Best South Korean cars

North Korea might hog the limelight, but South Korea has quietly been developing a range of ever more appealing cars at competitive prices

James Wilson
Oct 21, 2020

South Korean cars are on the up, and not just with regards to popularity - the current crop of models are lightyears ahead of previous generations in terms of desirability, quality and equipment. While there is a weird and wonderful range of makes available in the South Korean market, there are only three readily available brands in Europe; Kia, Hyundai and SsangYong.

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 that were fantastically ugly and today still produces a number of very capable off-road cars, but thankfully, they are now much more appealing to look at.

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. As an example of how good these models are becoming, Hyundai’s Ioniq hybrid has stolen a large number of sales from the long-established Toyota Prius, which was one of the original hybrid cars to go on sale and has built up a significant customer base. 

Then there's the fact that all three of these South Korean manufacturers offer strong warranty cover, with Kia and SsangYong especially selling brand new cars with up to seven years of protection. That means that even if you buy a four-year old Kia or SsangYong you get the same amount of warranty cover as with brand new versions of most cars, 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

2017 Kia Picanto deals from £5,912
Monthly finance from £105
2020 Hyundai i10 deals from £11,250
Monthly finance from £168

The Kia Picanto and Hyundai i10 share a platform, meaning that underneath their bodies there is a lot of the same engineering. That isn’t to say it is impossible to choose between the two, though. For example, 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.

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 for such a small car and are 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 aviod 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 £8,990
Monthly finance from £144

The Hyundai i30 has come a long way since it first arrived in the UK over 10 years ago. So far, in fact, that it is now an appealing alternative to popular rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus rather than simply being an easy-to-forget budget option. There is 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 at plush Premium SE diesel automatic models.

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 Stonic

The best South Korean crossover

Used deals from £9,999
Monthly finance from £158

The Stonic is Kia’s answer to what it thinks a small 'crossover' driver wants. In classic crossover fashion, this translates to a mildly raised ride height (compared to that of a traditional hatchback) and plastic cladding around the bottom of the car - supposedly for a more rugged look.

Inside the cabin is more functional than fun and standard equipment includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, air-conditioning and parking sensors. Behind the wheel, the Kia Stonic is surprisingly agile to drive, which is more than can be said for some of its rivals.

Petrol and diesel engines are available, as are manual and automatic gearboxes. There is no four-wheel-drive model, though, so if you want a car with actual off-road capability as well as a high driving position, this isn't it.

KIA STONIC BUYERS' GUIDE

4. SsangYong Korando

The best South Korean small SUV

Used deals Limited stock

SsangYong translates to ‘Double Dragon’ which has to be one of the cooler brand names out there. The Korando is a compact SUV to rival the likes of the Nissan Qashqai. What might be most surprising is that in certain areas the Korando stacks up rather well.

One example is a 'braked' towing capacity of 2,000kg (aka two-tonnes) for diesel models which many rivals fail to match. 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

A new Korando was launched in 2019, but it is the previous generation which offers particularly good value and therefore is the one highlighted here. Not only are prices low, but there are good levels of standard equipment (for example; Bluetooth, air-conditioning and roof rails are included on all models) and a spacious interior. Plus there is a Korando for most tastes thanks to a choice of petrol and diesel engines, manual and automatic gearboxes and two- and four-wheel-drive.

5. Hyundai Santa Fe

The best South Korean large SUV

Used deals from £12,491
Monthly finance from £230

All the way back in 2012 Hyundai unveiled its third-generation Santa Fe SUV to the world. 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.

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.

2012-2018 HYUNDAI SANTA FE BUYERS' GUIDE

6. Kia e-Niro and Hyundai Kona Electric

The best South Korean fully-electric car

Used Kia e-Niro deals from £30,990
Monthly finance from £434
Used Hyundai Kona Electric deals from £30,450
Monthly finance from £442

Much like the i10 and Picanto above, the Kia e-Niro and the Hyundai Kona Electric 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 top up during a vast majority of journeys.

Being electric, all models are automatics, 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 Limited stock

Kia boldly decided to take on the Audi A5 Sportback and the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe at their own games with the Stinger. For the most part, it succeeded. Not only does the Korean five-door coupe look the part, it is the part. 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 Hybrid

The best South Korean hybrid car

Used deals Limited stock

For those unfamiliar with the Hyundai Ioniq range, it is available as a conventional hybrid (which features a petrol engine with a small electric motor that provides a small boost but can't be charged manually), a plug-in hybrid (with a larger motor that requires regular plugging in to keep the batteries charged and provide the best fuel economy) and as a fully-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 on real roads.

In essence, hybrid and plug-in hybrid (PHEV) Ioniqs are cracking cars - they are comfortable, well-equipped and well-built. 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 - every 30 miles or so if you want to drive solely on electric power - otherwise you'll just end up using more petrol lugging around a whopping great battery pack but getting little electric boost from it. So, if you're happy charging regularly and do mainly short trips when you can keep the car in electric mode as much as possible, go for the plug-in hybrid. If you don't want to have to charge or do many longer trips, the cheaper conventional hybrid version makes more sense.

HYUNDAI IONIQ HYBRID BUYERS' GUIDE

 

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