The crowded medium-size car category has two South Koreans shaking up the establishment. Based on specs alone, it's almost impossible to tell them apart; they're essentially cut from the same mould - after all it's the same parent company.
However, that doesn't stop the Hyundai i45 and Kia Optima from competing head-to-head in the Australian market. As the Kia Optima is currently available in one specification - the fully loaded Platinum - for the purpose of this comparison, we'll pick the closest in price and spec in the i45 range, the Premium.
Let's get the pricing out of the way. The Hyundai i45 Premium is $38,990, and the Kia Optima Platinum is $36,990; round one to Kia, then.
Safety? Both have front, side and curtain airbags (there are eight in total), both have ABS with brake-force distribution, stability control and traction control, plus there are the obligatory crumple zones and warning chimes/lights for seatbelts and doors being ajar.
Hyundai's i45 has been tested by ANCAP and is rated as a five-star car. The Kia Optima has not been crash tested here, however it is rated as a five star car overseas. When asked if the Optima is expected to be a five star ANCAP rated car when tested, Kia Australia's spokesperson Kevin Hepworth told CarAdvice that there is "no question, whatsoever". Put simply, they're both supremely safe.
Under the bonnet lies the same 2.4-litre, direct injection, four-cylinder which makes 148kW and 250Nm, mated to the same six-speed automatic using paddle shifters. The final drive ratio is the same, and so is the combined, urban and extra-urban fuel consumption. In fact, the only difference is the CO2 output - the KIA emits one gram more per kilometre. It's so close, that these cars could be called twins.
Well, in effect they are, but it's there that the similarities end. For example, while the i45 Premium has heated front seats, the Optima goes one better and adds cooling to the driver's seat - a welcome addition in our hot country. The seat comfort in both is fine; the stitching in the Optima does look better, although the shapely bolsters of the i45 are nicer to look at than the flattish Optima.
Space is good for the medium segment, with both cars having excellent sized boots, and good legroom all round. Both the i45 and Optima have sloping roofs, meaning rear seat headroom is awkward for those over 6ft 2in, and the centre seat is almost unusable on the Optima, because of how high it is in comparison to the outboard pews - unless you're happy to sit with your head cocked forward for the whole trip. The i45 is marginally better in this respect.
While you nestle behind the wheel instantly in the Optima, the i45 takes a bit more getting used to with its seat/pedal/wheel relationship fractionally less ideal.
Looking ahead of you, the TFT centre panel on the Optima's instrumentation is very slick, while the i45 appears a little outdated in comparison, though the picture of the car in the Optima's display is a little naff. The i45's dials are also deeply inset into their own bezels, while the Optima's are open, set on slight bevels and the font on both is very clear.
The centre stack of the i45 is designed to mimic the front grill, with its swoopy silver and black lines bordering the stereo and HVAC controls. The Optima's is angled toward the driver and rather than the Hyundai's black on very bright blue, it uses a red on black display. The i45 has a cleaner, simpler look, while the Optima is littered with buttons.
Both the Hyundai i45 Premium and Kia Optima Platinum miss out on Satnav, but we're told it's coming for both brands later this year. The list of currently included features is quite impressive, though. Both cars have cruise control, electrically adjustable front seats with memory for the driver, panoramic sunroof, dual-zone climate control, cup-holders everywhere, xenon headlights (although the Optima also gets washer jets for the headlights), six-CD MP3/WMA player with Bluetooth streaming and full iPod connectivity.
Hyundai's use of dials and a "person" seated for the HVAC control is very easy to use, whereas the Optima's takes a little more playing around, and it's highly annoying to have to push a button left and right to increase or decrease the fan speed, rather than simply twist a dial. Overall, interior design is a subjective thing; here, the Optima gets the nod, while the Hyundai wins on function.
But on the outside, it's the Optima that gets our vote. While driving the i45, I didn't get one mention about its looks, except a family friend who said "Boy, Hyundai has come a long way." Amen to that. But while driving the Optima, several people walked over to comment on how "smart" it looked, and how "aggressive" it is.
One elderly gentleman came out of the shop he was in, followed me into the shop I was in and proceeded to harangue me on how it was the best looking car he had seen in decades. Put the two side by side and it's the Optima which looks the sharpest, though the i45's lines are more flowing.
On the road, the difference is quite remarkable. Though the i45 and the Optima share the same basic platform, both have had suspension tweaks to suit Australian conditions. While the i45 is stiffer than when it was launched, it's still fairly soft, and lacks a little body control. On the other hand, the Optima is quite firm, almost to the point of jittery, yet when you hit a corner it leans over more than you expect.
Both handle relatively well - they definitely won't challenge a Mazda6 or Suzuki Kizashi though - but it's the Optima which is the better steer of the two, with better overall grip and high speed stability. The steering on the i45 is heavier than the Optima, and though the KIA is a little sharper when turning in, strangely, it's the slightly gluggy feel of the Hyundai that is more satisfying, perhaps because it offers resistance that the KIA doesn't.
This is most notable on long, sweeping, high speed bends. The Hyundai loads up more, while the Kia's steering feels vaguer in this situation, despite its quicker response when dialling on the lock. The brakes are good on both, with progressive pedal feel and bite.
It's quite evident that while they're both styled to catch the eye, they're both not sports cars. But what they do well, is transport four (and a fifth, small person) in style and comfort, all while having plenty of toys to keep technophiles happy.
The thing is, one does it better than the other. And with its superior dynamics, sharper styling, better interior build and cooled driver's seat, it's the Kia Optima Platinum which wins this battle.
The icing on the cake? It's $2000 cheaper.