How Kia Evolved From a ‘Used Car Alternative’ to the Maker of the Best SUV

If you were paying attention to cars in the 1990s, you probably weren’t thinking of Kia as one of the top manufacturers. It was a sort of so-so car brand that made almost comical SUVs like the original Sportage that looked almost like something you’d put a penny in the back of to make it run. Yet the Kia car and SUV models of today couldn’t be any further from the original Kia vehicles. They’re not only super stylish, they’re also incredibly reliable, safe, and fairly affordable for what they offer. Here’s how Kia went from ‘eh’ to amazing.

A blue 2022 Kia Sportage is parked.
A blue 2022 Kia Sportage is parked | Kia

Kia has been in the United States for 25 years

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While Kia has been in the United States for years, it’s only recently that it has become a name synonymous with excellence. Forbes talked with Michael Cole, the chief operating officer and EVP of Kia Motors America to learn more about how this transition took place. One thing that Forbes learned from Cole is that Kia has been “quietly improving their vehicles” during this time. It’s been quite a transformation, especially since, as Cole noted that “when the first U.S. Kia dealerships opened in 1994, the brand was considered a used car alternative.”

Kia‘s true beginnings happened well before its debut in the United States. It was originally founded in 1944 in Korea and initially began by making bicycles. Kia says that “movement has always been at the heart of our brand.” Today its headquarters remain in Seoul, South Korea and is the second-largest automaker in South Korea behind Hyundai.

The Kia Soul marked the beginning of the Kia revolution

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Cole points to the 2009 Kia Soul as the beginning of Kia’s transformation to the car company that it is today. Cole called the Soul “a funky, boxy vehicle that allowed Kia to create a brand personality that was different from its competitors—one that was fun, humble, honest and didn’t take itself too seriously.”

Kia also set about making design and engineering changes, enabled by hiring “industry legends” and creating a “full line of diverse vehicles that suit the needs of every driver today.” By doing this, Kia completely changed the way people thought about the brand. As the vehicles became more popular and safety awards started rolling in, the Kia brand became one that buyers flock to.

Kia makes some of the best SUVs and cars today

What’s Behind the 2021 Kia Telluride’s Almost Perfect Consumer Reports Road Test Score?

Kia earns awards for many of its vehicles these days. Most notably, the Kia Telluride has been racking up awards like an IIHS Top Safety Pick award, a Best Family Vehicle award, and a Best 3-Row SUV for the Money award, as well as U.S. News’ overall Best Car for the Money. In addition, the Kia Carnival, Seltos, Sorento, and Soul are all IIHS Top Safety Picks.

What does this mean for the future of Kia? If it were up to Cole, he’d want “those who may not have previously considered Kia to look beyond the badge and explore everything the brand has to offer.” If the trend of award-winning, super safe SUVs and cars continues, it’s likely that the Kia brand will be a mainstay for some time.

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