The upscale Kia Telluride is evidence that Kia not only can, but will, build a good car that people actually want to buy.
Kia, along with Hyundai and Genesis, are offering stylish, sporty, quality cars at good prices. It's a trend worth watching.
It's also a trend the South Korean automakers need to stick with if they want to surpass industry giants like Honda and Toyota.
It wasn't that long ago that cars from Korean sister brands Hyundai and Kia had a reputation for being cheaply built and horribly unreliable. Buyers conflated their economy pricing with sub-par quality to the detriment of the automakers. But that is no more.
Within the last 15 years or so, Hyundai and Kia shed their crap-can reputations and instead focused on making cars that people actually wanted to buy - quality cars that looked good and were good to drive, too.
Perhaps the most shining example of that is the new Kia Telluride, a midsize three-row SUV named after a posh ski town in Colorado. Kia started selling it in the spring of 2019, and you people went nuts for it.
SUVs in general have enjoyed strong sales here in the US for years. But when it came to the Telluride, things felt different. It felt lavish. Unlike its competitors. Like it belonged in at a higher price point than Kia gave it. The Telluride felt like a crowning moment of just how far Hyundai and Kia have come.
It, plus the other offerings out of South Korea, hopefully symbolize a willingness to commit to what it takes to challenge current industry giants like Honda and Toyota - and if Hyundai and Kia do commit, those giants will be in for a fight.
Selling like hotcakes
Much of the Telluride's initial coverage focused on how popular it was. It's called the Kia "Sell-u-ride" internally, Automobile Magazine reported. Dealers couldn't keep them on their lots because demand was so high, CNN said. Kia couldn't build the Telluride fast enough to meet the need, The Car Connection wrote.
When the Telluride came out, I'd never seen such astonished headlines about one particular SUV before. There must have been something different about this Kia that was causing buyers to flock to it, so I went and reviewed one to see what all the fuss is about.
And you know what? I get it.
The outside of the Telluride is striking. With its big, wide grille, its own name - T E L L U R I D E - stamped in silver lettering across its nose, its stacked headlights and square, orange daytime running lights, the Telluride's face is not one that blends in with the rather bland SUVs it competes with. The perennially popular Toyota Highlander, conversely, is rolling anonymity.
The Telluride is bold. It demands attention. And it doesn't look like anything Kia has ever made or currently makes. If you covered up the badge, I probably wouldn't have even thought it was a Kia at all.
Inside, it's the same story. High-quality leathers, wood-appearing trim, simulated brushed metal switches and dials. Refinement, spaciousness. Upscale.
Rap on the dash with your knuckles and it doesn't respond with that cheap, clacky, plasticky response. Toggle the air vents and they slide smoothly in their sockets. Close the doors and they return a satisfying thump.
Fully loaded, my review Telluride came to just under $50,000. It was an incredible amount of car for the price, punching far above its weight and infringing dangerously close to luxury automaker territory.
Building the good cars
This upward trend with South Korean automakers started a few years ago and it might just give them a fighting chance against the Japanese ones - provided they keep investing the time, money, and resources required for maintaining that momentum. Because, so far, the cars have been good.
The Telluride's biggest draw is that it offers an upmarket product that's priced lower than many of its competitors.
There still might be a struggle with brand recognition issues over at Hyundai's new luxury arm, Genesis, but the quality of its cars is undeniable. The G90 and G80 sedans are executive and just as comfortable to ride in as they are to drive. The G70 sport sedan is light-footed and fun, especially when paired with a manual transmission.
The Hyundai Sante Fe I tested in 2019 was tastefully upholstered inside. The new Tucson and Sonata are dazzling to look at. The Hyundai Veloster N remains one of the best and most fun cars I've ever driven, and it starts at about $30,000.
You know about the Kia Telluride. But before that, the Kia Stinger sport sedan came bursting out of the gates with a hatch-style trunk and sharp looks, winning Business Insider's 2018 Car of the Year award.
These cars are proof that style doesn't always have to command top dollar. In fact, it shouldn't.
The ascent of South Korean automakers in the US public consciousness only started happening within the last 15 years or so.
A 2004 story in The New York Times reported that new-car buyers ranked Hyundai above any domestic or European automaker in J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. It was the first time this had ever happened.
The story quoted the agency's then executive director of quality and customer satisfaction, Joe Ivers, as saying: "A decade ago, as Korean manufacturers struggled with a universally poor reputation for vehicle quality, no one would have predicted they could not only keep the pace, but actually pass domestics and other imports in terms of initial quality."
That wasn't the whole story, though. The outlet pointed out that Kia continued to be a "subpar performer in the initial-quality rankings."
"And in J.D. Power's most recent study of long-term reliability, which many in the industry consider to be a more important barometer, the Hyundai brand ranks near the bottom of the industry and Kia is dead last," The New York Times wrote.
This is no longer the case.
In 2018, the three highest-ranked brands on J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study were Genesis, Kia, and Hyundai. That same year, Consumer Reports named Genesis the top brand in the US. This past February, Genesis was ranked first on J.D. Power's Vehicle Dependability Study.
In a matter of a few years, the results have almost completely reversed themselves.
Gone are the days when you'd reject a Kia simply because it was a Korean car. Han's casual dismissal of Hyundai in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" doesn't hold the same type of punch-down humor it once did.
You do get the sense that Hyundai and Kia are still figuring out a cohesive design strategy - all BMWs look like BMWs, but not all Kias and Hyundais look like Kias and Hyundais yet - but as for what's underneath? They've got that on lock. Based on what I've seen in just the past few years, what's to come can only get better.
There's still a long road ahead if the brands want to displace industry titans like Toyota and Honda - and even Nissan - of course. Hyundai and Kia account for just 8.1% of the market share in the US, The Korea Times reported in 2019. That was despite the greatly improved products.
That modest market share is also comprised of weak segments - hatchbacks and compact sedans, as well as low-margin cars - so Kia and Hyundai must build up numbers there, too. Headline-grabbing Stingers and Tellurides can't net all of the sales, after all.
But it's an optimistic spot to be in all the same. The crap-can reputation is a thing of the past, and that accounts very powerfully for public perception. With the Telluride especially, Kia has shown that it not only can, but will, build, execute, and sell a quality car that people actually want to buy.
The trick is to carry that same energy over to everything else.
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