Separated at birth: Hyundai Sonata takes on Kia Optima

Our long-term Hyundai Sonata squares off against its Kia Optima platform mate for a lesson in brand dynamics.

Hyundai, as we've said over and over (and over), is on a roll. Month after month, the Korean brand once derided as good only for late night talk show gags, breaks sales records and gains more market share.

Hyundai's growth is primarily centered around the North American market, but that doesn't mean that European and Asian marques aren't paying attention. At the recent Geneva Motor Show, Leftlane struggled to get near Hyundai's recently-revealed i40 wagon, which was overwhelmed by engineers speaking a modicum of languages.

Not wanting to be lost in the shadows, Hyundai's little sister, Kia, is also rapidly gaining momentum. The sales story is much the same: Record-breaking sales month after month. That includes last month, when Hyundai sold 43,533 cars and Kia delivered 32,806. Buyers turned out in droves for cars all across the spectrum last month in the U.S., but almost nobody has the Koreans' continued momentum. Remember that when everyone else was down in 2009, Hyundai and Kia were shattering records.

Yet as these two brands grow, an inevitable divide seems to be forming. Hyundai Kia Automotive Group is the pair's parent, but unlike General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota and every other automaker with multiple brands, the two are run very independently. You won't find many shared showrooms here. Nor will you find nearly the level of integration and cooperation in Seoul that you might in Auburn Hills or Toyota City. For all intents and purposes, these are two separate automakers working in a sort of disparate partnership. Think Nissan-Renault, only with no charismatic single leader like Carlos Ghson.

Strikingly different
As a result, Kia and Hyundai compete directly with each other even though they share technology, platforms and distribution channels. Don't think of their products as a depressing rehash of badge engineering: Hyundai-Kia 2011 is not Buick-Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Pontiac 1991.

Unlike pretty much any other modern automaker with more than one brand, there's a lot of lineup overlap, but the two companies seem to have found slightly different niches in terms of their best-selling products.

At Hyundai, the volume player right now is the Sonata, although the compact Elantra sedan is making good headway. Last year, the Sonata, Elantra and Santa Fe SUV were tied for first place. Redesigns have propped up the Sonata and Elantra; a new Santa Fe is just around the corner.

Kia, meanwhile, is led by the Sorento SUV, a fresher take on the Santa Fe, which is enjoying a 2011 renaissance. The Forte compact and Optima midsizer aren't far behind.

In the middle
The midsize sedan is the bread-and-butter model at most full-line automakers, even though pickups and SUVs are still the highest margin models. Sedans have an everlasting appeal that has weathered coupe, wagon, SUV and crossover crazes, so it comes as no surprise that the flagship mainstream models for both brands offer four doors and room for five in reasonable comfort. The redesigned Sonata debuted about a year ago, while the similar-but-different Optima hopped onto the scene about seven months later.

To get a taste of the Hyundai-Kia relationship, we lined up a 2011 Kia Optima EX from the automaker's test fleet to square off against our long-term 2011 Hyundai Sonata SE.

It's not an entirely fair comparison, but it's close and as best as we could do. At $26,015, our Sonata came with 18 inch wheels and a sport-tuned suspension, while the $27,440 Optima came with a soft suspension with 17-inch wheels, a massive mooonroof, heated and cooled leather seats and a heated steering wheel. The days of Kia Sephias are long gone, although we hope Kia hangs onto a clean one as a reminder of its past (and so we can show our grandkids just how crappy Kias once were).

Gestation period
The Kia benefits from about half a year of extra development and it shows. From its crisply toned Peter Schreyer-penned flanks (he designed the still-sexy Audi TT, after all) to a dashboard wrapped in a beautifully stitched faux leather, the Optima looks and feels like a luxury car.

Our tester was swathed in a Snow White pearl coat that really brought out its original, yet highly Teutonic, lines and shapes. Inside, every material was a clear step above class average. Soft-touch panels cover any place you'll touch. The $2,250 EX Premium Package added to our tester included the luxurious dash panel wrapping, perhaps the single nicest element in this interior. The dashboard is noticeably canted toward the driver and it features nifty toggle-style switches and sporty red lighting.

Despite its sporty appearance, however, our soft Optima didn't drive like an enthusiast's car. A comparatively plush ride with copious body roll and light steering made it sort of average at going down the road. Credit the Sonata's driver-oriented firm suspension tuning and heavier weighted steering for giving the Hyundai a different driving feel, albeit one mainstream buyers might find too harsh. Of course, Kia offers the Optima in SX trim, which mimics the Sonata's SE level but forces buyers to select the turbocharged four-cylinder engine.

Both cars offer the turbo engine with either sport or touring suspensions, but only Sonatas offer the full range.

In contrast to the Optima, the Sonata's Mercedes-Benz CLS-inspired four door coupe silhouette stands out from the crowd but seems sort of trendy. Perhaps we're less emotionally attached to the look because of the massive uptick in new Sonata deliveries. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least ambivalence.

Inside, however, is where the Optima makes the biggest gains. Our Sonata is well screwed together with only a handful of rattles that have appeared in our 10,000-mile-so-far evaluation. Yet its trim and design feels positively downmarket compared to the Optima. Pony up for the Sonata Limited and you'll get leather seats and piano black-style plastics, but the overall feel doesn't change. The leather-and-urethane steering wheel, mix of plastics and un-evocative design remain.

In terms of driving dynamics, a Sonata Limited steers and rides about like the Optima EX, although we detected more wind noise in the Optima than the Sonata.

Fighting for the crown
With its German bred-and-trained lead designer, Kia's lineup looks sporty. And its latest models, especially the Optima and the upcoming redesigned Rio, feel sporty inside. Hyundai's offerings feel more mainstream, although they are hardly without a dose of style.

Both brands have forged a strong design identity both inside and out, a commendable achievement that has occurred over just a few years.

Behind the wheel, however, their midsizers don't convey the same message. Their crossed-over lineups are bogged down by the same overlapping muddiness.

We'd like to see Kia put its focus on sportiness. Its designs already channel the Germans, so why can't the driving experience go in the same direction? Targeting Mazda and Honda, the undisputed sport leaders among non-luxury brands, would be a great way to keep Kia feeling niche but on the same path toward growth. As both of those Japanese rivals have proven, a lineup can stretch from the cheap (Mazda2/Fit... Rio) to the moderately expensive (Mazda6/Accord... Optima) without watering down the brand.

Hyundai, meanwhile, is certainly doing most things just right by giving mainstream buyers value and style they haven't been offered before. But its wide lineup - cheap Accent to megabuck Equus - reeks of a Volkswagen-style goal of world domination, if not focus.

The products are undeniably great, but the lack of focus is looking like it could pose a serious hurdle down the road. Seoul, you can't afford to make any mistakes this time. The whole world is watching.

Words by Andrew Ganz. Photos by Andrew Ganz and Mark Elias.