But Kia has surprised everyone, becoming the fastest-growing car brand in the U.S. in the last five years. It has just rolled its one-millionth built vehicle off its Georgia assembly line, and launched its first legitimate premium/luxury vehicle that costs above $40,000 fully loaded.
As the auto industry enjoys another exceptional year of recovery and sales in the U.S. this year, Kia is sharing in the party, expecting to top 500,000 sales a year for the second straight year. It could be more, but the company is hamstrung by supply of vehicles.
"Building one million vehicles in less than four years is a tremendous achievement and one that each one of our more than 3,000 team members can take great pride in," said Byung Mo Ahn, Group President and CEO for Kia Motors America and Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia. "People are the heart and soul of this company, and our team members' commitment to world class quality is one of the major driving forces behind Kia's unprecedented sales and market share growth in the U.S. over the last few years."
If Kia suffers from anything in the U.S. it may only be playing second fiddle to its bigger Korean brother Hyundai. The two companies are related, but compete against one another across the globe. Hyundai is Kia's biggest shareholder, and the two Seoul-based automakers share a chairman, vehicle platforms and powertrains. While Kia will sell more than a half million vehicles in the U.S. this year, Hyundai will sell closer to 750,000.
"Kia does live a bit in the shadows of Hyundai, and Hyundai is more an even competitor to Toyota and Honda these days for customers," says Los Angeles-based marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "But Kia is on its way, taking especially young customers away from everyone and weaving a constantly improving quality story."
Indeed, Kia finally cracked J.D. Power's Top Ten in the firm's annual Initial Quality Study this year, with the Sportage sedan and Soul hatchback leading their respective categories in the study. "Kia has made steady progress, and is a brand to keep watching," says J.D. Power's Dave Sargent, vice president of global research. "One of the things helping Kia with quality is that they are designing quality into the vehicles, as well as the manufacturing quality being good too."
The people of Georgia can be glad of Kia's success and Hyundai's choice to market both brands in the U.S. The West Point, Ga., plant started producing the Sorento crossover in November 2009 in the thick of the economic meltdown in the U.S. The plant has accounted for 11,000 direct and indirect jobs in the region. The plant was built with an initial $1 billion investment and has already been expanded with another $100 million to produce 360,000 vehicles a year. It also builds the Optima sedan there.
"We are very much our own brand, and our own business and I think we will keep growing in the U.S. -- we feel the wind at our backs," said Michael Sprague, executive vice president of marketing and communications in an interview with AOL Autos last January.
But are there speedbumps ahead? Bloomberg News noted last year that only 9 percent of new-car buyers consider a Kia. That compares with 20 percent for Hyundai and over 40 percent for Toyota. That is a problem of awareness on the part of shoppers. But as Kia has been advertising in high profile spaces like the Super Bowl and the NBA, awareness levels, and curiosity, keep climbing.
While the company is launching seven refreshed or redesigned vehicles this year including a total re-do of the popular Soul hatchback, the model that has the spotlight right now is the all-new Cadenza, a premium, if not true luxury, sedan that competes against vehicles like the Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse and Chrysler 300C and tops $40,000.
Kia's designs are part of the success. The company hired renown designer Peter Schreyer away from Audi in 2006, and his influence has been felt throughout the company with designed such as the Soul and redesigned Sorento, Sportage and now Cadenza. His design signature for Kia vehicles has been a "Tiger" nose. "Commenting on the then-new signature grille in 2009, Schreyer said "Tigers are powerful, yet kind of friendly". The nose is "three-dimensional - like a face, not just a surface with a mouth drawn on it."
Kia's ad slogan is "The Power to Surprise." Though it may take a few years for Kia's brand, known mostly for offering good values and compelling designs priced under $25,000, to surprise and attract higher income buyers who can afford a BMW 3 Series at $40,000, reviews of the car are hopeful. AOL Autos sister site Autoblog said this about the new Cadenza: "[After} spending a day with the Cadenza, it might want to consider changing its slogan to "Power to Frighten"... rival automakers. Of course, at this point, anyone who is surprised by Kia just isn't paying attention."
See full Autoblog review here.