Kia Proving Critics Wrong: More Models Coming In Addition To Its Surprise Car

Hyundai's sister company making waves of its own in the automotive world

In June of 2010, website 24/7 Wall Street chimed in with a list of "Ten Brands That Will Disappear in 2011." On the list, because the editors clearly knew little about the industries about which they were writing and some of the companies they were condemning, was Kia Motors.

It was nonsense. Disappear? Kia is a brand on the come. It was then, and still is now. It is part of the Hyundai Motor Group "chaebol," which is a South Korean conglomerate of associated companies. Not only has killing Kia never occurred to management (whom 24/7 did not bother to talk to), but this week the company is introducing a new Kia Rio sedan and five-door hatch, as well as an update of its successful Kia Soul five-door sub-compact at the New York International Auto Show.

The star of Kia's show stand, though, may not be the new models, but the Kia Optima sedan, which went on sale in showrooms last Fall, and is easily the most surprising new car out of the dozens of new vehicles driven by the AOL Autos staff lately.

What is so surprising about the Optima? The overall look and feel of the sedan, whose previous design that barely qualified as a disappointing rental car (as in...really? an Optima? Do you have anything else?) is as premium as a Volkswagen or Honda, but costs thousands less. Kia designers, for example, cleverly angled the cockpit controls ten degrees towards the driver. It is an effect that BMW used to employ on some cars and differentiates the Optima nicely from the Hyundai Sonata with which it shares an engineering platform and engines.

It is striking, though, how Kia, which is still striving to get on shoppers' radar after almost two decades in the U.S., crafted the interior of the car with such high quality materials and tight- fit-and-finish that it's hard to believe it doesn't score higher on some quality rankings. Toyota, for one, can't claim to do it as well.

Now, what's all this noise about Kia disappearing? The 24/7 Wall Street site was on the right track when it named GM's Saturn to one of its lists. But the killing off of Saturn was in the wind for some time as the automaker was headed for bankruptcy and critics consistently pointed to GM's redundant brands. Ditto the website's prediction about Borders Books, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy now.

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In condemning Kia, the website's editors reckoned that Hyundai would go the way of GM and came to the conclusion that it did not need two overlapping brands. Kia and Hyundai have vehicles that do compete in the same space: Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent; Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata; Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento.

But there is plenty of differences between the two companies and their brand personalities have clearly diverged. Most importantly, though, for Kia's future, is that the company wants the two brands to operate globally to capture as much market share as possible. Hyundai and Kia have unique approaches to design, from steering wheel design to climate control and navigation controls. And as well-received and awarded as the Hyundai Sonata has been, the Optima's design is in many ways more pleasing. [See entire Autoblog review on the 2011 Optima]. The little brother out-performs the older sibling.

If Kia has an issue to overcome, it's quality as measured by some of the third party firms. While Hyundai has made huge leaps in quality in the last decade, reaching and, at times, passing short-term quality measures done by J.D. Power and Associates on Toyota and Honda, Kia has been climbing at a slower rate. In last year's J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, which measures quality based on surveys from owners of vehicles filled out after three months of driving, Hyundai was well above industry average and number-eight overall, while Kia was 17th and below industry average. Company officials believe Kia will climb in the rankings when owner surveys on the new Optima come out and give the brand a boost.

The Rio has long been popular and really caught on with buyers during the 2008 economic meltdown that was accompanied by rising gas prices. The new models are wider and longer than the vehicles they replace, yet deliver better mileage -- a bit more than 40 mpg on the highway. To achieve that economy Kia turned to new Direct-Injection technology, as well as Idle Stop-Go, which instantly shuts off the engine when idling, and then automatically restarting when the driver's foot lifts off the brake.

The updated Kia Soul, meanwhile, is expected to get about 35 mpg in highway driving.

Last year, Kia Motors sold over two million models globally, an increase of 26%. In North America, Kia sold 410,150 vehicles, an increase of 18.5%. That was more vehicles sold in North America than Volkswagen.

Going away? The only direction Kia seems to be headed is up.

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