For Kia, 2012 was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Well, for the last four-odd years it’s been mostly the best of times — an era of unprecedented growth for the upstart Korean marque. One of the fastest growing automakers in the United States, Kia has doubled sales since 2008. But the worst of times arrived in late October, when the EPA charged Kia and parent company Hyundai with inflating official mileage estimates.
Kia and Hyundai have since issued contrite apologies, offered their explanations and paid some penance — both in reputation and financially, to the tune of $187 million for Kia alone. But sales numbers haven’t slowed, and experts think that resale values won’t be hurt in the long run either. And hence Kia has put that ugliness in the rear view mirror.
Which brings us to two of the brand’s newest models: the 2014 Forte compact sedan and the mid-size Sorento SUV, landing amidst a Kia spring blossoming. In the past 30 or so months Kia unveiled nine new products, a rebirth that started with the quirky Soul in 2009 and is exemplified by the Optima, a superstar that’s now among the best-selling midsize sedans (whoever came up with that Blake Griffin/dunk contest detonation deserves a promotion).
Kia’s facelift can be attributed to chief designer Peter Schreyer, the German responsible for styling Volkswagen’s 1998 Beetle and the original Audi TT. Plucked from the VW Group in 2006, Schreyer demanded Kia junk what he called a “neutral” look for its own cogent design cues, namely the “Tiger Nose” grill. This movement has proven so successful that Schreyer was named Kia’s president less than two months ago — becoming the first non-Korean to hold the seat.
Having a designer in charge pays dividends with the new Forte, arguably the best looking compact car for sale in America. Its cab-forward style not only increases the Forte’s greenhouse but also conveys a sporty, coupe-like look, aided by optional 17-inch wheels that add an upscale touch. Inside the Forte develops the same driver-oriented cockpit as the Optima, and while this works great for the driver, it penalizes the front passenger. A 10-degree angle adjustment may be subtle, but trying to change radio channels riding shotgun during the test drive in Arizona was a frustrating and arm-stretching ordeal.
For tech, the Forte packs the usual accouterments, from USB ports to Bluetooth connections, along with higher-end options such as power folding mirrors and HID headlights — a sizable roster for a name built on value.
The mid-size Sorento SUV has undergone so much change that most automakers would call it close enough to all-new. But its development embodies the critical Hyundai-Kia conundrum: both brands want to remain fiercely independent and be seen as singular entities, yet as they evolve their chromosomes mutate closer to the other.
Two years ago, Hyundai moved production of its own mid-size crossover SUV, the Santa Fe, from Alabama to Kia’s factory in western Georgia. The idea for moving Santa Fe production to the Sorento plant was so the two models could share more parts from the bin — a thrifty move for the bottom line, but one that inevitably brings them ever closer together. Considering its new chassis, new base powertrain (its 2.4L direct-injection engine is now standard) and re-designed exterior, why not call the Sorento “new”? Because that would leave the life cycle of the Sorento incestuously close to its Santa Fe cousin. Both brands wail about their independence like twentysomethings still living at home, but when you share a house and a bank account, it’s not the strongest argument.
The Sorento is a fine crossover SUV, reasonably attractive in a segment that's about as exciting as wet socks. It too comes with a suite of optional amenities like Torque Vectoring Cornering Control, sunshade blind on the 2nd row windows, new panoramic roof, dual-ventilated front seats and optional heated second-row seats — unique to the segment. But what truly highlights both the Sorento and the Forte is how considerate they are.
The touchscreen navigation is understandable in seconds. When playing a song on your iPhone via the stereo there’s no need to press a fast forward or rewind button — just move the slider to whatever point you want on the track. These may seem like minor details, but they are what separate a vehicle from its competition. The $100,000 2013 Range Rover I drove just the week before lacked an extendable sun visor for the driver, resulting in a scorched and throbbing forehead. Both the Forte and Sorrento had them.
Which brings us to the future of Kia, which at the Detroit auto show in January debuted its Cadenza, the new flagship in the Kia line-up. Built from the skeleton of the full-size $32,200 Hyundai Azera, the motivation for the car came from the high number of Optima sales going for $25,000 and beyond. When a journalist asked why Kia was treading into the premium cars, an executive brashly retorted “Why not?”
The confidence isn’t necessarily arrogant or undue — if a hole exists in a market, why not try to fill it? But there’s an air of cockiness in Kia, and it’s growth means it has some house money to play with. If the Cadenza fails, well then so what? The only other option is to surrender the segment. And in 2013, Kia has no plans to acquiesce anything.
Beyond the Cadenza lies the realm of executive sedans that Hyundai has tried to broach with the $36,000 Genesis and the $50,000 Equus, with modest success. Kia already sells the Genesis-based Quoris in South Korea, Russia and the Middle East. Could a “value” brand like Kia, even one which has made such major gains, make a splash with a luxury model? The auto industry knows what happened with Volkswagen’s stab at the segment with its ill-received Phaeton, but that stumble doesn’t seem to scare the Kia cabal. And at this point, why should it?