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Kia Went From Being the Butt of Jokes to One of the Most Reliable Automakers

It wasn’t all that long ago that Kia was considered the laughing stock of the automotive industry. In the early and mid-2000s, the brand anchored the bottom of J.D. Power’s annual Initial Quality Study (IQS). With nothing more than basic features and widespread problems like Sportage engines that would simply stop working, Kia owners hated their vehicles.

Then in the 2010s, the tide began to turn. J.D. Power named Kia the No. 1 brand in its 2016 IQS, the first time in nearly 30 years that honor didn’t go to a premium brand like Lexus or Acura. Kia hasn’t fallen out of the top three ever since. Rising from literal bottom to top in a relatively short amount of time is no easy feat, so what changed? 

From worst to first 

In its early days, Hyundai also made inexpensive cars that were largely regarded as failures, frequently topping lists of the worst vehicles. Kia benefited from watching the fellow Korean automaker’s blunders and, according to Popular Mechanics, the brand spent more than one billion dollars in research alone to improve the quality of its vehicles.

On top of the extensive — and expensive — market research, in 2006 Kia also hired designer Peter Schreyer, who was behind the famous Audi TT. Shortly after Schreyer’s arrival, things started looking up. The cheeky Soul was a sleeper success and sales gradually increased. Still, how can a company that uses rapping hamsters in marketing expect consumers to take it seriously? 

One aspect of Kia’s plan was to distinguish itself from Hyundai, which meant increasing their prices slightly. There’s a difference between “bargain” and “value,” and Kia wanted to separate itself from being a bargain brand. While prices increased, so too did the level of luxury in Kias. The Stinger, Telluride, and Cadenza are especially luxurious but cost a fraction of their luxury brand counterparts, which is partially why the brand has been so disruptive.

Award after award . . . after award

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If you’re still skeptical about Kia, don’t just take our word for it — the proof is in the pudding. The list of awards Kia and its vehicles have won in just 2020 is astounding.

Kia has more 2020 vehicles with IIHS Top Safety Pick and Top Safety Pick+ designations than any other automotive brand, and U.S. News named it the 2020 Best SUV Brand, dethroning Honda, which had held the top spot since 2016. The Soul EV was named World Urban Car, and the Telluride won the World Car of the Year at the World Car Awards, two highly coveted honors. 

Speaking of the Telluride, the SUV appears to be on track to be one of the most awarded vehicles ever. Autotrader named it a Best New Car of 2020, NACTOY awarded it 2020 North American Utility Vehicle of the Year, and it was named MotorTrend’s SUV of the Year. Phew.

How exactly did Kia up its game? 

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Ready to launch into the new year. #KiaStinger

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So Kia brought in a new designer and made more luxurious cars, but was there more to its success formula? According to a 2019 Forbes interview with COO Michael Cole, yes — it was all about branding.

Cole explained that the automaker created “a brand personality that was different from its competitors—one that was fun, humble, honest and didn’t take itself too seriously,” but its vehicles also “suit the needs of every driver today.” That’s the truth; buyers can choose from the funky Soul, the BMW-rival Kia Stinger, or a myriad of in-betweens.

In addition to top-notch design, Kia focuses largely on the dying art of the human touch in making its vehicles. Where most plants are run almost entirely by machines, more than 3,000 humans work at the West Point, Georgia facility, triple- and quadruple-checking each and every vehicle on the line and occasionally even hand-stoning door panels. That’s impressive — enough so that Kia is worth serious consideration.