Kia Motor's evolution from a budget company to an aspirational brand

By George Kuruvilla

Published: Thu 11 Mar 2021, 5:38 PM

Last updated: Thu 11 Mar 2021, 5:56 PM

Back in the nineties, Kia Motors was seen as a company that manufactured vehicles that you bought if you couldn’t afford a decent, reliable Japanese car, like a Honda or Toyota. They were bargain vehicles that were built cheap and did not last. These days, though, their narrative has changed dramatically. Their vehicles are not just hanging with the elite in the affordable segments, but also rubbing shoulders with products by established luxury and performance brands.

Ground zero

The Korean automaker started off selling bicycles. If you thought that was disparate, know that automotive giant Toyota was at one time an automatic loom manufacturer. As time progressed, the Korean company moved onto manufacturing Honda-licensed motorcycles in 1957, built Mazda-licensed trucks in 1962 and even produced the Mazda-based Brisa cars from 1974 up until 1981, when they were forced to shut shop.

In 1986, Kia partnered with Ford to reinstate their production activities and sold few rebranded vehicles to the States. But it was only in 1992 that the first Kia-branded vehicles hit showrooms in America. They started with four dealerships in Portland, Oregon, and then gradually built over hundred other dealerships across 30 states. By 1995, a record 24,740 automobiles were delivered to customers, but even then, things didn’t pan out as planned and Kia had to declare bankruptcy in 1997. They were soon acquired by their current owners Hyundai, which initially took over 51 per cent of the brand, beating Ford. As of 2021, Hyundai’s stake has dropped to 33.88 per cent, but Kia has been on an uptrend.

Driven by design

In the early years, Kia was pushing their products through affordable MSRPs and 10-year warranties (in some markets). Even today, in the UAE, you can benefit from their 5 Years/150,000 km warranty plan. But realising that this wasn’t a solid growth strategy, they looked to rebrand the company by acquiring foreign talent. The move of ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer to Kia in 2006 sparked a revolution in their design department. The creator of the famed Audi TT and other Audi and Volkswagen models helped them diverge from conservative styling ideas to awe-inspiring models. In many ways, his time in Kia was more prolific than that in Audi.

Under his design tutelage, Kia vehicles gained a much-needed identifier i.e. the ‘Tiger Nose’ grille. This motif, which can be seen as the equivalent to the BMW’s kidney grille, could be shortened, lengthened and stretched in all directions, allowing it to be adapted to a whole range of vehicles. This signature would make Kia vehicles instantly recognisable. In 2011, with the launch of the third generation Kia Optima sedan and Sportage crossover, Kia blossomed into a stylish-yet-affordable automaker.

Diversifying their portfolio

Today, Kia has grown to point, they offer about 19 models in the UAE (some of which are outgoing models). They range from the cheap-and-cheerful, Dh35,900 Picanto to the luxurious S-Class rivalling K900 which starts at a hefty Dh249,000; and everything in between.

The evolution of the firm wasn’t limited to design. In 2014, they also put Albert Biermann on their payroll. With him came his 30-year experience in BMW. He certainly had a part to play in improving vehicle dynamics overall and in the introduction of the no-compromise Stinger high-performance sedan (technically, a hatchback) in 2018. This move would have been something unthinkable from the Korean automaker a decade ago, but it has come in a good time and has added another compelling facet to this brand. The Stinger, with the available turbocharged 3.3-litre 6-cylinder engine churns out a potent 365 bhp and 510 Nm of torque and delivers it to the rear wheels like a proper “driver’s car” should. For about Dh170,000, it is one of the quickest ways to get to hundred kmph in under 5 seconds.

Also creating waves is the newish Kia Telluride SUV — the sister to Hyundai Palisade. It has earned major awards from key review organisations.

Yet another vehicle that deserves mention is the all-new 2022 Kia Carnival. In a world where car companies are turning their rugged SUVs into crossovers, Kia has taken their less-desirable MPV and given it an aspirational SUV-like silhouette.

Jose Muñoz, the Global Chief Operating Officer, said the firm was late on delivering SUVs, but it wants to take the lead in the electric car market.

Bringing on a team

Understanding that brand value is not just about cars and that it is also about what it supports and who it is supported by has led to several major endorsement deals. Kia has teamed up with global icons like LeBron James, Rafael Nadal, Manny Pacquiao, Michelle Wie and Badr Hari to spread the word. It also signed contracts with actors like Pierce Brosnan, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Walken and Tiger Shroff. Kia even got a lot of press when Pope Francis rode in a Kia Soul during his trip to South Korea.

By sponsoring a variety of sporting events, such as the Archery World Cup, Asian Games, Australian Open, FIFA World Cup and even the X Games, they have attempted to cultivate a large awareness for the brand across demographics.

Quality over quantity

Evidently, fit-and-finish has improved over the years, but the one department that Kia has struggled with is quality. But even breakdowns and major recalls are looking like views in the rear-view mirror now. In the past five years (2015-2020), Kia has been recognised as the highest ranked mass market brand in initial quality. Without doubt, this is one among the many reasons why Kia Motors has either seen a growth or not suffered as much a sales deficit as some other established players during the pandemic.

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