Battle of the Korean Economy Sedans: Kia Forte SX VS. Hyundai Elantra SE

January 19, 2010

While many people may look upon Korea's Hyundai and Kia as the bargain basement auto manufacturers with the 10-year warranties, few people realize that this duo outsold Ford Motor Company last year in worldwide sales. That's a pretty impressive figure for two car makers whose models were considered also-rans just ten years ago.

But with each successive model they release both Kia and Hyundai are proving to the world that they are true automotive powerhouses. Although Kia's wacky Soul and Hyundai's luxurious Genesis may be getting all the press, how do their meat and potatoes economy sedans stack up against one another? Because even though they are both essentially the same company, their mid-level economy sedans couldn't be more different.

To make this comparison fair we are looking at the top level Forte and Elantra sedan models. Also, if you are going to be keeping your new Korean economy car for the entirety of that 10-year powertrain warranty you more than likely want to buy the nicest version with all the toys. And with Hyundai's and Kia's usual pricing policy, you can afford to get the top level version and still save money when compared to a Civic or Corolla.

Hyundai Elantra SE

The SE is considered to be the sporting version of the Elantra and as such comes with a sport tuned suspension that has much more in common with the Touring model than it does with the more basic GLS or Blue models. That means handling is tight and precise; unfortunately there is still a bit too much numbness in the steering.

Vague steering is a problem that affects all Elantra models barring the Touring, but if you are looking for relaxing transport the Elantra SE is tough to beat. Compared to most economy sedans its size, the Elantra really does have a soft, pliant ride.  The SE may have a sports suspension but this model has lost none of the traditional Elantra ride compliance when traveling over bumps or rough roads.

One area in which the Elantra is falling behind the times is in the powertrain department. Although the 2.0-liter four-cylinder is economical, you can get a more powerful 2.4-liter engine from Kia for nearly the same price. In addition, the Kia model comes with a five-speed automatic instead of the Elantra's rather geriatric four-speed.  

The interior of the Elantra is one area in which this Hyundai continues to shine. The steering wheel and shift knob are covered in soft leather and the upholstery used is upscale and plush. This may be damning with faint praise, but of the two cars, this is the one you would most want to curl up and take a nap in.

Kia Forte SX

Although it is by no means perfect, it is quite obvious that the Forte was designed and engineered quite a few years after the Elantra. Does that make this test unfair? A little bit as the Kia offers more power and features at a lower price. Although the Forte lags a bit behind the Elantra in the fuel economy department, that is more than made up for by the fact that it is so much more powerful.

The Forte is also available with a manual transmission which, while not exactly Honda smooth, has clean clutch engagement with just a hint of rubbery shift action. If you can't stand to shift for yourself, there's always the five-speed automatic, which gives the Forte SX a little bit more of an upscale feel.

Speaking of upscale, the Forte SX is available with leather (the Elantra currently is not)--but to be honest, for the extra $1,000 it costs does not make the interior look much more luxurious. The leather is slippery and has a semi-plastic sheen to it, so stick with the finely upholstered cloth seats in this model and you will be happier. Or if you have to spend money get the optional $700 sunroof and use the money you have left over for a road trip.

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