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After years of strong growth, Korean automakers, Hyundai and Kia hit speed bumps in 2017, as their lack of popular crossover models slowed sales. But both brands closed the year with surprising new model introductions.

Hyundai and Kia may be sister brands but they operate quite independently and their new models reflect their divergent approaches.

In Hyundai’s case the latest model is the 2018 Accent. As the company’s entry-level car, the Accent has long been considered a no frills, plain-Jane model fit for rental fleets and pitying looks.

But the new fifth-generation Accent ups its game notably, with a fresh, appealing design, surprisingly good performance and handling — and features that rival larger, more expensive cars.

For Kia, one challenge has been to break the public perception that while the company’s vehicles are decent designs and good value for money, there’s little exciting or aspirational about the brand.

The 2018 Kia Stinger, a sporty four-door coupe, sets out to change all that. At the Stinger’s launch event, Audi, BMW and even Porsche models were included in a competitive driving session. The message: Kia wants to break out of its mold.

“This is an inflection point where people finally get rid of that old perception of Kia,” says Michael Sprague, executive vice president of Kia Motors America. “The Stinger gives us credibility.”

The Stinger’s credentials are impressive. Firstly the design is the work of Peter Schreyer, design chief of Hyundai-Kia. With his background as a Volkswagen-Audi designer, it’s not entirely surprising that Schreyer’s Stinger adopts the slinky coupe-style sedan appearance of the much admired Audi A7.

What’s more, Kia attracted key BMW engineer Albert Biermann. Renowned for his work at BMW’s famed sporty M division, Biermann has aimed to give the Stinger road manners to compete with Germany’s best.

In that regard, it was a bit of a stretch to drive a Porsche Panamera, costing three or four times the $32,000 starting price of a Stinger, back-to-back with the Kia. But the Stinger, available in rear-wheel or all-wheel drive, did impress in the company of the Audi A7 and A5 and a BMW 440i, with its strong 3.3-liter V-6 engine performance and overall handling.

The Stinger’s steering is overly light at speed and the car’s front suspension allows too much vertical movement when accelerating hard. But if you don’t push the car too hard, it makes for an engaging companion on twisty back roads.

Inside, the Stinger’s design does a reasonable job of trying to compete with much more expensive German rivals, but the dashboard could do with more distinctive trim and materials. The plain-looking steering wheel emblazoned with a large Kia badge is a letdown.

From a functional standpoint, the Stinger’s big rear hatch door is a terrific practical feature, but the price is tight rear headroom and restricted rear vision.

How the market receives the Stinger remains to be seen. But there’s no question that the car is a bold and laudable move by Kia to make its voice heard in higher quarters.

Switching to the Accent, Hyundai deserves kudos for not delivering another stripped-down econobox sedan. Slightly longer and wider than its predecessor, the design manages to avoid the awkward, bubble-backed proportions of most subcompact sedans.

Performance from the Accent’s 1.6-liter engine is on par with the competition, but what really stands out is the car’s overall refinement. A longer drive in the 2018 Accent is a surprisingly comfortable experience and the suite of infotainment features is impressive for a car priced in the mid-teens.

For differing reasons, both the Hyundai Accent and the Kia Stinger are worthy of consumer’s attention as we move into the 2018 model year.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com

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