Kia is on pace to post it best-ever sales year in the United States, yet executives admit the company is still hampered by the lingering memories of its old products, which were often viewed as cheap and unreliable.
"The truth of the matter is we have some pretty damn good quality." – Michael Sprague
"Quality continues to be an issue for us from a perception standpoint – not from a reality standpoint," said Michael Sprague, Kia's executive vice president of sales and marketing.
For emphasis he added: "The truth of the matter is we have some pretty damn good quality."
Scores from J.D. Power and others bear this out, though Kia is still frustrated that public perception has lagged. This has led to a number of high profile – and expensive – efforts to change the hearts and minds of consumers, including signing NBA mega star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers as a spokesman. James, a noted car aficionado, is being used to pitch the K900, Kia's first luxury sedan. Though the K900 isn't expected to generate a large sales volume, Kia hopes the V8-powered, rear-wheel drive luxury car will burnish the brand's image.
"It's definitely helped to change the perception of the brand," Sprague said. "We're selling a $65,000-vehicle. Very few brands do that."
While a large luxury car seemed like an unlikely product for Kia even a few years ago, the company has also launched another improbable venture, a racing program, in an attempt to connect with enthusiast customers. In the last five years it's collected six championships, 15 race wins and landed on the podium 44 times, a solid start for a company with little performance history. Kia wouldn't specify how much money it's spent on motorsports.
"The whole purpose of literally doing the racing is to change people's perception about the brand," said Russell Smith, owner of Kia's motorsports partner, Kinetic Racing. "It reinforces the marketing."
While it's been a slow process, Kia has seen movement in its image, helped in part by a string of eye-catching concepts penned by president and design chief Peter Schreyer's team. Most recently, the GT4 Stinger, a concept that debuted in January at the Detroit auto show, turned heads and raised the possibility of a future Kia sports car.
"Design will continue to play an integral role in our transformation as we move forward," Sprague said.
Still, as much as Kia would like to put its past behind it, issues like overstating fuel economy figures continue to linger. This week Kia and sister brand, Hyundai, announced they had agreed to pay the Environmental Protection Agency $100 million in fines and give up millions of emissions credits.
This incident, which has been public for two years, hasn't dampened sales, and if they remain at their current clip, Kia will pass the 600,000-unit mark this year. Clearly, Americans are willing to buy Kias in significant numbers for their affordability, value and practicality. It's a logical purchase, but as the image issues fade, Kia hopes that someday buying its cars will be an emotional one.
Other News and Views
Ford Mustang, Jeep Wrangler among SEMA show winners
Believe it or not, there actually are winners at the SEMA Show, and four familiar suspects took home awards this year. The Ford Mustang won the hottest car award for the third straight time, fueled by more than a dozen pony cars on display at the Ford stand, which were supported by other variations in the booths of individual tuners. The Jeep Wrangler won the four-wheel-drive SUV category, the Chevrolet Silverado was named the top truck and the Honda Fit earned the award for sport compacts.
SEMA officials determine the awards by surveying exhibitors. They're actually a forward-looking honor, as the association recognizes the vehicles it considers "the top enthusiast prospects for the coming year," Chris Kersting, SEMA chief executive, said in a statement.
FCA retires the Pentastar
The newly-minted Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is retiring the famous Pentastar emblem, which has been used for everything from hood ornaments to aftermarket parts. There's also a prominent Pentastar-shaped window on the top of Chrysler's headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI.
The merged company will use the acronym "FCA" spelled out in clean lettering as its logo going forward. While FCA will be the official emblem for the new firm, the Pentastar will still be used on certain parts and restoration and heritage items, a spokesperson said. The window, which is built into the facade of Chrysler HQ, will also remain.
2016 Jaguar F-Type gets all-wheel drive
The 2016 Jaguar F-Type sports car is getting all-wheel drive, and the new model will debut later this month at the Los Angeles auto show. With all four paws clawing the tarmac, Jaguar estimates the F-Type R coupe will be able to hit 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Jaguar also confirmed plans to grow the F-Type lineup during the 2016 model year, likely meaning convertible models will also get all-wheel drive.
Meanwhile, Jaguar also announced a partnership with Bloodhound SSC, a British program that is attempting to raise the land-speed record to more than 1,000 mph. The cooperative was launched when an all-wheel F-Type was used for communications support during a recent Bloodhound test in South Africa.