"The truth of the matter is we have some pretty damn good quality." – Michael Sprague

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.

"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."

2015 Kia K900

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.


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