Product Review: Optima Batteries

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisement: an Optima battery survives the rigors of a demolition derby, then goes into the vehicle taking it’s owner home. But is it pure advertising hyperbole or is there something to the claim? To find out I tested the Optima Red Top and Yellow top batteries in situations ranging from daily-driving to that demolition derby-in-denial, the 24 Hours of LeMons.

Geek Alert: while conventional lead-acid batteries use (fragile) lead plates suspended in vats of acid, the Optima has lead wound into a spiral tube. Optima’s design is inherently stronger, thus more resistant to vibration, especially in off-road applications. The design also allows a more pure grade of lead and there’s a fiberglass mat to hold the electrolyte gel against the lead. Fantastic.

In reality, it works. TTAC’s race car for the 24hrs of LeMons uses my leftover Optima “Red Top” battery, doing very well under the rigors of race use. Proof positive was our electrical nightmare: the reinforced battery tray that dislodged itself from the rusty fender. With our luck, the car’s good vibrations let battery hold down (metal) meet the positive cable. Then they became friends. Such good friends, in fact, they welded themselves together and cooked several underhood wires. But the Optima survived the ordeal, where a normal battery would have exploded.

But why did I donate a functional Optima to the LeMons car? Again, geek alert: my Lincoln Mark VIII (a car known for charging problems as they age) had bizarre charging characteristics after 2 years of use with a Red Top, even with significant upgrades over OEM. It worked until it’s second Houston summer made the car’s voltage fluctuate several tenths in stop/go traffic. Fearing more problems (been there, done that), I proactively switched to a conventional battery and netted rock-solid charging after 2+ years of daily commuting. I discussed this with an Optima product guru: he suggested the problem is unique to my car. Frankly, after many hours of wrenching, I suspect he’s right.

I had two other negative Red Top experiences, one from vehicles in storage for 6-12 months, unable to take a trickle charge afterwards. Optima says this is a common problem, but it’s the battery charger’s fault. In their words:

If an OPTIMA is deeply discharged (below 10.5 volts) most basic chargers will not supply a charge. Also keep in mind an OPTIMA will not recharge properly if treated as a regular flooded or gel battery. To charge the battery, you can wire a second fully charged automotive battery (12+V) to the discharged AGM in parallel (+ to + and – to –). Then hook up the charger to either battery, setting the charger at 10 amps. Leave for two hours, monitoring frequently. During this process if the discharged battery gets very hot or if it is venting (hissing sound from vents) then stop this process immediately. When the discharged battery reaches 10.5 volts or more, remove the standard battery and continue charging the AGM until fully charged.

For normal charging a relatively low current, such as one or two amps can work well, but when the battery has been deeply discharged, some sulfation of the battery plates may have occurred. If you charge at 10 amps, the higher current will help to break up this sulfation. If you have an automatic charger, let it run until the charger indicates charging is complete. If you have a manual charger, you can get a rough estimate of the charging time in hours of a completely discharged battery (11.2V) by multiplying the capacity (amp hours or Ah) of the battery by 1.2. If your battery is not completely discharged the time would be less.

In most cases these steps will recover the AGM battery. It’s okay for the AGM battery to get slightly warm during the charging process. If it’s hot to the touch it means there’s a short and the process should be discontinued.

A fancier charger like a CTEC should work fine, but that’s not all: I had a (daily driven) Optima Red Top fail on the 36th month of its 36 month warranty. The car’s charging system is in excellent condition, but the battery couldn’t start the car after sitting overnight. While the free replacement works flawlessly for 2+ years, this was disappointing considering Optima’s premium pricing.

And there’s that: Optima Red Tops are about $150, roughly $50 more than a conventional battery with a similar warranty. The Yellow Top, with its superior “deep cycle” capabilities often retails for an extra $20 over the Red Top. And Optima supplied a Yellow Top for TTAC’s project car, a Cadillac Fleetwood Limo in dire need of a new battery, alternator and so much more.

Long story short: the Yellow Top worked flawlessly while diagnosing, wrenching and cranking (endlessly cranking) the Caddy’s pathetic motor. Not to mention providing hours of entertainment to passers by at the 24 Hours of LeMons, thanks to the Yellow Top’s deep reserve against the Limo’s extensive interior lighting, BOSE audio and power-hungry load-leveling suspension. The Yellow Top is designed to handle long periods of usage, resisting failure after repeated discharges. My time with the Limo proved it. I am happy with this battery’s short-term performance: like the race car’s Red Top, this is the ideal partner for a Limo.

But what about the average car of your average TTAC reader? Even with Optima’s clear engineering superiority, I don’t see their performance gains worth the higher asking price. My negative experiences with the Red Top aside, this product isn’t a good value for your daily driver. Non-street legal toys and high-current applications are a different story.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Jonathan Golfo Jonathan Golfo on Sep 02, 2010

    Through all my friends, advertisement and forums have tried using the Optima Battery and it was good for a while and delivered.. what was a very upsetting experience was that I bought this through a Autozone Automotive store back in mid-summer 2008 and it was only this July when I returned from a family event back in Oahu for a month that my battery did not want to start nor retain a charge. Sad to say that I've tried to deal with it for a month by driving my car around for several hours till I decided to take it in to Autozone for their free service of recharging the battery. Their system usually charges the battery in about a few hours but I left mine from Saturday till Wednesday to let it have more time on the charger as advised by the store manager, the longer the better. Upon returning back to the store to retrieve my battery, it continued to stay charged at less then 30 percent. When I called the company for any help or hope of a warranty resolution in which I was just shy two month past the deadline, they only stood by their 1 yr. warranty, which is sad to say that for a company who claims on their batteries to be at the top of the list of choices, they have a poor warranty which is just money down the drain. I'd save the trouble and stick with the Duralast Batteries which offer either a 2yr/3yr free replacement or if past those years a secondary 7 year replacement at 30% of the cost. That's my honest opinion.

  • Tomcat22 Tomcat22 on Jan 23, 2019

    Unfortunately, most of these reviews are 10 years old. My experience with Optima red tops is not as good. Since the sale of the company to Johnson Controls, and the move to Mexico, the quality has gone downhill. The larger problem is the battery is marketed as a premium product with a premium price. I bought two for my truck in 2015; they failed in 2017. Full warranty but failed again this winter. Guess what? Only warranted for the original date of purchase. $500 worth of batteries that are junk. I would bash the retailer but it is not their fault. But if it was me, I wouldn't carry the line anymore.

  • Juan Let's do an 1000 mile drive and see who gets there first.
  • Eliyahu CVT needed for MPG. Outback is indeed the legacy of, err, the Legacy.
  • Gayneu I can comment on these. My wife always thought the Minis were "cute" so I bought her a used 2005 (non-S, 5 speed) for one of her "special" birthdays. She loved it and I kinda did too. Somehow a hole developed in the transmission case and the fluid drained out, ruining the car (too expensive to fix). A local mechanic bought it for $800.We then bought a used 2015 S (6 speed) which we still have today (80k miles). Her sister just bought a used S as well (also manual). It has been a dependable car but BMW-priced maintenance and premium gas hurts for sure. I think the earlier generation (like in the article) were better looking with cleaner lines. The 2015 S rides too stiff for me (Chicago roads) but is a hoot on smooth ones. It does seem to shift weird - its hard to describe but it shifts differently from every other manual I have driven. No matter how hard I try, so won't let go of her Mini.
  • Crown Seems like they cut some cylinders too.A three cylinder...where are they planning on selling that??
  • Slavuta "There’s also the problem of climate change, and the more intense weather that comes along with it"How could one even write something like this? We don't have more intense weather. We have better weather. When Earth started, it was a fiery ball. We don't know what weather was in 1700. And even if we know some of it in Europe, we don't know what was happening in Africa, South America, Oceania, etc. We have people living in places where they did not live before. We have news that report weather related events minutes later or during. This did not happen before. There is no evidence that we have an increase in intensity. I looked into historical records in the area where I live - there is not much movement at all between 1970 and now. And remember - none of the previous weather predictions have materialized.
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