With scouts from his South Korean parent company Hyundai-Kia scouring the southern United States seeking for space to plant its manufacturing roots, Kia North America CEO Peter Butterfield has become a celebrity of sorts. His cell phone rings with calls from politicos, including Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who drops less-than-subtle reminders that their locale would be a perfect fit for Kia’s first U.S. plant. The calls are just the beginning of what should pan out to be a busy few years for the former Ford Motor Co. marketing executive, who is leading one of the few growing auto brands in the country.
Butterfield and his team have an aggressive plan in place to move Kia sales from their current pace of less than 300,000 units, to more than 600,000 by 2010. The brand will double the number of models to 12 within the same timeframe. All of this while domestic manufacturers, most notably Ford and G.M., announce plans to shutter plants and talk of reducing product offerings to provide improved product differentiation. Kia insiders say the automaker’s future products include a body-on-frame pickup truck to compete against the Dodge Dakota, Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. Larger SUVs also are in the plans, while freshenings of current products, including the Sedona minivan and Santa Fe SUV, are moving along at a rapid pace. The new ’06 Rio/Rio5* just hit the market on the heels of the redesigned Spectra, which itself is reaping rewards thanks to its dramatic redesign. Sources also hint that Hyundai may transfer its Tiburon coupe over to Kia, as the brand shifts its focus to a more sporty, youthful buyer. Hyundai plans to build its volumes via more mainstream transportation.
Butterfield and his team know they have a lot of work ahead to make U.S. consumers flock to Kia for their next car or truck, but the brand is making progress in gaining consumer awareness. A bold new marketing program will undoubtedly help when it comes to this issue. G.M., Ford and Chrysler beware (as well as Mitsubishi and Mazda), Kia has you in their sights. While that may not send Wagoner, LaSorda and Ford shaking in their boots just yet, they better pay close attention. Having a reputation to make changes quickly to adapt to consumer demands, Kia is ready to pounce. The big dogs better start peaking out of the dog houses to get a look before yet another player passes them by.—KMK
*To read our impressions of the ’06 Rio/Rio5, check out the review on our website’s “Driven” section. Briefly, this car is one that is competitive with the likes of products from Volkswagen and Mazda—especially in terms of the driver-orientation of the interior and the overall craftsmanship and fit and finish. Seems like Kia designers and engineers spent time anticipating what the Rio would be up against in the market as regards to new product rather than benchmarking the old, as some domestic manufacturers seem to do.