DETROIT -- Watch out, Chevrolet. Kia Motors America has you in its cross hairs.
That caution from COO Len Hunt reflects marketing data showing that Chevrolet is the brand most frequently shopped by prospective Kia buyers, except for Hyundai, he told the Automotive News World Congress.
"When we take Hyundai out, Chevrolet, with its sporty image, is our biggest cross-shopping brand," Hunt said. "So be careful, that's where our customers are coming from."
Hunt acknowledged that Kia needs an "emotional" vehicle to help the brand grow in the United States. The Kia Soul concept crossover vehicle could be that model with its SUV looks and sporty road manners, but no production decision has been made, he said.
"So for us, we're pushing hard," Hunt said. "It's a segment we're not in today."
Hunt also noted that Kia Motors America, which sold 275,851 vehicles in 2005, is nearing the threshold where it would make sense to build a U.S. manufacturing plant.
Although nothing has been confirmed, "It's no secret we're looking to expand our manufacturing base in the U.S.," he said.
Hunt, 50, said he is beginning to reposition Kia's brand image away from its bargain basement, economical transportation roots.
"We're going to be the sporty Korean, where I think you are going to see Hyundai become more refinement based," he said.
"So we get to do lots of stuff that I've been doing for a long time, which is tuning the cars for more active suspension, more handling, more sportiness, more exciting vehicles."
Hunt says Kia is reaching for a loyal, passionate owner base.
Hunt, who joined Kia in October from Volkswagen of America, knows something about cars and the passion that some brands can arouse in their owners. Having worked for VW, Jaguar, Audi and even Bentley, Hunt has seen how passionate owners can be for a vehicle brand.
In five years, Hunt believes that Kia will begin touching the "passion rung" on the brand ladder. But Kia Motors America today is working on gaining customer confidence in its products - the first rung of the brand ladder.
"We're just on the bottom rung, establishing confidence in our products through price and warranty," he says. "Next is building integrity into the brand."
Then comes pride in the brand, he says, and finally passion for the brand, adding: "Pride and passion lead to emotional allegiance to the brand, and it's passion that drives the business."
You may e-mail Ralph Kisiel at [email protected]