Korean Cars: 10 Great Choices

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

In the span of just 20 years, vehicles conceived and designed by South Korean automobile manufacturers have gone from value-orientated alternatives to class leading innovators. The success trajectory of these automobiles is impressive.

Hyundai has taken the compact performance and electric vehicle worlds by storm. Kia is producing class leading SUVs and premium sedans. And Genesis, only a few years young as a stand alone brand, is going toe-to-toe with the best Germany has to offer.

The amount of choices are also impressive for how few manufacturers are based in South Korea. The majority of segments are represented, including multiple entries in some instances. To help highlight a few of the best offerings, we have compiled this list of great Korean car choices.

Great Choose Your Own Adventure Vehicle – Hyundai Kona

In sports there are those special players, the ones that can do it all. The Baseball player that can play any position, the hockey player that can be play both forward and defence, the football player that is on offence, defence, and special teams. The Hyundai Kona is the automotive equivalent of those players. It has no fewer than four distinct personalities.

Starting at the affordable end of the spectrum, the Kona is a front-wheel drive, high-riding hatchback; a vehicle that competes against the likes of the Kia Soul, Toyota C-HR and even Hyundai’s own Venue. Next, it is a proper subcompact crossover with all-wheel drive and the choice of two engines, including a powerful-for-the-segment 195 turbocharged four-cylinder.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Hyundai Kona N First Drive Review: Pint-Sized Pocket Rocket

Then there is the proper performance model, the Kona N. With a turbocharged 276 hp engine, the N is a hot hatch masquerading in a subcompact crossover body. It is fully capable of embarrassing a lot of sport compact cars around a track.

But, if gasoline powered vehicles are not for you, rest-assured this little Hyundai still has you covered with the Kona Electric. Powered by a 201 hp electric motor, the Electric is good for 258 miles of range.

With Kona, the choice is yours.

Great Price Point – Chevrolet Spark

How does a Chevrolet appear on a list about Korean cars? Well, simply put, the Spark is a South Korean car. It is designed, manufactured, and exported by GM Korea – the company formally known as Daewoo. Power for the Spark comes from a 1.4-liter four-cylinder that only has roughly 2,300 lbs. to carry around. This makes for a fairly fuel efficient package.

But the Sparks biggest claim to fame is holding the title as lowest-priced new car in America. The base LS trim level with the manual transmission begins at a price of just $13,600 USD before destination charges, taxes, and dealer fees. That’s nothing though compared to what is offered in Canada. By excluding air conditioning and other features in base LS manual transmission vehicles, the Spark begins at an unbelievable price of $10,398 CAD, or roughly the equivalent of $8,300 USD.

Great Electric Vehicle – Hyundai IONIQ 5

Both Hyundai and Kia have a multitude of mainstream vehicles with full electric versions for sale. The brands are quickly becoming front-runners in the burgeoning segment. But the IONIQ 5 is Hyundai’s first purpose built, electric-only vehicle. The brand considers it a SUV although it doesn’t ride much higher than most compact hatchbacks.

SEE MORE: 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5 First Drive Review: The Future is Now

It can be configured in four trim levels with either rear-wheel or all-wheel drive available. We were quite smitten with the vehicle during our first drive and can’t wait to get our hands on one for a longer, more in-depth review.

Great Bang for the Buck – Kia Stinger

Sometimes, an automobile manufacturer introduces a pleasant surprise, as is the case with the Kia Stinger. Kia was long rumored to be developing a sports car that would use the Stinger name. But what actually arrived was a performance fastback sedan complete with rear-liftgate, much like the Porsche Panamera. And as crazy as it sounds, the similarities to the Panamera didn’t stop there. The Stinger could be ordered with rear-wheel or all-whee drive, with a choice of turbocharged engines.

The base model has a 300 hp turbocharged four cylinder while the higher trim models have a 368 hp turbocharged V6. If these sound familiar, that’s because both are originally from the luxury Genesis G70. The Stinger is essentially a more affordable, not quite as luxurious version of the G70. It is a premium sports sedan at a relatively affordable price. But if you want one, better act now as 2022 could be the last year of the Stinger.

Great Hot Hatch – Hyundai Veloster N

The Veloster has always been a unique, cool hatchback, that until recently, hasn’t been all that sporty. But that all changed with the introduction of the Veloster N. Upping the ante from the lukewarm Veloster Turbo, the N packs a 275 hp turbocharged engine paired to either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic.

More than just a driveline upgrade, the N also includes an electronic limited slip differential, adjustable sport suspension, adjustable steering, larger brakes, and stickier tires. As a bonus to drivers, there’s a crackling exhaust and manual transmission cars come with rev-matching downshifts. If the Veloster is not your cup of tea, this performance package is available on the Kona as well as the Elantra sedan.

Great, Whatchamacallit Vehicle – Kia Soul

The Kia Soul is a hard to classify vehicle. It’s a funky box on wheels that is part crossover, part hatchback, and all personality. Now in its second generation, the Soul continues to offer a practical, efficient, and spacious vehicle for owners of all ages. It has the uncanny ability to comfortably fit many different body types and sizes.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Kia Soul Review

Kia is smart in how the company packages this vehicle. There are many trim levels to choose from, some of which change the exterior trim of the vehicle to suit a driver’s tastes. There is also still a Turbo trim level that includes a 201 hp engine for a bit more fun behind the wheel.

Great Compact Crossover – Hyundai Tucson

The Tucson is tasked with battling in one of the most competitive, hard fought segments in the automotive industry today; the world of compact crossovers. Just a few years old, the latest Tucson is a stylish small crossover that has some unique features like front running lights that sort of waterfall down the grille. Regular Tucson’s come with a 187 hp engine while a 226 hp Hybrid and 261 hp Plug-in Hybrid are also available.

Coming out later this year will be the Tucson XRT, a vehicle following the trend of more rugged compact crossovers. Although it isn’t exactly a rock crawling off-roader, it does look more aggressive and should do well for Hyundai.

Great Three Row SUV – Kia Telluride

The Kia Telluride shook up the three-row crossover hierarchy when it debuted. Universally praised, it immediately became a front runner within the segment. Blending comfort, performance, style and features, the Telluride is an excellent, large family vehicle.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia Telluride Review: Living Up to the Hype

Powered by a 291 hp V6 engine, the vehicle can come with front-wheel or all-wheel drive depending on trim level and options. As well, it can accommodate seven or eight passengers, and tow upwards of 5,000 lbs.

Great Compact Pickup SAV – Hyundai Santa Cruz

Hyundai does not consider the Santa Cruz a pickup truck, but would rather refers to it as a Sport Activity Vehicle. The company claims it blends the best of a SUV and a pickup truck together. Despite its stylish appearance, it still has an open bed in the back, so to us it is a pickup, or better yet, what the Australians would call a Ute.

The vehicle is available with either a naturally aspirated four-cylinder or a powerful 281 hp turbocharged unit. It can be equipped with front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Towing capacity is rated up to 3,500 lbs and payload can just eclipse 1,700 lbs. depending on trim level and optional equipment.

All hail the return of compact pickup trucks to North America.

Great Minivan MPV – Kia Carnival

Hyundai isn’t the only brand that doesn’t like traditional segment classifications applied to the company’s vehicles – Kia does it as well. The three row, front-wheel drive, boxy Carnival with sliding doors on either side is not a minivan, ok? Kia in the USA refers to it a s a MPV (Multi-Person Vehicle) while Canada is a bit creative, dubbing the Carnival a LUV (Life Utility Vehicle).

Regardless of designation, the Carnival replaces the Sedona minivan as Kia’s no-nonsense people hauler. Available in five trim levels, the Carnival feels more polished and refined than the recently departed Sedona. It is a serious threat to the mainstays of the minivan world, the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, and Chrysler Pacifica. And all joking aside, Kia has done a good styling the Carnival to not look like a traditional minivan.

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Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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