I find it fascinating how Korean companies Kia have become synonymous with both value and quality, and how these companies have raised themselves from a “sub-par status” to a genuine contender in today’s market. Once considered a cheap alternative to buying Japanese, these two firms have invested insane amounts of capitol in the American market since the mid-1990s. They also have spent large sums on developing their own brand identities, creating their own high-tech R&D departments, and purchasing legitimate materials that rival those found on vehicles costing twice as much. So how is it that these Korean companies have gone from worst to first?
Kia’s history started with bicycle manufacturing in the early 1950s, and by the 1970s the company had shifted to the manufacturing of motorcycles, cars, and trucks. It later partnered with Ford in the 1980s to make versions of Ford/Mazda collaboration cars, and by 1994 Kia had outgrown its humble roots and began selling the Sephia and the Sportage in America. But the Asian financial crisis forced Kia to file for bankruptcy, at which point Hyundai took over the company and to this day remains majority stakeholder. Over the next decade Kia grew slowly but steadily and became a genuine contender as it fixed its earlier miscues, opened a U.S. corporate headquarters and design center, and solidified its dedication to the American market in 2010 with the opening of its Georgia manufacturing plant.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for these Korean car makers, and back in the 1980s and 1990s many Americans avoided these “Japanese wannabes” for fear of poor craftsmanship and public ridicule. These fears were rightly founded, as early models from either maker was typically appalling on every level. But after equally rocky starts, and incessant criticism from both critics and consumers alike, these Korean firms began to gather some steam in the American marketplace and are now giving companies like Honda, Toyota, and BMW genuine cause for concern as the world realizes that it is OK to buy Korean.
1. Good value
What started out as just a cheap Korean economy car has blossomed into quite the value-packed product, as Kia continues to offer more for less. Features that were often reserved for high-end luxury makers like Lexus and BMW can now be found on many models, and it is not uncommon to run across amenities like genuine Napa leather interior, heated rear seats, automatic high-beam assistance, and ventilated front seats. All of these features come at a fraction of the cost of their Japanese and European competition.
Sick of people calling its products crap, Kia rolled-out an industry first 10-year/100,000-mile warranty in 1998. Labeled as “America’s Best Warranty,” this warranty covers the powertrain, a 5-year/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper coverage, 5-year/60,000 miles roadside assistance, five years of rust protection. Kia saw an 82% sales jump the year after the program was put in place.
3. Turbocharged and hybrid-powered
Kia was quick to hop on the hybrid bandwagon a few years back, and with the aforementioned lifetime battery warranty and favorable reviews, it is no wonder that the hybrid versions of these cars are selling well. The hybrid versions of the Optima is no slouch either, with the vehicle topping-out around the 200 horsepower mark. But some of us don’t give a hoot about fuel efficiency, and just want some uncompromising power. Korean auto makers were tapping into this trend way before most, so while auto makers are scrambling to put turbos on their engines to increase power bands, Kia has already been established as turbo specialist.
Eric Schaal/Autos Cheat Sheet
4. Cute and quirky
Kia has something for those of us who aren’t into turbos and hybrids, and surprisingly it is still fun and fuel-efficient. With budget-minded Generation Z buyers demanding tech-savvy, compact economy cars, it is no wonder that cars like the Soul are proving to be popular with today’s car buyer. These cars are affordable, adorable, and completely quirky in their own technology-laden little ways.
5. Individualistic options abound
Tired of blending in and looking like everyone else on the block? Korean car companies have been listening to Americans gripe about this for decades, so they have rolled-out tons of customizable options as well as luxury vehicles like the K900 and Cadenza.
Once considered a hideous laughingstock of the automotive community, modern Korean cars are actually becoming quite sharp looking. From the use of LED illumination, to redesigned lines and interior cues, all the way to performance aero kits, recent models from both manufacturers are truly a step above previous generations. A dozen years ago no one was ogling a Korean car save for the sticker price on its windshield, nowadays fully-furnished models are cause for statements like, “There’s no way that’s a Kia.”
7. Improved quality
Long gone are the days when people complained about inferior Korean quality. These cars are made in America
, offer fantastic value for the money, and every year land tons of awards for their overall quality. This shift all started back in 2004, when Kia shocked everyone when it tied with Honda for initial brand quality in a study by J.D. Power and Associates. It then placed third overall in J.D. Power’s 2006 Initial Quality Survey, trailing only Porsche and Lexus. Meanwhile Kia
has been busy cleaning-up as well, winning awards recently for its safety, design, and ingenuity.