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Sonata vs Optima: 2011 Sibling SlugFest

2011 Hyundai Sonata
They share a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, electric-assist power steering hardware, a 110-inch wheelbase and four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, EBD and other assorted TLAs (three-letter acronyms). What’s more, they look an awful lot alike. But there are differences — some small, some significant.

Our quest is to find out if those differences actually matter. The devil, as they say, is in the details. Here are a few: The location of final assembly for each is different, as are North American parts content, interior trimmings, wheel/tire fitment and, of course, price. Perhaps more significant are the subtle but effective changes made to give each car its identity — a suspension tweak here or an additional feature there. It’s these changes that either bond a customer with a car or break the deal altogether.

Differences in Manufacturing Noted (Favor Sonata)

The 2011 Kia Optima is assembled in Hwasung, South Korea, and contains but 1 percent North American parts. The 2011 Hyundai Sonata is built in Montgomery, Alabama, and 41 percent of its parts originate in North America. They both feature optional satellite radio and navigation systems with real-time traffic, but Kia uses Sirius services, while Hyundai favors XM. Both satellite services are complimentary for the first 90 days of ownership, and both sedans are optionally equipped with premium audio systems: Kia’s from Infinity and Hyundai’s from Dimension. The Infinity system is available in the Sonata Limited at a higher price point.

Performance Differences Tested (Favor Sonata)

With the same six-speed automatic transmission and final-drive ratios, the two cars leave the starting line in a dead heat, but by 30 mph, the lighter Sonata begins to eke out a lead. At 60 mph, the Sonata is 0.6 second ahead (8.3 seconds vs. 8.9 seconds), and by the end of the quarter-mile, the Hyundai is a half-second quicker with a 2-mph advantage (16.2 seconds at 88.0 mph vs. 16.7 seconds at 85.7 mph). Have a look at the graph in the photo gallery showing the two cars’ best acceleration runs to see the divergent curves, but there’s no question the Optima is either encumbered by its additional weight or it’s down on power.

Emissions Difference and Fuel Economy Advantage (Favor Sonata)

Turns out, it’s probably both. Despite sharing the same displacement, direct fuel-injection and 87-octane fuel requirement, our 2011 Kia Optima EX carries a California SULEV (super ultralow-emissions vehicle) rating. This regional engine knocks down the output slightly relative to the ULEV II-rated Sonata. With 198 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, the Sonata offers a small bump in power over the Optima’s 192 hp and 181 lb-ft.

Incidentally, we measured a very slight fuel efficiency advantage in the Sonata. Covering the same 1,000 miles or so, we recorded 23 mpg in the Sonata versus the Optima’s 22 mpg.

Will the 2011 Kia Optima be the 2011 Hyundai Sonata’s fiercest competitor? Perhaps the Sonata’s lowball price will still outweigh the Optima’s various features and the Hyundai would win yet another comparison test.

We encourage you to visit Chapman Scottsdale Hyundai and drive away in the clear winner.

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