How Kia Took the Top Spot for Initial Quality From J.D. Power

2016 Kia Optima SXL
2016 Kia Optima SXL | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

There’s no other feeling like betting on the underdog, and it blasting the competition in its entirety out of the water. When we first ran a piece on why buying a new Korean car is a wise decision, we found a rift of indignation and praise among readers. For many, the thought of a Korean car trumping all other automakers in initial quality sounds like sheer folderol, but the minute they climb into a 2016 Kia Optima SXL like the one seen here, all those preconceived notions suddenly start to shift.

When Kia Motors was recently named No. 1 by J.D. Power in its 2016 Initial Quality Study (IQS) out of 33 auto manufacturers in the American market, it raised buzz here at the office. It’s not every day that you get to see a little company like Kia best everyone out there including luxury brands like Porsche and Lexus. According to Kia’s press release, “this was the first time in 27 years that a non-premium brand has topped the rankings.”

2016 Kia Forte5 SX
2016 Kia Forte5 SX | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

While small touches like the diamond stitched Chesterfield leather seats in the Optima SXL assisted in Kia’s rise to the top, it was the segment-defying Sportage and Soul that really pushed the envelope, followed by the Rio, Forte, and Sorento. All of these vehicles rank in the top three of their respective categories, which is impressive considering how relatively new this brand is to American shores. Kia has only been in our market for 21 years now, and while we all agree that its earlier creations were — err — “middling” to say the least, its recent models are nothing short of outstanding.

Today’s Kia is a totally different kind of Kia than what you may remember. It’s one that balances a blend of technology, quality, and value with well-timed professional sports partnerships and creative advertising concepts that include things like break-dancing hamsters and a very colorful Christopher Walken. Throw in the fact that famed German designer Peter Schreyer of Audi fame is now working alongside former Bentley and Lamborghini design director Luc Donckerwolke in order to create new vehicles, and you add a whole new angle to the game.

“Ranking number one in the entire industry for initial quality is the result of Kia’s decade-long focus on craftsmanship and continuous improvement, and reflects the voice of our customers, which is the ultimate affirmation,” said Michael Sprague, chief operating officer and EVP of Kia Motors America. “As the highest ranked brand in the industry, there is no doubt Kia is a world-class automaker.”

Kia Sorento SXL
Kia Sorento SXL | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Kia Motors America (KMA) also currently stands as the official automotive partner of both the NBA and LPGA, which puts its logo on things like basketball jerseys, which has apparently paid off in spades after setting an all-time annual sales record last year. From a numbers perspective, Kia’s U.S. sales have also consistently grown over the last four years, thus surpassing the 600,000 annual unit mark and making it a far more significant player in the American market.

After entering the IQS top 10 for the first time back in 2013 Kia kicked ass in order to climb through the ranks, eventually placing second in the industry last year while leading all non-premium makes by a healthy amount. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the IQS survey, with researchers reviewing thousands of responses from vehicle owners over 26 segments.  A broad overview shows that the standard IQS ranking is primarily determined by vehicle owner feedback, where they evaluate things like driving experience, engine and transmission performance, and a broad range of quality-related problems that might pop up within the first 90 days of ownership.

Kia Sedona
Kia Sedona | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Currently, Kia’s lineup of vehicles includes everything from the luxurious $67,000 K900 flagship sedan to the surprisingly agile redesigned Sportage compact CUV. Naturally, there are quite a few other cars that the Korean automaker creates for our market, and the only major gap we can see as of now is a pickup truck, the absence of a rear-wheel drive sports car, and a higher-horsepower hot hatch option.

Distributed to the masses via a vast network of more than 765 dealers spread across the United States, Kia says it looks to maintain its perch atop the automotive mountain with a series of refreshes, overhauls, and new vehicle launches in upcoming years. With headquarters in Irvine, California and a manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia that cranks out Optima and Sorento models at a torrid pace, Kia now boasts more than 15,000 plant and supplier jobs on its employee roster, giving even more reason for us to believe that it is here to stay.