TORONTO — Kia is Canada’s ninth-largest auto brand by total sales, and has been the recipient of numerous quality awards, including taking the top spot in J.D. Power’s annual Initial Quality Study this year.
It's evidence that the Korea-based brand is shedding a decades-old reputation of its vehicles merely being better choices than buying used.
It’s an image that new Kia Canada CEO Kyle Lee must address. Lee, the former chief executive coordinator at Kia Motors America, replaced Sean Yoon in early March. Yoon became CEO of Kia Motors America.
Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates, said the quality of Kia vehicles has increased substantially over the past several model years because the company put an emphasis on simplicity. For example, its infotainment systems are generally regarded as the most intuitive on the market. In large part because of that, the brand topped J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study in 2017 for the second consecutive year, beating out luxury brands such as Genesis, Porsche and BMW.
“It really stems from how they initially design and develop the vehicles,” Sargent said. “Quite a few years back, they really took it on themselves to get a deep understanding of what consumers were looking for in their vehicles: layout, simplicity of controls, simple interfaces.”
It was not too long ago that things were different for the brand. In 2011, before beginning a steady climb up the rankings, Kia finished tied for 18th among all brands in the Initial Quality Study.
RENTALS AS TEST DRIVES
Steve Carter, director of marketing at Kia Canada, said the brand faces a “familiarity” issue in Canada. Kia has sold vehicles in the market only since 1999, decades after Toyota, Honda and the Detroit Three established themselves.
“At some point in your life, you’ve probably driven in a Toyota or a Ford or a Honda,” he said. “For us being so new, people have heard of us, but they aren’t familiar with us. We’re trying to get consumers to become more familiar with our product.”
Carter said Kia Canada sees rental vehicles as a way to get more people behind the wheel, while the company has also invested significant resources into its visibility. “One of our priorities with our auto shows here in Canada is to get consumers to sit and spend some time in the interior of our vehicle, because we think when you sit in and look at some of the touchpoint and the layout of the vehicle, it’s those subtle differences that differentiate us from our competitors,” Carter said.
Carter said the brand began its turnaround in 2006 when Peter Schreyer, formerly of Volkswagen and Audi, was hired as Kia’s global chief design officer. Since then, Carter said Kia has established a design identity that makes its vehicles more recognizable, and has maintained an emphasis on simplicity and doing the basics, particularly in infotainment systems, better than anyone else.
“The product look, the product quality, the technology integrated into it has changed considerably over that period of time, so much so that if anyone had engaged with Kia seven or 10 years ago, they wouldn’t even recognize the product today,” he said, pointing to the 2011-model-year redesign of the Optima sedan as a turning point.
Since 2006, Kia’s annual sales in Canada have more than doubled to 76,504 units (2017) from 29,569. Compared to 2016, 2017 sales were up 6.7 per cent, although that’s still shy of the record of 77,800 units sold in 2012.
Tony Faria, co-director of the Office of Automotive and Vehicle Research at the University of Windsor, said much of the brand’s growth in Canada can be attributed to relatively low prices.
“For the money, I think you get a very good product. If consumers are looking for bang for their buck, they’re not a bad option.”
Carter said Kia Canada has been working to build further interest by attempting to associate some of its vehicles with different lifestyles through its “Made for People Like You” marketing campaign.
He said, for example, that the company is attempting to market its utility offerings to people who lead an active lifestyle and to those who enjoy the outdoors.
UALITY IS KEY
Still, whether Kia can reach its sales targets in Canada will likely come down to whether the brand can maintain high quality and build a solid reputation as a result.
Sargent said Kia has an advantage over other automakers because its global leaders have put an emphasis on simplicity.
“They probably made less compromises than anybody else,” Sargent said. “That’s not necessarily good or bad, that’s the path they decided t take. There are some tradeoffs there in terms of cost and speed to market and the ability to add lots of cool features but they decided they had to deal with the quality issues first.”
It’s because of that leadership structure that Kia is likely to largely maintain high quality moving forward Sargent said.