There’s something to be said for sibling rivalry. Brothers and sisters often grow up trying to outdo one another, and to an extent the same can be said of car companies.
Okay, so there probably aren’t awkward family photos of a Hyundai peering out of the corner of its headlight at a Kia. But that’s essentially what’s happening between the two Korean brands, as each tries to make the best of their genes.
And there’s some serious competition between the makers – not just locally, where Hyundai easily outsells Kia by a margin of three to one – but globally, where the brands compete in the same market spaces: small cars, SUVs and vehicles like the two tested against one another in this comparison, the Hyundai Sonata Premium and the Kia Optima GT.
These two mid-sized sedans are priced within $2000 of one another, with the Kia – surprisingly – the dearer of the two. But as has been the case with the rivalry between the two makers over recent years, one has a few different tricks up its sleeve over the other, despite essentially being twins under the skin.
Let’s see which sibling deserves more praise…
Pricing and equipment
As mentioned, the Kia Optima GT – at $43,990 plus on-road costs – is a couple of grand more than the $41,990 Hyundai Sonata Premium.
Both cars come well equipped for the outlay, with niceties such as leather trim on the seats, front seats with electric adjustment and memory settings for the driver’s seat, heating and ventilation for the front seats, dual-zone climate control and auto headlights and wipers.
Each has satellite navigation on an 8.0-inch touchscreen display, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, a reverse-view camera, front and rear parking sensors, electronic park brake, 18-inch alloy wheels with a full-size spare, bi-xenon headlights, LED daytime running lights, and they both have a sunroof, too.
Seems pretty even stevens. Well, to a point.
Unlike the Kia, the Hyundai has rear map-reading lights, illuminated mirrors in the sun-visors, and a six-speaker stereo system.
The Kia hits back with a 10-speaker stereo system with subwoofer, GT embossing on the seats, a heated flat-bottom steering wheel with paddleshifters, and sports pedals that align more with its sporty character.
On the outside it gets a lower-sill and bumper body kit, and while – like a parent with twins – we wouldn’t dare tell one that it was better looking than the other, we all know that one is a better looker…
But it’s on the safety front that the Kia really shames its sister model.
The Optima GT has radar cruise control, pre-collision warning with autonomous emergency braking (up to 65km/h with full auto braking; up to 180km/h maximum), automated high-beam headlights, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane departure warning.
Hyundai has advised CarAdvice that is has no plan to introduce that tech to the Sonata at this point, but it’s something that could draw in buyers with families or fleets to Kia showrooms.
Both cars have six airbags, including dual front, front side and full-length curtain protection. The new-generation Optima has not yet been crash tested, but the Sonata achieved the highest-possible five-star rating earlier this year.
That’s an emphatic win to the Kia in round one, then.
Parents tell their kids all the time that “it’s what’s on the inside that counts”, and that’s a fair way to judge these cars, too.
As we’ve already made clear, the two have reasonably similar equipment lists, and the fact the Kia has a sportier interior and the Hyundai is more grown-up in its appearance works well as a metaphor for the positioning and intent of each of the brands at their current standing.
Where the Optima is more athletic and youthful – with black tones, red stitching and polished metal on the dashboard and centre console – while the Sonata looks a bit like it’s trying to be cool, with its faux-carbonfibre trim on the dash and doors, black centre console plastic and plainer black upholstery and steering wheel fall short by comparison.
CA colleague Trent was with me on this test, and he put it fairly succinctly: "The Optima has it all over the Sonata for premium feel – the stitching, materials and headlining are all a lot nicer to look at, and feel."
The screens – though very similar – offer a different experience, graphics and ease of use. The Sonata’s satellite navigation system is simpler to use, easier to look at and gives the driver a better at-a-glance view of their location. The Kia, on the other hand, is a little tricky to use – the maps are a higher quality, sure, but the navigation input controls and switching between screens is fiddlier.
However, the Kia gets a few points back by not appearing quite as washed out when hit by direct sunlight, and it also has reverse line guidance that moves to show you the path you’ll take based on your steering, where Sonata has static boxed markings.
Below the screen the Sonata has digital dual-zone climate control displays below the screen, which are quite upmarket when compared with the Kia’s plastic dials that have the simpler blue-to-red scale (though the temperature shows up in the top of the screen). Where the Kia’s seat warming/cooling controls are located between the chairs, the Hyundai sees its seat comfort system fitted – more logically – near the rest of the climate controls.
The Kia has a better looking and nicer feeling gear selector to pair with that flat-bottom steering wheel, and those aforementioned paddleshifters mean you can take matters literally into your own hands if you wish. And in another assertion of youthfulness, the Kia has a Qi wireless charging pad for smartphones fitted with those cases.
You can’t pick a difference for interior space, though, with both of these cars offering excellent rear-seat head, leg and toe room for adults. There are two ISOFIX child seat anchor points in both cars, and the seatbacks fold down 60:40 to expand their respective boot spaces for long – just not overly wide – loads.
The boot of each car is virtually identical, too, with a negligible five-litre advantage to the Hyundai, with 510 litres (Kia: 505L).
Both cars have ‘smart boot’ opening systems that sees the trunk lid open when you stand behind it with the key within close proximity. After a few seconds (three beeps worth), the lid lifts up – a pretty handy littler helper when you’ve got your hands full.
The Optima GT’s bigger sound system is clearly a better one, too, with the Harman Kardon speakers and sub-woofer offering brilliant clarity and bass. The Kia also has a rear USB port – great for your homies. Er, sorry, that youngster lingo just seems to fit for the Optima.
Engine and transmission
In a similar way to how parents share their redhead, freckle-face genes with their kids, these to share some more identical bits under their bonnets.
The powertrain of choice is a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine, which is paired to a six-speed automatic transmission. Power is rated at 180kW (at 6000rpm) for both engines, and each pumps out 350Nm (from 1400-4000rpm).
Both cars are front-wheel drive, and both have identical gear ratios. But they weigh different amounts – the Kia is just five kilograms heavier, at 1650kg (heaviest kerb weight) – and despite them being so close by every other engine measure, the Kia is about eight per cent more efficient on paper. Claimed fuel use is rated at 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres for Optima GT, while the Sonata Premium is claimed at 9.2L/100km.
We saw negligible difference on test: the Kia was ahead, but only by 0.3L/100km – 9.9L/100km versus 10.2L for the Sonata – across a mix of country, urban and highway driving.
The engines in both cars are strong, willing, and punchy things, with good mid-range pulling power that is best discovered in third and fourth gears. These two make for great country road cruisers, and they both settle nicely on the highway, too.
Around town there is a surprising amount of difference between the two, given the identical setups of each of their innards.
On our test over identical roads with identical loads the Optima’s gearbox proved less eager to shift back a gear up hills, and the amount of engine noise intrusion in the Kia was markedly less than in the Sonata.
The Hyundai’s engine was buzzy – noisy, even – at low speeds, more noticeably when the engine was cold, but it was a constant accompaniment at city speeds. On test it proved eager to shift down a cog, too, both around town up hills and on the open road climbing more serious slopes.
Both gearboxes, however, proved entirely liveable on test, with smooth shifts and quick responses to changing stimuli.
When you consider that both brands have less advanced 2.4-litre engines in their entry-level versions of these cars, it is a bit of a shame, because these are two of the better drivetrains on offer in the segment.
On the road
The drive experience – you may expect – should be similar with these two. Not so…
Each has been tuned specifically by its respective Australian product and engineering team to deliver a drive experience in line with customer preferences, and with the Australian environment in mind. That is to say, they are supposed to be engaging to drive but safe feeling on the road, and able to cope with some pretty cruddy surfaces.
And both the Kia and Hyundai engineering teams have done a brilliant job of making these two cars drive with a level of involvement, comfort, control and competence that other importers can’t match.
The Optima, for example, is sporty, yet very comfortable. Despite having a slightly firmer ride than the Sonata it deals with high frequency bumps brilliantly, and if you hit larger rolling lumps on the road surface they don’t transmit to the cabin – it floats, without being floaty. That is, unless you hit a sharp-edged pothole or road join, which can upset the front axle a little.
It is involving to drive, too, with steering that offers good weighting and response when you’re pushing through corners. It has a good amount of heft, and is direct and rapid to react. That’s the GT bit of the name justified, then.
However, the Kia’s steering lacks the lightness on centre of the Sonata, which – while possessing slightly slower steering turn-in response – is actually nicer to drive on the highway due to the fact it isn’t as fidgety on centre as the Optima.
At speed both cars feel well gelled to the road, though the Sonata is perhaps a touch more lively and likely to shift on its tyres. The Hyundai rolls on lesser Kumho Solus rubber, where the Kia has stickier Michelin Pilot Sport tread.
The Sonata feels more of the small bumps than the Kia but is still very comfortable in most situations, and it doesn’t get as frazzled by sharp bumps either. The suspension settles quickly, and never crashes.
Both cars can suffer a touch of wheel-spin during sudden acceleration, and torque steer – where the steering wheel tugs to the side under throttle – can be noticed at times in both vehicles, too.
The Kia again benefits from better on-road refinement in terms of noise intrusion, with less coarse-chip road roar. Maybe the extra 5kg was sound deadening…?
These two have strong ownership programs by class standards.
Kia’s triple-seven program – a seven-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and roadside assistance, and seven years of capped-price servicing – is a particularly attractive proposition on paper.
But servicing for the Kia costs an average of $698 per year over that seven-year period, and maintenance is due every six months or 7500km.
Hyundai has a shorter (but still very strong) five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and roadside assistance, and hits back against the Kia with lifetime capped-price servicing.
Maintenance for the Sonata is cheaper, averaging out at $505 per year over a the same seven-year ownership period, with visits also due every six months or 7500km.
Resale is another plus for the Sonata – remember, resale counts for all new car purchases, as resale is the biggest cost of ownership for a new vehicle.
So, what will each of these be worth in three years time, once there’s about 40,000km on the clock? According to Glass’s Guide, one fares a tad better than the other…
The Hyundai is predicted to retain between $16,700 and $20,000 of its initial purchase price – or between 40 and 47.5 per cent. The Kia, according to Glass’s, should be sellable between $18,400 and $21,900 (42 to 50 per cent) after the same mileage and time.
Whether you think it’s worth spending the extra cash on servicing the Kia over the ownership period, however, will be something to keep in mind…
So, which child should the parent company be more proud of?
It’s a close one, but based on our testing the Kia is more of a star student than the Hyundai.
The Sonata Premium is a brilliant mid-sized sedan. It has space that betters some cars a class larger, a long standard equipment list, a sharper price point, and a longer service campaign than the Kia – and you’d be well served to choose this car over any number of competitors in the class.
But the Optima GT is just better in a lot of little ways – yes, it’s dearer, but it has better safety equipment, it is quieter, it looks and feels more upmarket inside, and that class-leading warranty is hard to look past.
Sporty. Good looking. Charming. The Kia Optima GT kind of has it all.
Click on the Photos tab for more images of the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata by Mitchell Oke.