In today’s fiercely competitive market for mid-size sedans, shoppers are just as likely to consider the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima as longer-established nameplates like Accord, Camry, or Malibu.
That’s no surprise; these two models both earned their place in the top tier fair and square, with spacious, game-changing designs that performed well, earned great fuel efficiency, and offered very impressive feature sets and value for the money.
The 2016 Hyundai Sonata and 2016 Kia Optima are rivals in market, sold through entirely different dealership networks, through companies that are essentially run as separate automakers. Yet both of these sedans have their engineering roots in South Korea, and both were conceived on the same platform—with powertrains, materials, and many other underpinnings shared—as both Kia and Hyundai are run by Hyundai Motor Group.
Some might pronounce that you’re essentially getting the same car; but in truth there are enough different details—from styling and trim choices to suspension tuning and handling—for them to each have their own distinct identity and appeal.
Although with this latest generation of these two models, the gap between the two has narrowed. The Hyundai Sonata was fully redesigned for 2015; and now for 2016, the Kia Optima has also been given a full redesign, to more closely align again with its corporate cousin.
In styling, the Sonata got a more even-tempered look to replace the formerly flamboyant (and already dated) look of its predecessor; meanwhile the Optima keeps close to the form of the outgoing model, only it’s been fine-tuned, finessed, and fettered in seemingly every point within and in between. Inside, the Optima seems to inherit some of the Euro-influenced, upright-and-trapezoidal look of the Optima, while both models become better detailed, with the corners pushed outward and more of a sense of front-seat spaciousness.
Both models are powered by a 185-horsepower, 2.4-liter direct-injected four-cylinder engine at the base level, or a 245-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four that’s the step up in performance. In both cases, there’s no longer a manual gearbox on offer, but the six-apeed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and more promptly than before.
Between these two models, those with the base engine are plenty perky for most tastes, although the engine will be winding up in its rev range during long grades or in moderate acceleration with a full load. The 2.0T models have a different character entirely; they make a lot of torque at relatively low rpm, and their quiet, smooth drivability makes them closely resemble the characteristics of V-6 rivals.
Where it starts to become a little more distinct between these two models is how the mid-range powertrain's presented. Both of them offer an available 177-hp, 1.6-liter turbocharged four and seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. In the Sonata, it’s in the Sonata Eco, while in the Optima it’s a mid-range powertrain option, pitched as a step up in both fuel economy and performance. In the Sonata the combination feels tuned to be more conservative and efficiency-minded, but that seems to better suit this powertrain as it is.
In most other aspects of the driving experience, these two models are closely aligned. Although we do think that Kia maintains a slight edge in steering and handling—this time not at the expense of road noise. The Optima lineup as a whole is more compliant now, but we think that the SX 2.0T model has one of the best ride-versus-handling balances in its class. Keep in mind that for both the Optima and the Sonata, base models come with an inferior column-mounted EPS system while other trims get a rack-mounted system with better centering, feedback, and precision.
Although these models have somewhat different seating configurations, door cutlines, and such, their interior appointments are also quite similar. Front-seat comfort has improved, and they both now include height-adjustable front passenger seats. Back seats are among the most spacious in their class, by the numbers, although we continue to see these models to be a little tighter in back for taller occupants than the Honda Accord and VW Passat. Trunk space is about the same, and both of these models include split-folding rear seatbacks.
The body structure for these models is essentially all-new, and while the Hyundai Sonata has already earned some impressive crash-test ratings, we’re expecting the same or better from the Optima. Both models offer autonomous emergency braking now, and the system in the Sonata has earned the IIHS “superior” nod for front crash prevention.
The area where the Optima pulls ahead—slightly, but just enough to make a difference, as we see it—is with respect to features and value. The Sonata is offered in SE, Sport, and Limited models, while the Optima lineup includes LX, EX, and SX models. In the Optima, you can opt for rear parking sensors, blind-spot detection, and rear cross-traffic alert systems even at the LX and EX level, while even at the EX level you can upgrade to ventilated front seats and heated outboard rear seats—features that aren’t even offered in the top-of-the-line versions of some rivals.
Both of these models now offer both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which allow users to connect their smartphones and access apps and other functions through the vehicle interface. We tend to appreciate Kia’s infotainment system just a bit more as it manages to pack in nearly as many features—as well as some additional items like geo-fencing, curfew alerts, and such—without the need for a subscription-based telematics services. .
For now, we’d put the Kia Optima just slightly ahead of the Hyundai Sonata—because we like its steering and suspension tuning slightly better and because its feature set seems to offer just a little bit more for the money, especially near the affordable end of the lineup. Both of these models are better than their game-changing predecessors in nearly every way. Even though they’re a little less distinct this time around, they’re smarter picks than ever before.
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