Times are definitely changing. No longer should we think of Hyundai and Kia as building ugly econboxes that barely qualified as basic transportation. Instead, the South Korean automakers are now producing two of the best family sedans on sale today. Japanese, American, and European automakers have all taken notice and now treat the South Koreans with the respect they want and rightfully deserve.
But how do the two automakers stack up against each other, especially when two of their brightest new stars share the same platform, engine, and transmission? That's exactly the case regarding the 2011 Hyundai Sonata and 2011 Kia Optima. So how different and/or similar are they? It's all in the details and styling. Each share the same 110-inch wheelbase, dimensions, six-speed automatic, and overall basic architecture. Although the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is the same for both, the Sonata produces 198 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, whereas the Optima is slightly down on power mainly due to being a bit heavier.
Still not enough to make any major difference in performance. Fuel economy is also about the same, coming in at 23 mpg for the Sonata and 22 mpg for the Optima in the city. Beginning with the exterior, the differences are much more apparent. The Sonata features Hyundai's "fluidic sculpture" design language that may be striking to some and over the top for others. We like it, but not sure how well it will age in the next few years. The Optima, at first glance, appears to have more conservative styling.
However, a closer look will reveal that conservative applies (still) to the Toyota Camry, whereas the Optima has a simplicity that allows it to be both sporty and stylish. Applause must be given to Peter Schreyer, former Audi designer of TT fame, who now heads the Kia design revolution. The stronger stance of the Optima can also be partially credited to it riding on standard 17-inch wheels, while the Sonata has 16-inchers instead. Stepping inside, the Sonata has a beautifully styled dash that, once again, is a clear reminder that South Korean quality is now equal to that coming from Japan.
Controls are all well designed with top quality soft-touch materials. Like the exterior, the center stack has a unique design that may take some getting used to. The Optima's build quality matches the Sonata's in every way, but styling is once again the biggest difference. Kia went with a more driver-focused design that's clearly taken some cues from a few German automakers. Now, here's where the Optima beats the Sonata at its own game in terms of value for the money.
Features such as a heated leather-wrapped steering wheel, an intelligent key with push-button ignition, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front and rear leather seats, and a blacked-out two-pane sunroof are all available for a total bargain price of about $27,770. The Sonata, when equipped with many of those same options, comes in at exactly $28,000. However, the Optima simply looks better, inside and out, while doing the same things that made the Sonata such a success. Both represent a lot of car for the money and each comes standard with a 10 year/100,000 miles powertrain warranty.
However, the Sonata mainly falls short because it drives like a larger car. The Optima simply has a better dynamic driving feel that can make the Sonata at times comparable to a boat. In fact, the Optima could even still use some additional refinement if Kia really wants to be known as the sportier of the two brands. Styling is all in the eye of the beholder, but we prefer the Optima's more refreshing and artfully simple sporty design and better dynamics over the Sonata's sculptured look and larger car feel.
But still, who would have ever imagined, just 10 years ago, that Hyundai and Kia would be building full-size family sedans that have now reached the top of this extremely competitive class. They're both so well done in every way that their closest competition is with each other, for now.