It’s astonishing how Korean automakers have become synonymous with quality over the years. In 2016, Kia reigned as king of initial quality according to J.D. Power, beating out every other manufacturer. That’s right: Kia had better initial quality than Porsche, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Honda, or any of the other big guns. It doesn’t look like things are going to change anytime soon either.
But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it wasn’t like this even a few years ago. Kia, which started life as a bicycle builder in the early 1950s, got its first big break in the 1980s when it partnered with Ford to build the awful Aspire econobox. After overcoming the Asian financial crisis and unavoidable bankruptcy the following decade, it has found security in Hyundai serving as majority stakeholder.
Hyundai’s history draws some interesting parallels to Kia’s, as it also began life not with cars, but with engineering and construction. Its cars first came to America in the ’80s, offering the cheapest cars on the market — and they looked and drove like it too. Flash forward to the present day, and the brand is revered for its quality, affordability, and outstanding 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. Plus, with its U.S. headquarters in Michigan, and an assembly plant in Alabama, Hyundai has strategically made America its home — a choice that seems to be resonating with buyers.
Once considered a cheap alternative to buying Japanese, both Kia and Hyundai have invested measureless amounts of capital in the American market since the mid-1990s, slowly evolving into the brand identities we see today. Today, they can rival Honda, Toyota, and even BMW. Of course, cost is a big part of it. But there’s much, more more to it than that. Here are 10 reasons why buying a Korean car is a wise decision.
1. Easy on your wallet
Let’s get cost out of the way first. What started out as lineups full of cheap economy cars has blossomed into legitimate contenders in virtually every segment. Both Hyundai and Kia continue to offer more for less. Features that are often reserved for high-end luxury sedans from Lexus and BMW can now be found on many affordable Korean cars. It’s not uncommon to run across amenities like genuine Nappa leather interior, heated rear benches, power-folding proximity mirrors with courtesy lights, and ventilated front seats in models like the Hyundai Sonata. Cost? Fully loaded, it’s under $40,000. Base models start around $22,000.
That these perks often come at a fraction of the cost of their Japanese and European competition is what led cars like the Sonata to rank second on U.S. News’ list of “Best Midsize Cars For The Money.” The Kia Optima made the grade as well with a ninth place ranking.
2. Outstanding warranty deals
When Hyundai rolled out an industry first 10-year/100,000-mile warranty in 1998, the world raised an eyebrow. When Kia followed suit shortly thereafter, both brows went up. Labeled as “America’s Best Warranty,” this coverage protects the powertrain for that prolonged period, while a five-year/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper insurance takes care of the rest.
Other perks include five years of unlimited mileage roadside assistance, seven years of rust protection, and an unbelievable lifetime hybrid battery replacement policy. Hyundai saw a staggering 82% jump in sales within a year of the program being put in place. While Kia’s powertrain and new vehicle warranties match Hyundai’s, the brand’s roadside assistance is limited to 60,000 miles, and rust coverage spans seven years.
3. Hybrid heavyweights
Both Kia and Hyundai were quick to hop on the hybrid bandwagon, and with the aforementioned lifetime battery warranty and outstanding pricing pushing sales, their place in the green car market is well established. Hyundai’s all-new Ioniq lineup is aimed sqarely at the Toyota Prius, and offers a traditional hybrid, a plug-in, and a fully-electric model. Meanwhile, the all-new Kia Niro recently set a Guinness World Record for lowest fuel consumption by a hybrid vehicle, going 3,715.4 miles on only 4.1 tanks of gas.
4. Cute and quirky subcompacts
Kia and Hyundai have plenty of options for people who want something subcompact and casual, all while keeping things practical and fuel-efficient. With budget-minded Generation Z buyers demanding tech-savvy, compact economy cars, it is no wonder that vehicles like the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Soul are resonating with today’s buyers. Affordable, unique, and offering the latest tech, these Korean micro machines are both a bargain and a blast, with cars like the tight-handling Veloster offering turbocharged performance for budget-conscious buyers.
5. Freedom of choice
Tired of blending in and looking like everyone else on the suburban block? Korean car companies have been listening to Americans gripe about this for decades, and have rolled out tons of memorable options to help you personalize your car.
While the laundry list of upgrades and individualized options for cars like the Cadenza may make it look like a million bucks, it’s the ever-expanding number of segment entrants that have earned our nod of approval. Even though neither automaker has a hardcore performance vehicle on deck, the wide variety of offerings encompassed by both brands offers something for just about everyone.
6. Styling and profiling
After decades of being frumpy and anonymous looking, modern Korean cars have gotten to the point where most models are actually head-turners. In 2006, Hyundai hired former BMW designer Thomas Bürkle to lead the company’s design department. Kia’s turnaround is thanks to its hiring of Peter Schreyer from Audi. Today, Schreyer is design chief at both brands, but will soon retire. His hand-picked replacement is Luc Donckerwolke, formerly of Bentley.
Bringing what they learned at Audi, BMW, and Bentley, Korea’s cars are now some of the best-looking in the world. From the use of LED illumination both inside and out, to redesigned lines and performance focused rear diffusers, both manufacturers appear to be making the most of their world-class design teams.
7. Quality is truly king
The days of people complaining about inferior Korean quality are over. Many of Hyundai and Kia’s cars are now made in America, offer ample amounts of standard amenities for the money, and win awards for their quality every year.
This shift really began back in 2004: Hyundai shocked everyone when it tied Honda for initial brand quality in a study by J.D. Power and Associates. It then placed third overall in J.D. Power’s 2006 Initial Quality Survey, trailing only Porsche and Lexus. Kia has been busy cleaning up as well, winning awards for its safety, design, and ingenuity, with its J.D. Power award for best initial quality being the most recent feather in its cap.
In 2016, Hyundai dropped the Equus name and spun Genesis into its own luxury line. Meanwhile, Kia reworked the Cadenza so it can stand out as an affordable yet still opulent alternative to its flagship K900 sedan. While other car manufacturers require adding package after package in order to get to a certain set of results, Kia and Hyundai employ a more direct approach where a base model comes packed with accoutrements, and package options are limited to a select few additions to cut down on confusion. The result is a Mercedes competitor at a shockingly affordable price.
Let’s be honest about something: Kids are a massive pain in the ass for automakers. From countless dollars in warrantied-out interior components, to strenuous government child safety LATCH system requirements, the list of things that factor into making a family car is difficult to fathom.
Fortunately, employees at Kia have their own kids, so designing a Sedona minivan with the right ride height, seat-folding skills, and door angles happened about as naturally as it could have. Hyundai, on the other hand, remains focused on safe sedans and hatchbacks of all manner, be they subcompacts or SUVs, which continue to outsell sedans due to their practicality.
Kia Motors America’s longest running nameplate, the Sportage, is now classified as the best in its segment according to Cars.com; a heavy overhaul earned it the title of “Best New Compact SUV” of 2017. Meanwhile, Hyundai continues to sweep up awards from KBB and IIHS for safety suites and low ownership costs in the Sonata line.
But the big news is Kia’s 2018 Stinger sport sedan, a twin-turbo, rear-wheel drive sport sedan designed to take on BMW. While it’s early, the Stinger certainly looks like the real deal. Between that and the Genesis line, Hyundai and Kia are looking to move upmarket, and they seem to be doing everything right.
Love or hate them, once you take into account all of the accomplishments and advantages, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Korean automakers have earned their keep and have one hell of a success story to tell.