Michael Sprague, executive vice presi-dent of Marketing and Communications for Kia Motor America, admits that if you go back nearly two decades, Kia had a lineup of products that were “pretty nondescript.”
Fast forward to today, and one could make an argument that with products like the Sorento crossover and the Optima sedan, Kia has undergone a radical transformation, where design is certainly taking a leading position in the showroom. When you take a designer like Peter Schreyer, put him in charge of your design organization, then make him a president of the company, well, the results are anything but style-neutral.
According to Sprague, the Kia brand is becoming associated with the likes of Google and Facebook, which may seem to be something of a stretch, but then if you consider that there is a whole generation of people for whom Toyota and Honda are probably considered old school and brand loyalty is given way to a “what have you done for me lately?” mentality, then perhaps it isn’t too much of an exaggeration.
Sprague says that Kia has undergone significant sales growth in the U.S. during the past five years, but that 2013 will be more sedate (“a year of modest growth”) for several reasons, including the need to sell down some outgoing products (e.g., the Soul, which will be replaced by an all-new model before the year is out), as well as “a focus on quality. We need to make sure these new products are right. We are holding back things a little bit.”
Which is textbook brand-building done right. Things gone wrong can spread through social networks with a speed that makes 4G seem slow. Good looks only go so far. “Value is the new cool,” Sprague says. And it is hard to calculate value without quality.
Sprague describes the Optima as a “game changer” for Kia. What is probably more accurate is that when it comes to the midsize car category, the 2011 Optima put Kia in the game with the likes of the Sonata (its platform mate, a fact that is acknowledged but not discussed at any great length—hang on to that for a moment), Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima.
A funny thing has happened on the road to relevance and desirability. It seems that there are people who have come to Kia from other nameplates—including luxury brands—and have checked all the boxes for an Optima and have said, in effect, “Is that all there is?”
These are people who are looking for value and are willing to pay more to get the sort of value that one associates with a product that could be a Buick LaCrosse or a Ford Taurus or an Acura TL or a Lexus ES or a Nissan Maxima or a (new) Chevy Impala or a Toyota Avalon or a Lincoln MKZ. Not the sort of vehicles that one would associate with a car from Kia.
And so there is the 2014 Kia Cadenza.
Back to that value proposition. This car is offered with one trim level—“Premium”—and two packages on top of that. The sedan, with its 293-hp, 3.3-liter gasoline direct-injected V6 and six-speed automatic, has an MSRP of $35,100 (add $800 for destination and delivery). So what does that come with?
(At this point I’d like to recommend that product planners from other vehicle manufacturers go get a cold compress for application to their foreheads before reading any further.)
Among the standard features are an 8-in. navigation system with Sirius Traffic; UVO eServices telematics; 12-speaker, 550-W Infinity audio system; Bluetooth with audio streaming; smart key entry with pushbutton start; rear camera; leather seat trim; heated front seats; power 10-way driver seat; power 4-way passenger seat; power folding outside mirrors with integrated LED turn signals; perimeter approach lighting; illuminated scuff plates; dual exhaust with chrome surrounds.
Remember: that’s standard.
And while the content goes up from there, the walk to the top goes to the Luxury Package at $41,100, which includes a variety of tech from adaptive cruise control to lane-departure warning to water-repellant (hydrophobic) front side win-dows to radar-based blind spot detection.
It is worth noting that this is a solidly built car (built, incidentally, at the Kia Hwasung Plant in South Korea), as 60% of the structure is high tensile-strength steel. Orth Hedrick, director of Product Planning for Kia Motor America, says that this extensive use of the steels is for safety. He also cites the advantage of a rigid structure to reduce NVH—and because the fundamental structure gets you only so far in terms of making a quiet cabin, they’ve deployed a hydraulic transmission mount, a specially tuned damper on the rear cross member, applied triple door seals, and even designed the wheels with multiple fins that reduce wind noise at highway speeds.
But back to the Hyundai Azera. The Cadenza and the Azera share the same platform. Yet they are not the same car, not by any means. Even the dimensions are different:
2014 Kia Cadenza 2013 Hyundai Azera
Length: 195.5 in. 193.3 in.
Wheelbase: 112 in. 112 in.
Width: 72.8 in. 73.2 in.
Height: 58.1 in. 57.9 in.
Base curb weight: 3,668 lb. 3,605 lb.
And visually, there is a tremendous difference, with the Cadenza having a more vertical orientation (“It has the highest headroom in its class,” Hedrick says), with chrome accents that are befitting what is the flagship for the brand. The Azera has a sportier design, as it has both the Genesis and Equus models above it in the vehicle hierarchy.
If there is anything to be said about the two cars, it is that by sharing the platform development both brands probably gained an advantage regarding investment costs, which allows the tremendous contenting of the cars, as we’ve seen is the case with the Cadenza.“We are good at learning from others,” Sprague says. “We studied the competition in all respects. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we do it better?’”
Doing it better in this context means designing and engineering value.