One of the most difficult things that any developer can do is to try to change user behavior. So difficult is the task, in fact, that’s it’s commonly understood that you simply don’t attempt it. But what if changing behavior is the only option that remains? That’s the task that many auto manufacturers are facing today, as we attempt to drive differently in order to save on fuel costs.

I’ve driven more than my share of electric and hybrid vehicles. While Toyota’s Prius is the undisputed leader in the segment (at least for the US), offerings from Chevrolet, Ford, BMW and more are definitely worth the time spent investigating them. Most recently I spent a few days driving Kia’s Optima Hybrid and I have to say that its gamified system is one of the best that I’ve used to date.

First, let’s talk a bit about the car. As with every other Kia that I’ve driven lately (here are my reviews for the Soul and Rio) it absolutely exceeds expectations for the price point. By way of comparison, Toyota’s hybrid Camry, equally-equipped, will run you about $2,000 more at an MSRP of $35,000. The Optima Hybrid’s $33,000 MSRP also includes Kia’s 10 year, 100,000 mile warranty. But beyond price, I simply like the fit and finish of the Optima more than I do the dated-feeling Camry.

The hybrid system in the Optima is fairly standard — At lower speeds it will run on full electric mode if the battery has enough power. Press the accelerator and the gas-powered engine kicks in, but doesn’t remove the electric motor completely. Rather the electric motor provides assistance to the gas, keeping fuel economy higher.

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Kia claims that, for speeds up to 62 miles per hour, the car can operate on full electric mode. In my testing, this held true but you had to almost remove your foot entirely from the accelerator. It’s not a deal breaker, but the 62 mph goal is not entirely realistic to how most people will drive.

Now, to talk about that driving experience. First off it’s worth mentioning that you’re going to notice that you’re driving a hybrid. The torque of an electric motor, even while Kia uses the same transmission that graces its gas-only model, allows for exceptionally brisk acceleration. Electric motors don’t carry the same “power curve” as their gas counterparts, which tend to produce more power at certain revolutions per minute. So when you press the accelerator and you’re in electric mode, the Optima can jerk you back into your seat pretty quickly.

Screen Shot 2012 09 22 at 10.01.58 AM 220x130 Can Kias gamification change the way we drive our cars?There’s also the matter of feeling the gas engine kick in. Perhaps it was Kia’s choice of transmission (its full parallel system for hybrids allows it to use most of the same parts as it does in its gas-only cars) but there’s a notable “thump” to the acceleration when the gas engine enters the picture. It’s momentary and not distracting, but it’s definitely noticeable.

Once you’ve spent a couple of days with the car, however, you get used to the mild differences and it feels just the same as any other car you’ve driven. From a touch and feel point of view, Kia’s done an admirable job of making the hybrid system invisible. But that’s where the invisibility ends.

There’s a large display in the Optima hybrid’s center stack, and another between your gauges in the dash. These can be configured to display a wealth of information, and that’s where the gamification begins. With the various displays, you can choose a setup that challenges you to get the best fuel economy rating at any given time, view your historical data or take part in a measurement that shows you your eco-rating over the course of your drive time.

I’ve driven cars with similar systems in the past (Toyota’s system actually takes things a step further, showing you a range for acceleration where your economy is best) but the overall feel of the ECOdynamics system in the Kia just works better for me.

Over the course of my week I took the car on several long trips, as well as quick jaunts around town. I averaged about 37 miles per gallon, which is admirable in a car this size (remember, the Optima is a large, family sedan). I found myself, pretty consistently, challenging my previous drive’s numbers and vying for a higher “eco score” by varying my driving habits. While there’s something to be said for displays taking your attention instead of the road, the ECOdynamics system worked well to provide at-a-glance information, so I don’t think I endangered anyone during my drive time.

So is gamification the sole answer to reducing our oil dependance? Not even close. But it’s a start, and it’s one that works. Combine that effect with technological advances and, for the first time, it feels like we’re on the right road.

Image: Robyn Beck / Getty Images