2015 Hyundai Sonata Eco, Malibu, California, Oct 2014Enlarge Photo
In only a few generations, both the Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima have gone from also-rans to tough mid-size rivals for vehicles such as the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion. It's all for good reason, thanks to great styling, excellent fuel economy, available hybrid models, and class-leading value.
If you have your eyes on this South Korean-designed pair, how can you choose between them? To start, there's one very important piece of information for 2015, and it might govern whether you buy now, or wait a few months. The Hyundai Sonata has been given a full redesign for 2015, while the Kia Optima carries over for one more year in its present form. You might expect that to give the Sonata the advantage, but it's not that simple, and here at The Car Connection they're still so close in appeal, value, and everything else that we've rated them identically. For the most part, it comes down to styling, though there are subtle differences in handling and features that may tip the scales in one direction.
Both of these models are powered by a range of direct-injection four-cylinder engines, from the base 2.4-liter normally aspirated models to the a turbocharged 2.0-liter four. The base model makes 200 horsepower in the Optima, while an 'updated' version of this engine in the Sonata is rated at 185 hp. Likewise, the Optima's 274-horsepower turbo engine now makes 245 in the Sonata. To Hyundai's credit, both of these engines are much more vibration-free in the Sonata. In both models, the six-speed automatics shift relatively smoothly and do well with the turbocharged four, allowing quick highway passes without much turbo lag.
At the frugal base end of the lineups, the Sonata's EPA ratings are now a slight step ahead, at 25 mpg city, 37 highway. And there are hybrid models (both of the same generation, as the Sonata Hybrid is based on the previous model); they're rated at 36 mpg city, 40 highway. Otherwise the new 2015 Sonata Eco rolls out a special powertrain that can't be found anywhere in the Optima lineup: a 1.6-liter turbocharged four with a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual gearbox; together it's good for 28/38 mpg.
The Kia Optima has an all-independent suspension with a very taut, borderline firm, ride quality. Hyundai has improved the ride quality of the Sonata notably, and it's the pick of the two for that—and for general cabin quiet—although Kia added an acoustic windshield last year, and we still like the tuning of the Optima's power steering a bit better, as it has more natural heft off center and better weighting for quick maneuvers overall.
Interior and trunk space remains quite similar between these two models, whether you go by the dimensions or by practical usability. There's lots of front-seat leg room and head room, with above-average knee room in the back seat and head room that's fine for all but six-foot adults and those any taller. The Sonata's seats feel modestly improved, and that's a plus; heated seats are an option on either, as is leather trim. Trunk space and small-item storage are quite good.
In safety and features, the Sonata and Optima have been impressive albeit not quite top-tier performers, going by the crash-tests from the IIHS and NHTSA, and we assign them the same '9' score. But the Sonata's clearly ahead if safety features matter—and if you're willing to pay extra for them. The Sonata does earn a 'basic' nod from the IIHS for frontal crash prevention, for the Forward Collision Warning system that's offered as part of the Ultimate Package on top models. The Sonata also offers blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane departure warning, and active cruise control. There's no true active-safety system on the Optima yet, although it does make a Blind Spot Detection system available on all but the base model.
Bluetooth is standard on both, and a rearview camera can be had on either, but it remains optional for both at the base level. Among other features, Kia's UVO uses voice commands to run phone and audio controls; now that it can pair with the optional navigation system it's just as good as Hyundai's infotainment system—although arguably, a new generation of Hyundai's system, with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, plus human operators with its BlueLink service, also put it a slight bit ahead.
We saved styling for last, because it makes an interesting pivot point. You might think that the Sonata, with its full redesign for 2015, would have blasted well past the Optima in styling. But these cars were polar opposites last year, and oddly, while this year's redo of the Optima gives it some great interior materials, the cabin design itself takes a step closer to that of the Optima. Overall, we still think these two are so close in packaging and functionality that the choice comes down mostly to other matters. In general, the Sonata is no longer a dramatic expression of 'fluidic sculpture' and is instead now a lot more formal; on the other hand, the Optima continues its dynamic, almost Audi-like appeal, and it was given a refresh last year—albeit a very mild one. In either case, you'll be driving something so far removed from the Korean automakers' past, it's almost unrecognizable.
So what's the takeaway from this comparison? As of the 2015 model year, the Sonata's redesign hasn't necessarily given it an ace card against its corporate cousin, the Optima. The Kia still has an advantage in its sportier driving feel, and it edges out the Sonata slightly in value, although it's a small step behind in ride comfort, interior noise, and it lacks the new active-safety features offered in the Hyundai. We're going to call this very slightly in favor of the Sonata; but don't be surprised if it's an entirely different game next year.
|from $21,150||from $21,840|
|from $20,295||from $20,893|
|Fuel Economy - Combined City and Highway|
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|Read Full Specs||Read Full Specs|