Kia's U.S. sales spree to get tougher

Tom Loveless is on a roll. For 24 straight months, Kia Motors America has set U.S. sales records. That's part of a 17-year string of annual U.S. sales growth for the Korean brand.

But going forward, sustaining that roll gets tougher for Loveless, executive vice president of sales; his marketing-side peer Mike Sprague; and Kia. It's simple math: They can't sell vehicles they can't get.

The string of monthly records started shortly after Kia opened an assembly plant in West Point, Ga., in November 2009. With locally sourced Sorentos and Optimas to supplement imports, Kia sales took off and it became the No. 7 U.S. brand. Kia added a third shift this year, bumping capacity to 360,000 units a year.

But the plant also builds the Santa Fe for sister brand Hyundai, so Kia will get less than 300,000 units annually from Georgia, even with three shifts.

That's enough for 40 percent local sourcing if Kia stays on track for a 4 percent U.S. market share this year. In a 14.3 million industry, call that 572,000 sales, which would be up 18 percent from 2011.

Loveless expects to boost volume and share next year in a rising market, but with no more units from Georgia.

"Anything else we get next year must be imported," he says.

Kia Motors America is jockeying for a bigger 2013 allocation from Seoul -- it received an extra 10,000 units of the Soul this year. But Kia operations elsewhere also want more product, and resources are limited. While he won't specify where, Loveless hinted that some global markets are "tougher than others."

I read that as hope that China and Europe might not need as many vehicles as they originally planned. Kia's plant in Slovakia builds the Sportage small SUV.

Certainly, Kia is not backing off on new products and marketing.

This week, a new marketing campaign with the Kia Soul hamsters moves to TV from movie theater spots.

"Kia will be back in the Super Bowl in 2013," Sprague says. "But not with the hamsters."

And Kia will launch seven new or refreshed models in 2013.

The automaker plans to introduce the upscale Cadenza sedan -- think Hyundai Azera-sized -- next summer, and a new rear-wheel-drive flagship sedan for the 2015 model year.

Says Loveless: "We're going to do everything in our power to increase our share."

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