SOUTHFIELD, MI – Kia believes its new Optima Hybrid offering will legitimize the Korean brand in the minds of U.S. car buyers committed to a cleaner environment.

“In our studies, some people would reject the brand outright because they wanted to do business with a company they felt was environmentally friendly,” Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for Kia Motors America, tells Ward’s here.

“They may not necessarily buy a hybrid, but they want to be associated with a company that offers that technology or that option,” he says.

Kia is promoting its first hybrid-electric vehicle as a no-lose proposition. The car is on sale now in coastal U.S. markets after a 5-month delay. “For some of these other (hybrid) vehicles, there are tradeoffs,” Sprague says, citing trunk space as an advantage for Kia due to the Optima Hybrid’s compact lithium-polymer-ion battery pack.

“Ours buyers get the whole package: the design, the fuel economy, the environmental statement of driving a hybrid, the technology, (and) they get safety,” he says.

Although its mechanical twin, the ’11 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, is the lowest-priced of similar midsize hybrid sedans, starting at $25,795, the Optima Hybrid is second.

The ’12 model begins at $26,500, netting buyers cloth seats and Kia’s new UVO infotainment system.

The premium grade is $31,500 and adds leather and navigation (currently, UVO and navigation cannot be packaged together). Destination and handling for both grades is $750.

In comparison, the ’12 Ford Fusion Hybrid, the segment’s sales leader this year, starts at $28,305, not counting a $795 destination charge. The ’11 Toyota Camry Hybrid begins at $27,050, sans $760 destination and handling.

The Optima and Sonata hybrids both are engineered and built in Korea. Estimated fuel economy is 35/40 mpg (6.7-5.9 L/100 km) city/highway, or a combined 37.5 mpg (6.3 L/100 km), which is a 41% improvement from the base Optima, with its 2.4L gasoline-direct-injected engine.

The Optima Hybrid’s rating tops the 33-mpg (7.1-L/100 km) average of the Camry Hybrid, but the Fusion Hybrid still is dominant at 38.5 mpg (6.1 L/100 km).

However, the Optima Hybrid offers a class-leading 206 hp, compared with the Fusion’s 156 hp and the Camry’s 187 hp.

The use of a stock Hyundai/Kia 6-speed automatic is an effort to provide buyers better highway fuel economy. And a more familiar-feeling, step-gear transmission, as well as rein in costs. Kia spokesman Jay Joyer says most hybrids use a continuously variable transmission.

“The idea was to generate as much fuel economy improvement as simply as possible,” he says of the development goals.

Kia expects the same Optima customer demographics will apply to the hybrid version: people who are well-educated, with above-average household incomes.

This is a change from the previous-generation Optima, Sprague says, noting those buyers were older than consumers purchasing the ’11 Optima, which went on sale last year.

The potential Optima Hybrid customer is “somebody who is a little more environmentally conscious and is looking for a vehicle that makes a statement about them,” he says.

Kia is not divulging sales targets for the hybrid, but Sprague expects the model to be “competitive” with others in the segment.

In the year’s first five months, the Fusion Hybrid accounted for 5.7% of the 110,878 Fusions sold, while about 4% of the 126,094 Camry delivered were hybrids, Ward’s data shows.

Sales of the Optima lineup, which includes a turbo model, surged 102.6% through May, to 29,518 units. While the Optima Hybrid is on sale now on both coasts, Kia does not expect all U.S. dealers to have the car in inventory until the end of the third quarter.

Unlike the Sonata Hybrid that has a unique front fascia compared with the base model, the Optima Hybrid bears few changes other than a slightly different grille pattern, an added decklid spoiler and a small “hybrid” trunk badge.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com