Inertia Report: Why Kia May Be the Next Luxury Brand Coming Up
Climbing the Ladder
The Luxury Autos segment in the United States is vast. It is straightforward in vision, complicated in execution. It’s a hit or miss market. And this is made even more apparent by the fact that clearly, some companies are just untouchable by other companies in overall sales and in individual segments.
In the food chain of luxury, there is a hierarchy that hasn’t changed all too much in the past twenty years or so. Excluding the luxury boutique, the Bentleys and Rolls Royces of the world, in the mainstream luxury division, the top heavy hitters are German. BMW and Mercedes-Benz battle for supremacy at the very top of the pyramid, only challenged by lower companies in individual segments but unmatched in overall sales.
Below this German pair are the mid-tier companies, which can be mid-tier for a multitude of reasons. However, the main three reasons I find for why these companies are mid-tier are:
- They have a recognizable name, but no clear set-in-stone future
- They are a niche type company that overall just will never rival the top two
- To be taken seriously, they need to change brand awareness and perception and flesh out their lineups more.
These mid-tier companies have what it takes to implement strategies to seriously challenge BMW & Mercedes-Benz, but for whatever reason, choose not to, simply can't or no matter what they do, public perception wont change. However, that's a matter of brand perception. As an example, Volvo used to be where Audi was, as only graphic designers and architects were interested in them. Now both companies are good but not looked at in the same light as a BMW or Mercedes-Benz because of where they were in prior years. Examples of mid-tier luxury companies would be Alfa Romeo & Genesis, who are the new kids on the block, and Maserati, Jaguar, Land Rover, Tesla, Porsche, Audi, and Volvo.
Out of these companies, the aforementioned Audi has come the closest. Volvo also has what it takes, recently going through an entire brand renaissance but the consumers do not treat it and other companies like it as serious threats.
Below these companies are the low-tier luxury brands: companies in limbo with no clear direction where the hell they want to go. Acura, Buick, Chrysler, Lexus, Infiniti, Lincoln and Cadillac all fit this bill. It’s two steps forward, twenty steps backward with these companies and it’s overtly frustrating in the case of Infiniti & Cadillac, but what can you do?
Even below this low tier are companies that make one or two luxury cars with the rest of the brand appealing to average consumers. Jeep, Volkswagen, and Kia fit this bill. Kia, the last one mentioned of this trio, is the one that stands out to me. Quite frankly, I feel that with the right push in the right direction, a better marketing strategy, subtle changes to the lineup, and a performance division, Kia can be next in line to challenge BMW and Mercedes-Benz for the throne.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Kia as a serious competitor to BMW, Mercedes-Benz & Audi. Kia will jump the line ahead of Infiniti, Cadillac, Volvo, Alfa-Romeo, and Genesis, with the latter being ironic as Kia and Genesis are both owned by the same company, Hyundai. Well, that’s just absurd.
With the way the current lineup looks, you’d be right, it is absurd for now. But in the next four years, Kia may become a serious contender and the hints are there. Hyundai’s current new luxury division, Genesis, is currently making waves, just not the tidal wave that’s needed and that’s due to the lack of SUV’s on the lineup. But it shows that the Koreans can, in fact, make a solid luxury car. And where Genesis is lacking, Kia has it in spades. But there’s even more evidence to prove Kia may become a luxury brand. I introduce to you the Kia Stinger, K900, Cadenza & the new Telluride SUV.
Starting with the K900, the most interesting vehicle here to me at least: It’s a car Kia really shouldn’t have made. They aren’t a mid-tier luxury brand yet. They had no reason to challenge the Mercedes-Benz E & S-Class. And yet, lo and behold, this car exists. But why?
Because Kia felt like a change in direction was needed. The first generation K900 wasn’t all that, easily overlooked as a horrible attempt at making a luxury car. Unlike other brands, however, Kia learned from its mistakes, as the second generation K900 is leaps and bounds improved. There is still much to be desired and it kind of competes with Kia’s very own Cadenza but its most fatal flaw is the lack of recognition. Car & Driver puts it best, “The 2019 Kia K900 is far better than it has a right to be, but the large, luxurious sedan is an outlier that will likely remain lost amidst the rest of Kia’s much less expensive lineup.” Maybe that will change if they definitively made the K900 larger, stopped flirting with luxury, and embraced it and changed the rest of the lineup to become a luxury brand. We’ll know in four years.
The aforementioned Kia Cadenza is debatably more overlooked than the K900 is. Car & Driver puts it as, “Kia continues to redefine the meaning of "near-luxury," and the Cadenza is another solid example of its success.” The issue here being near luxury. It’s also apparent that Car & Driver does not think of the Kia Cadenza as an actual luxury car, pitting it up against dying Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, and Buick Lacrosse as well as the Toyota Avalon and the god damn Nissan Maxima and lackluster Chrysler 300. Hell, they even mention the Dodge Charger as a competitor. At least give me the Lexus ES, Lincoln Continental, Infiniti Q70, and Acura RLX as competitors. Editor’s choice be damned, this Kia can hang with those cars. Again, the issue falls down to brand perception and flirting with luxury. Stop flirting with it, don’t date it, MARRY IT!! It’ll be better for all parties involved, Kia and consumers. And on the other side, against the vehicles Car and Driver “feels” the Cadenza competes against, its days are numbered unless Kia becomes a luxury brand.
In the case of the Stinger and the new Telluride, the story is quite different.
The Stinger is a stand-out option in the sports-sedan segment, blindsiding the competition. It’s not the most luxurious entrant but its sporting capabilities can’t be overlooked, and for the price, it gets a four-out-five-star editor’s choice rating from Car and Criver as being a solid entry in this segment. Improvements would be to improve the “At-the-limit handling” and the interior but it’s already solid.
The Telluride, on the other hand, is an enigma. It looks like a luxury premium SUV. It has the presence of one. And I know this because recently, I was having lunch with my parents at Ikea and a Telluride rolled into the parking lot. My father looked at it and thought it was a Land Rover or a Bentayga and I had to correct him that it was a Kia. The look on his face was priceless, but he never took his eye off of it until it was out of sight. That SUV is an attention grabber and with more attention to detail, it could be a serious X5 competitor.
Kia already has a lineup filled with worthy cars and SUVs. Subtle repositioning and improvements in interior/ride quality are all it takes to push Kia to the top. Make the K900 a true S-Class competitor. Reposition the Cadenza as an alternative to the 5-Series and E-Class. The Optima & Stinger in their next generations should share the same platform. The Stinger should return as a BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe rival, spawning a coupe & convertible variants. The Optima should return as a sports sedan, closer to the BMW 3-Series and should also spawn a station wagon version. The Forte slots below that as a CLA competitor, returning in sedan and hatchback form. Below that is the Rio, also returning as a sedan and a hatchback as a Mercedes A-Class competitor. A specialty vehicle, preferably a grand touring, 2+2 performance car based off the Stinger GT4 concept from 2014, would really help as the company would suddenly have a real halo car.
The SUVs are also a simple matter of reshuffling. The Telluride as a BMW X5 competitor. The Sorento returns to the lineup as a premium luxury version of a Chevy Blazer sized CUV with the exterior styling to match its unique positioning. The Sportage returns as a BMW X3 competitor, along with more premium exterior styling. The Niro nameplate merges with the Kia Soul in 2024, taking more after the Niro’s styling as a serious CUV while slightly keeping what makes the Soul have, well, “soul." The new vehicle will still be called the Soul as well, utilizing a nameplate consumers recognize. Slotting below the Soul is the new Kia Signature, a rival to the inevitable A-Class spawned CUV in this segment. The Kia Mohave can eventually join the lineup, slotting above the Telluride as an X7 competitor. And we could even finally get a luxury minivan in the Kia Sedona. How cool is that?
This Korean conglomerate has shown that it can come up with potent I4’s, V6’s and V8’s so I’m not too worried about powertrains. Obtaining transmissions from ZF would bring more out of them. Making a performance division or at the very least, using GT and GT4 to designate performance car trim levels would definitely help. And improving the ride quality and handling as well as the interior luxury would propel Kia to the upper echelon of Luxury heights. Kia is poised to make such a move but will they? Only time will tell but I feel they are next to challenge the German throne. All eyes on the east.
© 2019 Joshua Nightshade