SOUTH Korean cars have come of age, making up almost a third of the finalists in this year's News Corp Car of the Year awards.

Dismissed for decades as cheap-and-cheerful drive-away bargains, the Korean twin brands - Hyundai and Kia - have landed three nominations this year.

In a landmark year - it's the first time in the award's 20-year history there hasn't been a locally made Holden or Ford among the finalists - the Korean brands have shown they can match it with automotive powerhouses in Germany and Japan.

The Kia Picanto is the smallest and cheapest car in the city category.
The Kia Picanto is the smallest and cheapest car in the city category.

While many will bemoan the lack of an Aussie-made finalist, local knowledge has played a part in the success of Hyundai and Kia, as both makers have employed locally based engineers to tune their cars for Australian conditions.

Kia, which is Australia's fastest growing mainstream brand, still supplies the smallest and cheapest car in the field, the $14,000 Picanto city car.

But it also has a high-performance V6 sedan in the contest, with a price tag of more than $60,000 on the road.

Kia has branched out into performance cars with the Stinger.
Kia has branched out into performance cars with the Stinger.

The Stinger is pitched as a spiritual successor to the Holden Commodore, as it comes with rear-wheel drive and a twin-turbo 3.3-litre V6 engine.

Hyundai's finalist is its top seller, the i30, after a complete overhaul earlier this year.

Their rivals range from the Suzuki Swift baby car to the high-performance Honda Civic Type-R hot hatch and the prestige Audi Q5.

The i30 is a popular choice. Photo by Mark Bean
The i30 is a popular choice. Photo by Mark Bean

"Every year, it's getting more difficult to separate the best from the rest. Brands that buyers once turned their backs on are now every bit as good as the established players, while safety technology usually reserved for expensive luxury cars is increasingly available on cheap hatchbacks," says the motoring editor of News Corporation, Richard Blackburn.

"But in the end it comes down to the basics - value for money, safety, practicality, driving enjoyment and cost of ownership. It's going to be a tough decision for the judges."

The Honda CR-V is a return to form for the Japanese brand. Picture: Thomas Wielecki.
The Honda CR-V is a return to form for the Japanese brand. Picture: Thomas Wielecki.

Korea is now the third-largest supplier to Australian showrooms, beaten only by Japan and Thailand - a low-cost manufacturer mostly responsible for utes including the Ford Ranger.

Once a bit player, Kia is on track to overtake Volkswagen and Nissan this year, after overhauling established brands Subaru and Honda.

A total of 147,390 Korean-made vehicles were sold by the end of October, for a 7.6 per cent growth rate that trumps both Japan and Thailand.

The Skoda Kodiaq is the only European-built car in the contest. Pic: Supplied.
The Skoda Kodiaq is the only European-built car in the contest. Pic: Supplied.

If a Korean car wins, it won't be the first time they have starred.

The Hyundai i30 claimed the crown in 2007, the Kia Rio won in 2011 and the Kia Sorento SUV powered past the Mercedes-Benz GLC to take the title in 2015.

The finalists at a glance:

Kia Picanto - value-for-money hatchback that's well equipped and suited to city living.

The Suzuki Swift - Fun to drive turbo three-cylinder with strong safety package.

Hyundai i30 - Loads of standard equipment, confident roadholding and a five-year warranty.

The Subaru Impreza - Quality cabin and crash-avoidance tech usually reserved for luxury cars.

Honda’s Civic Type-R is a major contender for the crown. Pic: Supplied.
Honda’s Civic Type-R is a major contender for the crown. Pic: Supplied.

Honda's Civic Type-R - Explosive hot hatch with in-your-face styling and a punchy turbo engine.

The Kia Stinger - Old-school, rear-wheel-drive sports sedan with room for five and a twin-turbo V6.

Mazda's CX-5 - Well priced, stylish cabin design and surprisingly agile for a softroader.

Audi’s Mexican-built Q5 is the only luxury contender. Pic: Supplied.
Audi’s Mexican-built Q5 is the only luxury contender. Pic: Supplied.

The Audi Q5 - German precision engineering matched to a frugal diesel engine and cutting edge safety.

The Honda CR-V - Spacious, versatile interior, quality finishes and hi-tech feel.

Skoda's Kodiaq - clever touches in the cabin, zippy turbo engine and a generous warranty

Where they're from

Kia Picanto - South Korea

Suzuki Swift - Japan

Hyundai i30 - South Korea

Subaru Impreza - Japan

Honda Civic Type-R - Japan

Kia Stinger - South Korea

Honda CR-V - Thailand

Mazda CX-5 - Japan

Skoda Kodiaq - Czech Republic

Audi Q5 - Mexico



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