, (Forte and Europe-only Cee’d), are categorized as “mild” hybrids, the fact that Kia/Hyundai has set aside $6 billion for research and development of hybrid and fuel cell vehicles is an indication that they intend to go the distance.
First up is the Forte LPI hybrid which showed up at the 2009 Seoul Auto Show, kicked off Kia’s new eco-friendly sub-brand (Eco-Dynamics), and went on sale in Korea this month. Kia’s first hybrid car is powered by a mild-hybrid system that uses both a 114 hp, 1.6L LPI engine and 20 hp electric motor. Power runs through a CVT transmission that helps the LPI hybrid average an estimated fuel economy of 4.7L/100km. While the use of CVT is not unique, what is special is the cars use of a special E-gear (Eco Drive) that makes automatic adjustments to ensure maximum fuel efficiency. Both the engine and electric motor are activated when the ignition is turned on but only the engine will run when cruising. When decelerating, the car activates a special regenerative braking function to convert energy that is normally lost into electricity that can be stored in the battery. Speaking of the battery, according to Kia, the Forte hybrid LPI is the first hybrid car in the world to use a Lithium Polymer battery pack, the same battery pack that is used in the upcoming Chevy Volt. The hybrid system is also equipped with Kia’s Intelligent Stop and Go function, which automatically switches off the engine when the vehicle is idling to reduce unnecessary fuel consumption and emissions.
On the outside, the Forte hybrid distinguishes itself slightly from standard versions with a redesigned grille and front bumper in front, and new LED technology equipped tail-lights, lip spoiler and a similarly spruced-up rear bumper in the rear. Inside features include a navigation display and a Super Vision instrument cluster that relays critical information to the driver and includes an “Eco Guide” function which encourages the driver with an “Eco Driving Point” icon to adjust fuel consumption and drive more sensibly.
For North American consumers, the first hybrid salvo fired from Kia will land here next year in the form of a new 2011 Optima Hybrid, that will come as a full hybrid car that is capable of driving purely on electric power, followed by a plug-in hybrid by 2013. Hear that Honda and Toyota? That’s your market share being eaten away.