"What are you driving this week?" asked Christine, the Peet's counter girl, as she rang up my coffee.
"A Kia Sorento," I said.
"What do you think of it?"
"I like it," I said, "A lot."
"Wow, I'm surprised," she said, "I mean, you know, for a Kia."
Christine's comment reflects the public's general perception of Kia as being a make of small, unreliable econoboxes.
But the South Korean automaker has come a long way since the '90s, when its poor reliability record made it the butt of jokes and gave rise to such quips as, "KIA, Keep It Away!" Today, Kia vehicles consistently earn five-star ratings in government crash tests and routinely show up in important "editor's choice" lists. Over the past five years, Kia's quality has improved faster than any other brand. And in the latest J.D. Power and Associates' survey, Kia's initial quality was better than that of VW, Mazda, BMW and Mercedes.
Surprised? Kia understands. Which is why it made "The Power to Surprise" its new advertising tagline in 2005.
Most people are surprised when they learn that many Kia models are equipped to compete with best-selling models from the likes of Toyota, Honda, and even Lexus.
In fact, the first time my daughter sat in the Sorento, she said, "What is this, a Lexus?"
The Sorento looks, feels and handles more like a $39,000 Lexus RX350 than a vehicle priced closer to a Honda CR-V ($22,000). Not only is this midsize SUV winning rave reviews from customers and auto editors, it earned Consumer Reports' coveted "Recommended" rating.
The South Korean automaker's name means "to arise, to come up out of Asia," which is precisely what it did in 1994 when it entered the U.S. market with the Sephia sedan. That year, Kia sold 12,163 Sephias. Twelve years later, Kia had nine vehicles in its U.S. lineup and sold 294,302 of them, thanks in part to a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty (introduced in 2002), which bolstered consumer confidence in the brand.
Earlier this year, Kia added a 10th member to its lineup - the Rondo - a cross between a car, wagon, SUV and minivan, which Kia calls a Compact Utility Vehicle (CUV). Essentially a tall five- or seven-passenger hatchback, the Rondo is priced well below its competitors ($16,395 - $20,195), including the Toyota Matrix, Pontiac Vibe, Chrysler PT Cruiser and Mazda. Plus, it's roomier than all of them and the only one available with seven-passenger seating, making it the lowest priced seven-passenger vehicle on the market.
I had the opportunity to test drive the Rondo during a press preview in Arizona. While I was impressed with its ride, roominess, handling and fuel economy (21/29 mpg city/hwy), I wasn't won over by its styling. It looks like a bar of soap.
Thus far Kia has grown on the strength of affordable vehicles and the industry's best warranty. Now Kia wants to add passionate design to the mix.
"When you see a Kia coming down the road, it doesn't stand out," said Ian Beavis, marketing vice president for Kia Motors America, speaking at the Rondo event. "We want to give Kia more character, and the way to do that is through design."
To this end, the company is "recruiting designers from the passion brands," said Len Hunt, formerly executive VP of VW America and now executive VP and COO of Kia Motors America. Recent recruits include Hunt himself, and two of the auto industry's top design talents --Tom Kearns (from Cadillac) and Peter Schreyer (from Audi/VW).
"Exciting design elicits passion, and passion fuels sales and cultivates loyalty," says Hunt, who expects more exciting designs to not only ensure Kia's continued growth, but to more clearly distinguish Kia from its sibling, Hyundai. Hunt's team envisions Kia as a youthful, sporty brand, while they see Hyundai as more conservative and upscale.
Indicative of Kia's future design direction is the Soul, a tall wagon created under Kearns at Kia's U.S. design center in Irvine, Calif. First shown as a concept vehicle at the 2006 Detroit auto show, the Soul will go on sale in 2008 as a 2009 model.
Kia also plans to build a version of the Kue, a four-seat crossover concept it showed at this year's Detroit show.
Arguably Kia's most passion-inducing new concept is the Excee'd, Kia's first drop-top and the first effort of new global design chief Schreyer (who, at Audi, designed the TT). Shown at this year's e Geneva Motor Show, the Excee'd eventually will be sold in Europe, but, alas, not in America.