The Long and Winding Kia Road: celebrating 20 years of success


There are a couple of automotive manufacturers celebrating milestone anniversaries this year: Lexus is one, and Kia is another. But while Lexus already had a strong presence in the U.S. with Toyota, Kia started from scratch. And what it has accomplished in 20 years is a testament to good management, hard work, and a firm grasp on continually moving a big ship in the right direction. What started with one small, cheap sedan has become a 14-vehicle lineup that has replaced the word cheap with the word desired.

Kia_Sephia_1994_GS-rfq-72In 1994, the Kia Sephia sedan entered the U.S. for Kia, with a starting price of $8,495. The Sephia, with a 1.6-liter 88-horsepower engine, was deemed crude and a bit scary, as it came without airbags, or antilock brakes. Yet it outsold the Dodge Neon and Mazda Protegé in eight cities, and finished the year selling over 12,000 units. This also was when Kia moved to Irvine, California.

In 2014, Kia is well on its way to selling close to 600,000 vehicles, setting another record for sales, and placing it in the top-10 category for overall sales in America, beating out Dodge, Volkswagen, Chrysler, BMW, and over two dozen other brands, many of which have been selling cars in America for decades, if not a century.

So how does a brand grow so quickly and steadily? A lot of it has to do with basic business acumen: build gradually, expand smartly, react quickly, and understand what the customer wants and needs.

Kia didn’t try to do too much too quickly. In 1995, Kia was only selling in 20 states and 100 dealerships. It also introduced the Sportage compact SUV, as well as restyled the Kia Sephia. By competing in the Baja 1000 and winning its class, along with taking on the Paris-Dakar rally and completing that course, Kia was starting to make some waves. Even Popular Science magazine named the Sportage the Best of What’s New for 1995. All this helped Kia double sales to just under 25,000 units.

Kia_Sportage_1995-rfq-72By 1997, Kia had again doubled sales to just over 55,000 units with just the Sportage and Sephia models, as well as doubled its dealer base to about 200 stores. The word was getting around that Kia vehicles not only were affordable, but also a good value, as they were being noticed for dependability and fuel efficiency, something the Japanese manufacturers had a lock on for decades. The Sportage has the most horsepower in its class (130 from a 2.0L inline four), and came with a nice list of standard features (including driver-side airbag and rear ABS).

At the turn of the century, just three years later, Kia introduced the Spectra5 sport sedan hatchback, the Rio subcompact, and the Optima midsize sedan. Sales jumped to over 160,000 units, and in six years, Kia had sold over a half million vehicles total in the U.S. One year later, the Sedona minivan and Rio5 hatchback entered the market, followed by the Sorento in 2002 and Amati in 2003.

2948_2010_Soul (1)It was obvious Kia was moving the brand upmarket in both offerings and in price. But as the model lineup continued to grow, Kia also focused on quality, safety, and value. The Sedona in 2002 earned Kia’s first five-star crash-test rating. Today, every model either has a four- or five-star NHTSA rating, and the Kia Soul and Optima are Top Safety Picks from the IIHS. The awards also were piling up, from Strategic Vision, AutoPacific, off-road racing, and press associations.

By 2004, only a decade after arriving on U.S. shores, Kia had firmly established itself as an automotive manufacturer that was gunning for the top. It was introducing second-generation vehicles, winning more awards, seeing sales of close to 300,000 units, and enjoying its 10th consecutive year of sales gains.

Another big milestone hit in 2006, with Kia selling its two millionth vehicle. It also announces the plans to open a manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia. Another big win for Kia was winning a J.D. Power and Associates initial quality survey for the Rio5 in the sub-compact category.

For its 15th anniversary in the U.S., Kia celebrated 15th years of increased market share, three million vehicles sold in total, and its first-ever Super Bowl ad.

In 2012, Kia entered the top 100 best global brands, was noted as being the world’s fastest-growing automotive brand, and another record year of sales. Kia also continued to see racing success with its Forte Koup in a variety of on-road racing events.

Kia Racing Sonoma 2014Today, Kia is at the height of its game. It’s number 74 for best global brands, and its value has increased 480 percent since 2007. It won the Pirelli World Challenge in GTS and TC-A classes, the Soul won the J.D. Power APEAL award for the third consecutive year, Kia is sixth among car manufacturers in J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, and its vehicle’s have never been better, judging by the third-generation Sorento (the first Kia built in America at the West Point, Georgia, facility) we just drove around Lake Tahoe, California this week. (Read the full review here.)

For 20 years, Kia has been successful, but not without some flaws. The Amanti sedan was an affront to styling, and didn’t last long in the lineup. There have been a fair amount of CEOs that have occupied the top office for the U.S. market, and a short period of uncertainty after the tragic death of the well-liked COO Greg Warner in 1998. Most recently, Kia was caught up in the overstating of fuel economy numbers that plagued other manufacturers. But on the whole, the brand has remained unscathed in an industry that is the first to be called on the carpet equally by consumers and the government.

For Kia, one has to wonder where (or if) it will end. The brand has sold over five million vehicles here, it is building a second plant in Mexico for North American production, there are 770 dealers across the country, many of which have started the remodel to what Kia calls a “gallery image” store, and there’s another Super Bowl commercial due in February 2015.

GT4 STINGERWhile FCA (formerly known as Chrysler) is reinventing itself for the umpteenth time, Lincoln is progressing on its reinvention plan, Mitsubishi’s working on coming back, and Cadillac is going through a sales crises, Kia continues its steady climb to the top. None of us should be surprised that, by 2034, while celebrating its 40th year here, Kia will be in the top five in sales, and still pushing forward.


 Photos courtesy of Kia Motors America and  © John Matras Media LLC