Detroit Free Press (MCT)
Kia Motors America is finding it harder to operate under the radar these days.
This year, the company known as the other Korean carmaker, likely will sell more than 500,000 cars and crossovers in the United States for the first time since entering the market in 1994.
Tom Libby, analyst for R.L. Polk’s North American sales forecasting group, said Kia is fielding new cars and crossovers at an impressive pace — nine products in 30 months, to be precise.
“They just go from one product to another — consistently and relentlessly redesigning their products,” Libby said. “Frankly, I think it is driving the industry to change.”
Often overshadowed by its larger corporate sibling, Hyundai, Kia expects to sell more than 100,000 of three models in the United States for the first time ever this year. Two of those three — the Optima midsize sedan and Sorento crossover — are made at its plant in West Point, Ga., about 80 miles southwest of Atlanta.
Kia, like Hyundai, has combined edgy styling and low prices with out-of-the box marketing to carve out a growing niche.
Kia began to turn heads in March 2009, when it introduced the funky, angular compact Kia Soul. The Soul has succeeded where other boxy competitors like the Nissan Cube and now discontinued Honda Element have flopped.
“That’s kind of the line in the sand for us when life as we knew it changed,” said Tom Loveless, vice president of sales for Kia.
Kia sold 102,267 Souls in 2011 compared with 17,017 Scion xBs, 14,459 Nissan Cubes and 11,534 Honda Elements.
“It wasn’t just a one-hit wonder,” said Michael Sprague, Kia’s vice president of marketing and communications.
Last year, Kia launched redesigned Optima midsize and Rio compact sedans. Through March, Rio sales are up 119 percent; Optima sales rose 127.5 percent.
“The net for our brand gets cast wider and wider,” Loveless said. “Now more than ever, value has become the new cool.”
To be sure, Kia benefitted in 2011 as Toyota and Honda struggled with inventory problems caused by Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.
Still, Kia almost certainly will gain market share for the 18th consecutive year. Through the first quarter of 2012, its U.S. market share has increased to 4 percent from 3.4 percent a year earlier.
Kia has also hit its stride with marketing. The cheerful dancing hamsters in commercials for the Soul have become instantly recognizable ambassadors for the Kia brand.
This year, Kia paired Motley Crue and Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima in a Super Bowl commercial for Optima that shamelessly teased young men. The brand also has featured NBA superstar Blake Griffin in a series of TV ads.
Kia could probably use a few more male buyers. According to TrueCar.com, Kia has the third-highest percentage of female buyers in the U.S. At the Chicago Auto Show in February, Kia upstaged other automakers as it unveiled a concept car called the Track’ster while Chicago cover band Hairbangers Ball blared a version of Motley Crue’s 1987 hit “Wild Side” across the convention center. The Track’ster concept is a performance coupe that promises to be even edgier than the Soul.
“What we are trying to do is position the brand as a fun brand,” Sprague said. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously but we have a great product.”
But for all of Kia’s brash marketing and recent growth, the brand often flies inconspicuously compared with Hyundai, its corporate sibling.
Seoul-based Hyundai owns 34 percent of Kia. Globally, the two automakers sold about 6.5 million vehicles in 2011, making it the fifth-largest global automaker.
“They are always kind of in the shadow of Hyundai, just by nature of how the company is set up,” said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of Totalcarscore.com, an online automotive evaluation site.
In the U.S., Hyundai is led by John Krafcik — a charismatic American who is an engineer by training but has a knack of making dramatic presentations at auto shows and other industry events. When it comes to Kia, even industry insiders struggle to name CEO Byung Mo Ahn.
Ahn was named president and CEO of Kia Motors America in February 2008, but rarely speaks at industry events.
But this year, Kia has one very important advantage over Hyundai: enough production capacity.
In 2011, Kia invested $100 million to expand the 300,000-vehicles-per-year Georgia factory to make an additional 60,000 vehicles a year.
The Optima, Kia’s top-selling vehicle, and the Sorento, its third best-selling vehicle, are both built at the Georgia plant, which opened in November, 2009. The Santa Fe midsize crossover also is produced there.
This year, Loveless said, Kia will gain a combined 100,000 cars and crossovers in additional inventory for sale in the U.S., which is Kia’s largest market.
Hyundai, in contrast, has nearly maxed out production at its Montgomery, Ala., plant where it builds the Sonata midsize sedan and its Elantra compact car. “There is a certain amount of priority that will be given to this market in terms of the growth,” Loveless said.