Kia’s Reputation Was Never as Bad as People Thought

Kia hasn’t always been the popular Telluride creator it is today. The Korean carmaker has slowly risen to the status it currently maintains in the industry. But where did it get its bad reputation? Where Kia cars ever really that bad? How did it come to be one of the most reliable car brands if it started out so terrible?

2021 Kia Nightfall Edition parked in dirt
2021 Kia Nightfall Edition | Kia

The team at Kia stuck it out over the past couple of decades to make a name for the automotive brand. Now it is a prominent figure in the global auto sales market. And, according to at least one list of the worst cars ever, Kia didn’t deserve its bad reputation. Today, Kia actually claims some good cars––some of the best in the world.

Where did the name Kia come from?

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According to Griffin Kia, Kia opened its firs plant in 1973. The Brisa, Kia’s first car was produced a year later. But where did the name Kia come from in the first place? Griffin Kia reports that the name translates to “rising out of Asia.”

The Kia Motors Wikipedia page says that the name came directly from a combination of two specific characters from the Sino-Korean alphabet. Ki, which translates to “to arise,” combines with a, or “East Asia.” Together, the characters come to mean “rising from the East.” So, the regrettable motif that Kia stands for ‘Killed in Action’ is far from the truth. In fact, Kia is probably one of the most reliable car brands.

a green Kia Soul at speed on the highway
Kia Soul | Kia

Kia Motors America, Inc.

In 1973, Kia built its first plant in South Korea. Brisa, Kia’s first production car, released a year later. Then, in 1986 Kia teamed up with Ford. At this point, Kia had been limited to building only trucks. With the new Ford partnership, Kia went from 26 trucks to producing 95,000 trucks in the year 1987. This success led to the production of cars like the Kia Pride and the Kia Avella. Ultimately, Kia made its way to US soil.

A Kia K900 on display at an auto show
Kia K900 | Jeff Schear/Getty Images for Kia

According to the Kia Motors Wikipedia page, Kia came to America in 1992. Kia built its first American dealership that year, and by 1995 had dealerships in 30 states. The automaker first just sold very basic and inexpensive cars, and their bad reputation arose in part from the low pricing. Plus, Kia definitely always one of America’s most reliable car brands. Additionally, according to Griffin Kia, the motor company took a huge blow from the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

The motor company’s hard work paid off

But the carmaker did not give up. Kia watched the automotive industry. And Kia learned. According to Popular Mechanics, Kia poured resources into researching how to improve the quality of the products it manufactured. But it was a bit of an uphill battle.

Things really began to change for Kia when the motor company hired the designer Peter Schreyer, who worked for Audi. This was in 2006. In 2009 the Kia Soul released. But back then Kia still struggled with its bad reputation. Even though the cars were looking better than ever and the reliability was on the up and up, the goodwill of American buyers wasn’t easy to come by.

A model poses next to KIA Optima SW GT during the Geneva Motor Show 2016
The Kia Optima | Harold Cunningham/Getty Images

J.D. Powers

There was a great turning point for Kia Motors America, Inc. When it received the award for the most reliable brand from J.D. Power, things really started to change in the minds of consumers. This was in 2016 and, according to Wikipedia, it was the first non-luxury brand to win the J.D. Power award for model reliability since 1989.

A 2020 Kia Soul EV on display at an auto show
A 2020 Kia Soul on display | Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

After this, and the famed tour through South Korea that Pope Francis took in a Kia Soul, Kia’s reputation starting looking up. In fact, the Kia Soul won a World Car award for 2020 and the Kia Telluride won 2020’s overall World Car of the Year award. There are also other popular models like the Kia Stinger. When you combine boosted quality with good reviews and awards––and a warranty like the one Kia offers––it’s hard to go wrong.

CarComplaints worst cars

For a car brand that was supposedly so awful in its earlier years, we’d expect to see some Kia models on the worst vehicles list by CarComplaints. However, there is not one Kia on this list. There are several Hyundai models, but Kias are a Korean auto product that didn’t land a single model on the CarComplaints list of worst vehicles.

2017 Kia Sorento driving through a snowy and icy mountain road with evergreen trees and rocks in the background
2017 Kia Sorento | Kia

You Probably Won’t Regret Buying a Kia Anymore

We expected to see at least an older Kia Sorento model on the list. But there isn’t one to be found. It is one of the most reliable car brands now, but perhaps it wasn’t ever as bad as people thought. Maybe Kia didn’t really deserve its bad reputation.