Hyundai Sonata vs. Kia Optima: Buy This, Not That

2016 Optima SXL 2.0 turbo
Optima SXL 2.0 turbo | Kia

The holidays are now officially over, and all of us at Autos Cheat Sheet hope you had a good one. If you’re lucky, it was a peaceful, heartwarming time, like an old Pepperidge Farm or Budweiser ad — you know, the one with the Clydesdales. But in reality, the holidays mean many of us have had to navigate a minefield. Chances are you probably had to forge a fragile peace with some combination of crotchety in-laws, racist uncles, deadbeat cousins, or ultra-competitive siblings. With so much tension roiling just under the surface, World War III might break out if you ask to pass the Christmas goose in the wrong tone of voice. Families: We love ’em, but if you’re like us, they drive you crazier than anyone else on the planet.

But if you think you’ve got it bad when you go back to visit mom and dad, consider yourself lucky that you don’t have a relationship like the one between Hyundai and Kia. For about 20 years now, the two South Korean automakers have had an almost completely symbiotic relationship. Hyundai is Kia’s largest stakeholder, owning about one-third of the company outright, while Kia technically holds the title to more than 20 Hyundai Motor Company subsidiaries.

2017 Hyundai Sonata
2017 Hyundai Sonata | Hyundai

But just because they’re related doesn’t mean they have to like each other. Both companies generally share common platforms, and the design direction of both companies is overseen by Peter Schreyer (the man behind the original Audi TT), but other than that, it’s no-holds-barred when it comes to the developing and selling of their respective cars. Despite a lot of shared DNA, one Kia rep once told us: “In the marketplace, we have about as much love for Hyundai as we do for Chevy or Toyota.” Ouch.

And as you may know, the midsize sedan segment is shrinking. While the market share may be getting smaller by the month, consumers have a crop of four-doors to choose from that are arguably better and more competitive than ever before. And toward the top of the heap? The Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata: two attractive cars with a shared platform and very different attitudes. So which one can claim victory in this high-stakes sibling rivalry? That’s what we’ll find out in this latest installment of Buy This, Not That. 

Tale of the tape:

2017 Hyundai Sonata
2017 Hyundai Sonata | Hyundai

The Hyundai Sonata is the bigger brother in this relationship, on account of being around a lot longer (32 years and counting), and having a much, much, much longer awkward phase. You really wouldn’t have wanted to be caught dead in a Sonata until the fifth-generation car of 2004–2009; since then however, it’s been on a steep upward trajectory. The seventh-generation car bowed for 2015, and still looks sharp as it moves into its second model year. Starting at around $22K and topping out at around $40K, the Sonata is meant to appeal to a wide swath of the market, and can be ordered as anything from a comfortable no-frills car to a stepping stone away from a Genesis luxury sedan, if you look at it just right.

There’s a base 1.6 liter turbo four good for 175 horsepower, a mid-range 185 horse naturally-aspirated 2.4 liter four, a king-of-the-hill 2.0 turbo with 245 horses, and two hybrid options (a plug-in and standard) that make a total 193 and 202 horses, respectively. Engines are mated to the same six-speed automatic, with the exception of that 1.6; that gets a DSG with seven forward gears to make the most of things. Got all that? Good.

2017 Hyundai Sonata
2017 Hyundai Sonata | Hyundai

Inside, there’s room for five, and accommodations are conservative-looking but offer everything you’d want in a modern midsizer. Underneath it all, the stiff, aluminum-intensive suspension keeps things comfortable on even the most miserable roads, and responsive, nicely weighted steering does wonders keeping the drive from becoming a snoozefest.

But while the Sonata may have been the first-born, the Optima seems to be the favorite. Chief designer Schreyer clearly dusted off his old Audi playbook for this one, because where the Sonata is tasteful and restrained, the Optima is fast and loose. Both cars ride on the same 110.4-inch wheelbase, and are 191.1 inches long bumper-to-bumper, but the Optima tries harder to make an impression, which it does. There’s Kia’s distinctive “tiger nose” grille up front, with a rakish C pillar blending into the rear decklid to give the car a fastback look.

Kia Optima SX 2.0 turbo
Kia Optima SX 2.0 turbo | Kia

Inside, there’s room for five too, although the Sonata offers one more cubic foot (106 to 105) than the Optima. Kia’s sportiness carries on over inside, with big, sporty, white-on-black analog gauges, and a design that’s almost out of place in this part of the segment. For a car that starts at $23K and tops out at around $40K, this is a lot of car.

Surprise: Powertrain options are nearly identical. The Optima also gets a 1.6, 2.4, and 2.0, but here they make 178, 185, and 245, respectively, and there’s also a hybrid on the way. And like its brother from another mother, everything gets a six-speed automatic sending power to the front wheels, except for the 1.6, which gets a seven-speed DSG. Still, unless you’re going right for the mid-range models, the Kia bests the Hyundai in the dollar-per-horsepower contest.

The verdict:

Optima SXL 2.0 turbo & SX 2.0 turbo
Optima SXL 2.0 turbo and SX 2.0 turbo | Kia

Comparing the Sonata and the Optima side by side, a clear family dynamic emerges: The older sibling is more mature and conservative, growing up after years of trial-and-error before deciding on doing everything safe and by the book. The Sonata is a great alternative to the Toyota Camry/Subaru Legacy/Nissan Altima set: inoffensive and comfortable, with just the right amount of style and driving engagement to keep things interesting.

On the other hand, the Optima is a legitimate Mazda6/Honda Accord/Ford Fusion fighter, which is where the real action is in the segment. These sedans are the ones fighting the good fight, proving that car buyers really are missing out by passing up a versatile, well-tuned sedan for another anonymous crossover. The Sonata is a very good car, but in a segment full of good cars, that just isn’t enough. The Optima feels vital, and that’s something that can’t just be engineered into a car.