When someone tells me they’ve spent (or planned to spend) any time at a KIA dealership, I find it all too easy to ‘go cynical’. As someone who came of driving age in the mid-90’s, I was a fresh driver/car-buyer during those early years, when KIA’s presence started to gain a greater visibility in the U.S. And while the KIA moniker was certainly on the tips of people’s tongues at that point, the words being spoken weren’t always complimentary. Sure, the automaker was making a hard play for those in search of economy but, with their modest approach, were they (dare we say) doing so at the price of performance and compelling design?
I’m still among those who would argue that they were and approaching a quarter of a century behind the wheel, KIA has done little to change my mind. But that’s what sleeper hits do, move silently in measured steps until they reach the point where they simply can’t (and won’t) be ignored.
And as of March of this year, it had become clear they had reached such a point. Claiming “8 Million Reasons to Celebrate” (aka 8 million vehicles sold to-date) KIA had reached a major landmark along the course of their twenty-five year stateside journey. No longer the proverbial ‘new kid on the block’, the Korean automaker had proven itself to be more than just a timely flash in the pan. Continual evolution had expanded their lineup well beyond the accessibly-priced yet passively-designed offerings of the past, and KIA was showing more willingness than ever to shatter harmful preconceptions.
With one foot in the past, KIA is now celebrating each global milestone within their seventy-five-year legacy; and with both eyes trained on the future, they’re doing more than just delivering on what they think people need. Newer offerings like the Stinger and Telluride (just to pick a couple) show an ability to predict what people actually want, and their bold embrace of such products are likely to help them develop more notoriety than being celebrated for their “tiger nose grille” (a turn of phrase which I’ve read, and written, too many times to count).
That said, let’s take a few minutes to explore the commendable ‘hits’ (& inevitable ‘misses’) of KIA’s 2019 lineup to see what captures our eye (and maybe even a little bit of our ire).
Our Picks for KIA’s Best
Currently priced to start around the $32,990 MSRP the 2019 Stinger is the concept vehicle we were shocked to see make the jump to a production model. If you had asked a few years back we’d have told you, point black, that KIA’s best when it’s not trying to punch outside of their weight class. In other words, we would have said that they should shy away from attempts at performance, elegance luxury. With a surprisingly aggressive GT design, the evolving concept had captured our curiosity. But it was 365 hp, 376 lb-ft of torque and 4.7-second sprint to 60 mph, that helped the Stinger to capture our attention. With clear performance credibility and a genuine sense of refined curiosity, it was hard to fight back.
We may tend not to agree with many of the award winners named by industry auto shows and celebrated publications but – thanks to the Telluride – KIA was a genuine contender for the “Best in Show” award they had won at the most recent Detroit Auto Show. A unique take on KIA design philosophy managed (somehow) to deliver something equal parts rugged and aspirational… Needless to say, they got us again. Priced to start around $31,690 MSRP the AWD three-row SUV offers seating for up to 8 passengers, 291 hp and a 5,000 LB towing capacity. Across four trim levels, the Telluride covers both accessibility and luxury, creating one of the most surprisingly satisfying cabin experiences around. And since KIA avoided total abandonment of KIA’s trademark modesty when it comes to design theory, it still feels on-brand, rather than a rip-off. Long story short, the Telluride deserves to be atop most SUV wish lists.
So… What About KIA’s Worst?
Okay, I might catch some slack on this one, but here we go. First things first, we’d have less issue with the Niro if it was offered exclusively as an EV. While KIA might argue that someone uninterested in an EV might still like the Niro’s design, we’d be equally inclined to laugh. It’s simply not a very compelling design, and it only becomes aesthetically palatable on the Sportage and Sorento because of their larger footprint. Sure, there’s the fuel economy, but there’s a far larger segment of car buyers that still want a little pretty for their penny. In terms of appearance, we’d argue that the Niro is ruled all but redundant when placed alongside the Soul (which incidentally predates it by two years). Basically, it feels ill-placed, and not only in terms of design relevance but also of price point. Starting at $23,490 MSRP the Niro is only outpaced by the Sportage by $260. That’s a small gap, any way you cut it. If you can make fuel economy that accessibly-priced, why include it in such a redundant offering rather than seeking further economies to be offered? Ah, maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age.
Remember earlier when I mentioned “punch(ing) outside of their weight class”? Well, who’s got two thumbs and ain’t about to be approached by KIA waving a $55,900 price tag? This guy. If I’m paying out that much money for a sedan, I want the bragging rights associated with a big name. There’s no way I’m telling someone I just bought a $60 thousand dollar KIA. Can you imagine the jokes people would make? Boasting sophisticated styling, we find ourselves pouring through photos of the K900 wondering what so-called experts are talking about. KIA’s equivalent of a Ford Taurus makes no effort to embrace bold, out-of-the-box styling that which made them so successful with the Stinger and the Telluride. As a result, they aimed for refinement and landed on uninspired. The K900 lacks any real sense of intent or even the slightest hint of an identity. Some might praise the 3.3-liter twin turbo V6 and it’s 365 hp as some sort of saving grace, but it feels like too-little/too late in this tale of not trying hard enough. And with the decline of sedan sales, KIA would be wise to cut their losses and focus on what they do best.
Is There a KIA Out There For You?
It’s not our place (or even desire) to say. Giving due credit to KIA for their impressive efforts ranks among the hardest pills we’ve had to swallow in 2019. But their hard-earned longevity and ever-increasing loyalty rating has proved many of our nineties selves wrong. We’re still not sure that we’d ever seriously consider buying a KIA but, all things being equal, it has become far more appreciable to understand why there is so many people who have.