Kia Motors America is finding it harder to operate under the radar these days. This year, the company, known as the other Korean carmaker, likely will sell more than 500,000 cars and crossovers in the United States for the first time since entering the market in 1994.
Tom Libby, analyst for R.L. Polk's North American sales forecasting group, says Kia is fielding new cars and crossovers at an impressive pace — nine products in 30 months, to be precise.
"They just go from one product to another — consistently and relentlessly redesigning their products," Libby says. "Frankly, I think it is driving the industry to change."
Often overshadowed by its larger corporate sibling, Hyundai, Kia expects to sell more than 100,000 of three models in the United States for the first time ever this year. Two of those three — the Optima midsize sedan, Kia's top-selling vehicle, and Sorento crossover, its third best-selling vehicle — are made at its plant in West Point, Ga., about 80 miles southwest of Atlanta.
This year, Kia has one very important advantage over Hyundai: enough production capacity.
In 2011, Kia invested $100 million to expand the 300,000-vehicles-per-year Georgia factory to make an additional 60,000 a year.
The Georgia plant opened in November 2009. The Santa Fe midsize crossover also is produced there.
Kia, like Hyundai, has combined edgy styling and low prices with out-of-the box marketing to carve out a growing niche.
Kia began to turn heads in March 2009, when it introduced the funky, angular compact Kia Soul. The Soul has succeeded where other boxy competitors, such as the Nissan Cube and now-discontinued Honda Element, have flopped.
"That's kind of the line in the sand for us when life as we knew it changed," says Tom Loveless, vice president of sales for Kia.
"It wasn't just a one-hit wonder," says Michael Sprague, Kia's vice president of marketing and communications.
Last year, Kia launched redesigned Optima midsize and Rio compact sedans.
"The net for our brand gets cast wider and wider," Loveless says. "Now more than ever, value has become the new cool."
To be sure, Kia benefited in 2011 as Toyota and Honda struggled with inventory problems caused by Japan's earthquake and tsunami.
Still, Kia almost certainly will gain market share for the 18th consecutive year.
Kia has also hit its stride with marketing. The cheerful dancing hamsters in commercials for the Soul have become instantly recognizable ambassadors for the Kia brand.
"What we are trying to do is position the brand as a fun brand," Sprague says. "We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we have a great product."