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Desktop Drives: Camry vs Korea

‘Desktop Drives’ is certainly not a unique concept. In fact, thousands of car shoppers do it every day, to a certain extent. While in a perfect world every car buyer would be as thorough as I am in my fun—to ensure a car that they are happy with—many drivers buy the newest model of the same car, year after year. And year after year—14 years in fact—the Toyota Camry has been the best-selling car in America, only being nudged by the major half-ton trucks on offer from America’s Big Three as best-selling vehicle. While that is quite a sales figure, it hasn’t prevented the Camry from earning the reputation of driving similar to the automotive equivalent of beige. On top of earning a less than stellar reputation regarding driver engagement and enjoyment, because of that sales figure the Camry has painted quite the target on itself. Over the last couple of decades, one country’s automotive giants have been aiming squarely for that target: Korea, with its domestic brand-sisters Hyundai and Kia.

Hyundai and Kia have been trying to gain a global foothold over the last few decades, and they have not succeeded any better than they are currently. Rather than sitting at their customary place beneath such brands as Toyota and Honda, they have pushed quality and refinement up to competitive levels with their new models. These models are almost carbon copies of one another but differ enough to be separately considered. They are the Hyundai Sonata and the Kia Optima, and their parent companies would love if some of the 363,332 individuals who purchased a Camry in 2015 would start considering them as well.

Looking at the numbers below, it quickly becomes apparent that the Hyundai and Kia are here to tussle, being particularly well-paired against their Camry rival. Not only are dimensions and weight almost identical across the board, so are the power ratings to move the mass.

Toyota Camry

MSRP w/destination: From $23,935

Price as Built: $25,064

MPG: Up to 24 city / 33 highway

Horsepower: 178 to 268 hp

Dimensions: 191″ L x 72″ W x 58″ H

Curb weight: 3,245 to 3,480 lbs

Hyundai Sonata

MSRP w/destination*: From $21,950

Price as built: $23,125

MPG: Up to 28 city / 36 highway

Horsepower: 178 to 245 hp

Dimensions: 191″ L x 73″ W x 58″ H

Curb weight: 3,219 to 3,589 lbs

*Hyundai does not charge destination

Kia Optima

MSRP w/destination: From $23,385

Price as built: $27,590

MPG: Up to 28 city / 39 highway

Horsepower: 178 to 245 hp

Dimensions: 191″ L x 73″ W x 58″ H

Curb Weight: 3,219 to 3,594 lbs


For the models that I decided to compare, I picked the mid-level of each offering. I felt base was much to base at this price point, and many things offered in the higher trim levels are easy to live without. That means that with the Camry it is labeled the “SE” trim level, the Sonata the “Eco” model, and the “LX 1.6T” for the Kia. While the as prices mirror each other for the most part, once options are added the prices have more variance, with the Hyundai continuing the trend of coming in under the others. Regardless, all of the cars come in well under $30,000, easily earning the moniker ‘affordable’.

Top Left: 2016 Toyota Camry, Top Right: 2016 Kia Optima, Bottom Left: 2016 Hyundai Sonata

While not the most flattering image of a Camry, it is still fairly apparent that the Korean alternatives are more styled than the Toyota. Style is certainly subjective, and while the Kia is handsome in a squared-off sort of way, the Hyundai appears to be trying very hard to not look as cheap as it is. Sadly, Hyundai has not quite hit the nail on the head, perhaps overdressing the car. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Toyota Camry looks good without standing out, something desirable in a car who’s design maxim is efficient transportation affordably. Glitz and glam may be lacking on the Camry, but some people want just that. On the topic of understated good looks, the Cosmic Grey Mica color pictured above hits it out of the park on a car at this price point.

The Camry, the Sonata, and the Optima are all almost identical on paper, and their styling may be subjective, but a closer look at each model shows important distinctions that shoppers of such a car value. These shoppers are looking for an affordable means to move more than two people, and maybe a bit of stuff. Gas mileage, space, and reliability are all important considerations, with enthusiast’s priorities taking a back seat. This does not mean that road handling and power can be sacrificed however, because such factors—while fun—are also important safety and comfort considerations. Let’s take a look at the cars individually, from last place, to the victor.

Kia Optima: Too Little for Too Much

The title says it all: The Kia doesn’t bring enough to the table at the price-point you can still get a nicely equipped Camry. Underneath, the mechanics of the Hyundai and Kia are exactly the same. 100% exactly similar mechanical bits and bobs, with a bit of code to differentiate between the two. They both share the same three engine choices, with a 2.4L 4-cylinder as the ‘base’ offering, a 1.6L turbo-4 is the step up, and a 2.0L turbo-4 being top dog among the motors. Opting for the mid-range 1.6T engine saddles both cars with the same 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox. This gearbox is not a sporting effort, but rather the dual clutches are utilized for efficiency purposes. On tap from this powerplant is 178hp and 195lbft of torque, 7hp less than the 2.4L but with 17lb-ft more push under the pedal. These numbers come from the turbocharged nature of the engine, and that along with the extra torque will make passing maneuvers and stop light jockeying a bit easier than the 2.4L base engine. While I am sure the 2.4L would be perfectly adequate, I feel the revised nature of the 1.6T is more in-line with American preferences.

If it seems I don’t have issue with the mechanicals of this car, I don’t. The Kia falls short because it’s price gets inflated by around $2,600 due to an equipment option that adds certain niceties that are almost required for a car destined for as much use as one in this segment. This equipment includes memory seats, dual-zone climate control, app link with smartphones, and multiple safety aides. These include rear parking assist and blind spot assist. However, such equipment is either included in the other cars, or supplanted with something similar enough to not warrant adding it as an option. Despite this, anyone who just can’t live without that Kia styling will by no means be wasting their money, and will still be rewarded with an affordable, comfortable car.

Rear Shot of a Kia Optima
A very sexy interior, from the more expensive SXL trim. The leather seats and door upholstery are the only differences between this and an Eco w/Nav

Hyundai Sonata: Optima in Drag

For those who want to be rewarded with a more affordable, equally comfortable car, Hyundai is waiting and willing to take your money. For that money, in the case of an Eco model $23,125, you do not get the freedom to add any options, but Hyundai does not really leave you wanting for any. As standard, the car receives a 7in screen that can play well with your phone and show what is behind you, Bluetooth phone services, and convenience features such as automatic headlights and heated side mirrors. This is certainly not the end all of options list however, and the choice of heated seats would be appreciated in particular climates.

Mechanically, this car is exactly the same as the Optima detailed above. A note on the Hyundai/Kia dual clutch “EcoShift” transmission: the last generation was not a good effort. Slow, clunky, and not very ‘Eco’, the gearbox was a letdown. Reviews have been better for this newer box, however it is always important to look at a company’s previous efforts.

The Sonata has one major factor going for it that will sway a lot of potential buyers. It is a very affordable car. It is important to note I did not say ‘cheap’ because nothing looks cheap about it, however certain measures by Hyundai ensure the price stays low. By not offering options, they prevent buyers inflating the price further, and most appreciated by potential customers: They do not charge destination or freight fees. While that may seem like a simple matter, it is close to $1000 saved on a modern car, a not-so-paltry sum.

Rear end of a Sonata 2.0T, with its sportier accouterments
Interior of a Sonata 2.0T, showing off Apple CarPlay

Toyota Camry: Just Call it the Toyota Victor

The Hyundai is cheap, but if I were shopping for a car in this segment I would stretch just a little bit, and make my way into a Toyota Camry. It may be tempting to ‘fight the establishment’ and avoid the Camry, but it hasn’t maintained top spot in passenger cars for 14 years for nothing. It is a very good means of transportation.

Before I get to what looks good about the Camry, the online ordering process warrants a good gripe. Everything is fine until you try to add packages; and then it all goes upside down. This is because there are a total of nine options. Seven of these options are very confusing variations of the same audio system, all different prices. When trying to choose the cheapest option for improved audio–$795—it informs you that it is only available with an ugly beige color for the exterior. Really, Toyota, beige of all colors? The cheapest audio system—mind you the same brand—is over two grand for any other color. The remaining two options are sunroofs. I solved this problem quite simply: I decided that I would forgo the audio online and see if I could order the car with the cheap audio from the dealer. Barring that, the stock car still comes with an acceptable unit.

Now for the good: I have already mentioned I like the understated exterior looks, and that carries over to the interior. The ‘SE’ trim level is almost laughingly a ‘sporty’ trim line, and while that may not translate to the driveline, it does net you nice red accent stitching. It also nets the driver steering wheel mounted shift paddles for the standard torque converter 6-speed automatic gear box to bring it up to parity with the Korean twins in gear selection methods. Mated to this tried-and-true gearbox is a tried-and-true engine, measuring 2.5L with 4 cylinders, it makes 178hp and 170lb-ft of torque. It makes less power, and significantly less torque than the 1.6 turbo found in the competition, as well as achieving lower fuel economy numbers—28 combined compared to 30 combined—so it may seem odd that it powers the victor of this little comparison. There are a few reasons for this; firstly, in my experience it is almost impossible to achieve good fuel numbers in a turbo motor, while EPA numbers for naturally aspirated motors tend to be more achievable. Secondly, I feel the N/A motor found in the Toyota, and the decades of development behind it, will lead to a more forgiving, reliable motor for long term use.

While the Korean competition would be quicker, and maybe a little more fun to hustle about, that is never the main consideration for shoppers at this price point: if that were the main concern for shoppers both companies offer over 240bhp in upper trim levels. With these motors I chose—and many actual purchasers chose—most buyers will be driving to work, doing the school run, and maybe have a small family outing thrown in every now and then. For such a life, the Camry looks to be the most comfortable, reliable, affordable over the life of the car, choice available to buyers cross shopping these models. While a test drive may change my opinion, after this ‘Desktop Drive’ the Camry emerges at the forefront.

You’ll never look twice at that rear end: And that is a good thing


Stephen Hyden View All

I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.

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