The New Quality King: Kia

Forget Audi, BMW, Buick, Lexus, Infiniti and Porsche. The new king of quality is Kia Motors, according to this year’s J.D. Power Initial Quality Study (IQS). The South Korean company had the best score among 33 brands measured, with just 83 problems per 100 vehicles (PP100) reported during the first 90 days of ownership of 2016-model vehicles. 

While it may be best known for its cutesy dancing hamster television ads, Kia’s meteoric rise to the top is no fluke. The company entered the U.S. market in 1992 and received a major boost when Hyundai purchased a controlling stake in it in 1998. Over the last few years Kia has shown a dramatic improvement in quality, performance, design, sales and overall appeal. The company has reduced its PP100 every year but once since 2005 when it finished in a tie for 30th place with a dismal score of 140. After cracking the top 10 in 2013, Kia earned a tie for 6th in 2014 and catapulted to a surprising 2nd place last year by lowering its PP100 19 percent to just 86. 

Company officials made good on a promise to win the 2016 title by dethroning Porsche, which had been the reigning champ three years running. Porsche finished second this year with 84 PP100, followed by Hyundai (92), Toyota (93) and BMW (94). 

Kia’s victory marks the first time a non-luxury marque has won the IQS title since Toyota achieved the feat 27 years ago. As a whole, non-premium brands had fewer problems than their luxury counterparts (104 vs.108 PP100) for the first time since 2006. The overall industry average improved six percent, which is the largest year-over-year jump in seven years.

Kia attributes its first-place finish to a “decade-long focus on craftsmanship and continuous improvement.” The effort kicked off with the hiring of design chief Peter Schreyer from Volkswagen/Audi in 2006 and continued last year with the addition of Luc Donckerwolke, who will succeed Schreyer at the end of 2017. Donckerwolke previously was the design director for VW’s Bentley and Lamborghini supercar units. 

Kia’s quality gains are even more impressive considering they have come as the company has added models and boosted its sales volume, which soared nearly eight percent last year to a record 625,800 units and is up another 5.6 percent through the first half of 2016. The company also has continued to add content, including advanced safety and telematics systems that tend to be the most problematic when it comes to consumer satisfaction.

Two of Kia’s nine vehicles were rated best in class in this year’s IQS study, with the Sportage winning the small SUV category and the Soul taking top honors among compact MPVs. The Forte compact car and Sorento midsize SUV finished second in their segments, while the Rio was deemed the third best small car. Kia, which also sells the Cadenza, Optima, Sedona and its flagship K900, now fields a nearly full vehicle lineup in the U.S.—with the exception of pickup trucks—and plans to launch several redesigned and all-new models in coming years, including a rear-wheel-drive sports car, several new hybrid-electric variants and a fuel-cell vehicle. 

Kia also fared well in a recent assessment by Consumer Reports and a dealer satisfaction poll conducted by the National Automobile Dealers Association, earning top 10 finishes in both. But it’s not all good news. The company received a below average score in J.D. Power’s latest Dependability Study, which tracks the PP100 scores of three-year-old vehicles. And it finished near the bottom of the pack—topping only Scion and Smart—in last year’s ALG consumer perception survey. 

The mixed results indicate Kia still has a way to go to secure its place among the automotive elite, especially when it comes to winning over new customers. Perception can trump reality for non-owners who view Kia as it was 10 to 15 years ago when the company had a reputation for making cheap vehicles with shoddy quality. Transitioning off that hamster wheel will require sustained long-term quality.  

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With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public 
relations company.