How KIA Fought Back Against Perception…and Won – Freehold, NJ
At least in terms of those seeking out a Kia Dealership, NJ drivers seem to be experiencing the same kind of casual surprise many Americans are, in regard to the way they perceive the Korean car brand.
Truth be told, it’s been a lot of fun to witness. It first comes on a wider scale, with increasingly more compelling offerings being served up and garnering recognition, accolades and industry awards while managing to turn heads. On a more intimate level, it comes with the often humorous arrival of someone at a Kia dealership, almost as if they’re uncertain of what brought them there but really curious about some of the game-changing offerings.
If today’s lineup is any indication, the last quarter-of-a-century(plus) has been kind to the Kia brand. Despite the longevity of the innovative 75-year old brand, Kia really didn’t become a stateside presence until the mid-90’s, and even then it revealed itself in small and measured steps. Emerging out of the Pacific Northwest, their American story began with an ever modest four dealerships. From 1994 to 1995 Kia saw that number increased to 100 dealerships across 30 states. And while there might have been a few challenges to overcome in those early years, the partnership between Kia and their (now) parent company Hyundai forged ever-forward and has provided endless opportunities for continual evolution since they joined forces back in 1997.
If you’re anything like me (a dinosaur), you can probably remember a time when the general interest in owning Kia was modest at best. Those who loved the brand made no secret about it, fueling exponential growth – but even by 2000 Kia was still the proverbial ‘new kid in town.’ People needed convincing; they demanded visible longevity. And in that regard, Kia prove eager in their desire to rise to the occasion. If it’s true that ‘slow and steady wins the race’ Kia’s commitment to changing perception was bound to pay of. And by last year, it was becoming hard to argue that they’d been successful in their attempts.
So, with all due respect to the Sorentos, Sedonas, and Souls out there (among others) but I want to talk about a couple of models that have pushed the Kia brand free of the restrictive mold of public opinion.
A friend once told me that the first Kia to have ever turned his head was the Stinger, back when it was simply being pitched as a GT concept. In all fairness, it was hardly the first time I’d heard it and (professional discretion aside) I might have even shared in that particular sentiment (don’t tell anyone). It was the first time I’d felt like Kia was stepping confidently outside of their comfort zone, but when you have a former VP of BMW driving its development it would be hard to expect anything less than a game-changer.
And Albert Biermann (as well as his team) pulled off something truly special in the Stinger. With two powertrain options, the Stinger offers refined performance, two words that we wouldn’t previously have associated with the brand. The direct injected 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 delivers 255 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque with a 5.9-second sprint from 0-60mph. Nothing wrong with that. But the 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 wrangles 365 hp and 376 lb-ft of torque, while sprinting to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. In other words, you had my curiosity Kia… Now you had my attention.
Fastback silhouette. Longer. Low-slung cabin. Longer wheelbase. These are not the kind of terms you’d normally associate with Kia. Hence the collective gasp of guilty surprise that it inspired, simply by being a thing of genuine beauty.
But the sculpted proportions of the Stinger’s fastback-inspired GT styling combined with the aggressive realization of Kia’s design philosophy helped to define, what I feel, could be their strength in the model years to come. It feels on-brand with Kia as a whole, but it steps just daringly enough outside of the norm to achieve something truly special, with a personality all its own.
Upon its reveal, the Telluride floored the industry with its high-end, aspirational aesthetics, carry of competitive technologies and the space provided by its three-row design. When the plans were announced by Kia to deliver a three-row crossover, people might have gotten hung up on their memories of the 2009 Borrego, but the Telluride is its own beast, able to go head-to-head against the likes of the Honda Passport or the Jeep Grand Cherokee. In fact, it proves on the bigger end of the segment spectrum, besting the Chevy Tahoe in terms of passenger room.
In terms of powertrain, the Telluride shows a confident sense of refinement. There’s a single option available, in the form of a direct-injected 3.8-liter V6 paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. But a 291 hp rate is nothing to shake a stick at, nor is a 262 lb-ft torque rating. Factor in well-mannered handling and the assurance of a firm weighted ride and it’s easy to see why so many crossover enthusiasts are so taken with the Telluride.
But let’s stop and appreciate the superficiality a bit. No-one expects Kia and Range Land Rover to occupy the same space (and we’re not making any claims that the Telluride makes that happen). What we mean is that there are certain expectations of Kia design philosophy, and they’re not always universally appreciable (having even been described as “passively rounded”). That said, the Telluride embraces a more adventurous direction in terms of its overall aesthetic, one that almost echoes some of the strengths of Range Rover design. Squared-off and more aggressively ridged than most Kia, the Telluride feels like a rugged, off-roader. It looks like it’s ready for an adventure, and both consumers and industry press sat up and immediately took notice once it was unveiled. It’s bold. It’s fresh. It’s daring without the risk of being offensive to the eye, or to the brand as a whole. Like the Stinger before it, the Telluride is a genuine game changer.
Whether we’re talking about a commercial brand, or even ourselves, battling perception can be one of the most difficult challenges to be faced. As such, it proves one of the most satisfying victories if we’re able to overcome the challenge and change how we’re viewed by others.
It’s visible in the smile of those who visit a Kia dealership, unsure of what to expect. Those who walk around a Kia vehicle and are taken back by how much they appreciate the confidence of our iconic design philosophy. Those who take a test drive and find themselves surprised by the comfort and capable performance a Kia offers.
This isn’t a commercial. It’s just a first-person testimonial of the effect of Kia’s evolution that so many of us witness on a daily basis. With a few new offerings, the industry has thrown around terms like ‘game-changer.’ And you know what? They’re right. Kia is a game-changer.
But you know what else?
Kia always has been…