Best South Korean cars

South Korea has quietly been developing a range of ever more appealing cars at competitive prices that owners love

James Wilson
Dec 2, 2021

South Korean cars have become some of the most popular, competitive and well-regarded models available in the UK. Spearheaded by Kia, Hyundai and SsangYong, its brands have seen the nation rise from a fledgling in the global car market, to a major player.

Hyundai and Kia are part of the same larger business (similar to how Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda are all part of a wider parent company) and produce everything from dinky city cars to large seven-seater SUVs. SsangYong is a bit different; it has its roots in rugged go-anywhere off-road vehicles, and today still produces a number of very capable off-road cars. These are not only impressively tough, but they're now much more appealing to look at as well.

Circling back to Hyundai and Kia, they are the current leaders in electrification - offering an extensive range of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fully-electric vehicles. Hyundai’s Ioniq Hybrid has stolen sales from the long-established Toyota Prius, while the Ioniq Electric has made a similar dent in the Nissan Leaf's dominance.

Then there's the fact that all three of these South Korean manufacturers offer strong warranty cover. New Kia and SsangYong models come with seven years of protection as standard. That means that even if you buy a four-year old Kia or SsangYong, there's still the same three years of warranty cover remaining as a brand new Ford or Volkswagen, to name just a few brands, making them great value used cars. There's a lot to like here, so read on for the best cars that South Korea has to offer.

Best South Korean cars

1. Kia Picanto and Hyundai i10

The best South Korean city car

Kia Picanto deals from £7,590
Monthly finance from £180*
Hyundai i10 deals Limited stock

The Kia Picanto and Hyundai i10 share the same building blocks, so beneath their badges and bodywork, there's a lot of the same engineering. That isn’t to say it's impossible to choose between the two, though. All Kias come with an industry-leading seven-year/100,000-mile warranty - so if having many years of worry-free motoring is high on the priority list, then the Picanto is the way to go. Hyundai models have a five-year warranty as standard.

Also, Hyundai only recently launched its latest-generation i10, whereas the Kia has been on sale since 2017, so the i10 will be more exclusive (for now), but also comes with higher prices, unless you go for the previous generation model, which is still a good choice.

Aside from that, both models drive well on the motorway considering their small dimensions. They're also easy to drive in and out of town, cost very little to run and come with a selection of efficient petrol engines. As for equipment, provided you avoid the entry-level models there is plenty of on-board kit included.

KIA PICANTO BUYERS' GUIDE
HYUNDAI I10 BUYERS' GUIDE

2. Hyundai i30

The best South Korean family hatchback

Used deals from £12,900
Monthly finance from £0*

The Hyundai i30 has come a long way since it first arrived in the UK over a decade ago. So far, in fact, that it's now an appealing alternative to top-selling rivals like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus; rather than an easy-to-forget budget option. There's a wide range of variants to choose from - starting with entry-level 1.0-litre petrol S models (which are great for affordability, low running costs and relatively low insurance premiums) and finishing with plush Premium SE diesel models with an automatic gearbox.

On top of this, there are estate and fastback versions (the latter being a trendy way of describing a car that has a sloping rear roofline, but still has four passenger doors and a hatchback) plus performance-focused ‘N’ models. ‘N’ models aside, the i30 isn’t exactly exciting to drive, but then again, that isn’t what the i30 is trying to achieve. Instead, it excels at being a comfy town cruiser and a refined motorway mile-muncher.

HYUNDAI I30 BUYERS' GUIDE

3. Kia Sportage

The best South Korean SUV

Kia Sportage front three quarters view

Used deals from £10,045
Monthly finance from £381*

Rather like the Hyundai i30, the Kia Sportage is a model that's shot up in style, quality and technology with each generation. The latest version is a bonafide rival to SUVs like the Nissan Qashqai, Peugeot 3008 and Volkswagen Tiguan.

It's been a real hit for Kia, and we can see why. The Sportage is confidence-inspiring from behind the wheel, thanks to precise steering and a planted feel, while a raised seating position gives a good view of the road ahead. It's also a thoroughly practical family car, with plenty of space for tall adults in the back seat and a boot measuring up to 491 litres.

There's a good selection of petrol and diesel engines, some of which were upgraded in 2020 to add mild hybrid electrification. This harvests a small amount of energy as the car slows down, then uses it to give the car a small boost under acceleration, resulting in fuel economy of up to 48mpg for the 1.6-litre diesel with front-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive and automatic gearbox versions are also available for those who prefer them.

KIA SPORTAGE BUYERS' GUIDE

4. SsangYong Tivoli

The best value South Korean small SUV

Used deals from £6,990
Monthly finance from £0*

SsangYong translates to ‘Double Dragon’ which has to be one of the cooler brand names out there. The Tivoli is a compact SUV to rival the likes of the Renault Captur and Suzuki Vitara. What might be most surprising is that in certain areas the Tivoli stacks up rather well, and it's certainly good value for money.

One example is a 'braked' towing capacity of 1,500kg for diesel models, which many rivals fail to match and mean it can tow all but the largest caravans. This is a significant amount, as you'll see from our round-up of the best used tow cars and best medium-size cars for towing.

The Tivoli's interior is also likely to impress because the latest versions in Ultimate trim feature a large 10.3-inch digital instrument display, along with an eight-inch infotainment touchscreen. Even the entry-level EX version gets features like digital radio, Bluetooth, air-conditioning and cruise control.

5. Hyundai Santa Fe

The best South Korean large SUV

Used deals from £8,100
Monthly finance from £0*

All the way back in 2012 Hyundai unveiled its third-generation Santa Fe SUV to the world, which remained on sale until 2018. The reaction was one of pleasant surprise, it was significantly better than the model it replaced - even touted by some as a genuine rival to cars such as the Land Rover Discovery Sport. While there are five-seaters available, those with space for seven are more commonplace and even better for families.

It isn’t without flaws, though. There are no two-wheel-drive models and the only engine on offer (a 2.2-litre diesel) is hardly the last word in fuel economy or refinement. On a more positive note, there are manual and automatic gearboxes to choose from, build quality is good and standard equipment includes a touchscreen multimedia system, cruise control and all-round parking sensors. All things considered, the Santa Fe feels like a lot of car for the money. Lightly used examples are also great value, because while the new Santa Fe is certainly striking, the latest generation also commands a higher price.

2012-2018 HYUNDAI SANTA FE BUYERS' GUIDE

6. Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia e-Niro

The best South Korean fully-electric car

Hyundai Kona Electric deals Limited stockKia e-Niro deals from £31,623
Monthly finance from £571*

Much like the i10 and Picanto above, the Hyundai Kona Electric and Kia e-Niro share many components. The similarities are important, though, as they are both leading the way for (relatively) affordable battery-powered motoring. Both models come with an official range of around 280 miles on a full charge - which is more than enough to handle most motorists’ driving needs without having to find a public charger.

Being electric, an automatic gearbox is standard, plus they are incredibly well equipped - adaptive cruise control, electric front and rear windows, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility and a touchscreen multimedia system are all included. To split the two, the Kia is more practical but the Hyundai is more exciting to look at.

KIA NIRO BUYERS' GUIDE
HYUNDAI KONA ELECTRIC BUYERS' GUIDE

7. Kia Stinger

The best South Korean executive car

Used deals from £20,995
Monthly finance from £0*

Kia boldly decided to take on the Audi A5 Sportback and the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe when it launched the rakish Stinger. For the most part, it succeeded. Not only does the South Korean five-door coupe look the part, it feels like the genuine article on the road. All models boast strong performance, are enjoyable to drive and for their price, come with a plush interior stuffed with strong levels of equipment.

Topping the Stinger range is the 3.3-litre GT S which produces a substantial 360hp - enough for a rapid sub-five second 0-62mph time. For more reasonable running costs, there is a 2.2-litre diesel, which is still reasonably speedy. Regardless of engine choice, all models are rear-wheel-drive for a more sporty feel and use an automatic gearbox.

KIA STINGER BUYERS' GUIDE

8. Hyundai Ioniq

The best South Korean hybrid car

Hyundai Ioniq Electric front three quarters view

Used deals from £15,500
Monthly finance from £0*

For those unfamiliar with the Hyundai Ioniq range, it is available as a self-charging hybrid (which features a petrol engine that's assisted by a small electric motor and battery), a plug-in hybrid (with a larger electric motor and battery that requires regular plugging in to provide the best fuel economy) and as an electric car. We're focusing on the two hybrid versions here, with the plug-in hybrid model having an official electric range of nearly 40 miles, but being more likely to achieve around 30 miles per charge in everyday conditions.

In essence, hybrid and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Ioniqs are cracking cars - they're comfortable, well-equipped and reliable. They don’t offer the last word in driving fun but thanks to their many gizmos (such as adaptive cruise control) they can help take the edge off commuting and driving in traffic.

In terms of which version is best for you, PHEV cars come into their own when they can be charged regularly. Leave the battery empty, and you'll just be using more petrol lugging around a battery pack but getting little electric boost from it. So, if you're happy charging regularly and can drive short distances in electric mode, go for the plug-in hybrid. If you don't want to have to charge the battery, or frequently drive further afield, the cheaper conventional hybrid version makes more sense.

HYUNDAI IONIQ HYBRID BUYERS' GUIDE

*Representative PCP finance - Ford Fiesta:

48 monthly payments of £192
Deposit: £0
Mileage limit: 8,000 per year
Optional final payment to buy car: £2,923
Total amount payable to buy car: £11,926
Total cost of credit: £2,426
Amount borrowed: £9,500
APR: 9.9%

Buyacar is a credit broker, not a lender. Our rates start from 6.9% APR. The rate you are offered will depend on your individual circumstances.

 

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