The first time the Lee Johnson Auto Family had a chance to get a Kia franchise in the late 1990s, it said "no thanks."
Todd Johnson, president of the Kirkland, Wash., dealership group, says the quality of Kia's products
wasn't up to snuff. The Johnson group thought selling Kias would taint the reputation of a business that Johnson's grandfather opened in 1933 as a Chevrolet store.
But that changed in 2006. Johnson acquired a Kia franchise from a nearby dealer who wanted to leave the business. Johnson added the Kia brand on land shared with stand-alone Mazda and Chevrolet stores. Kia has continued to progress since then, he adds.
"The design of the vehicles has gotten so much better, especially the new Sportage, Sorento, Forte and Soul," Johnson says. "They really are transitioning their brand into one where they're competing with Honda and Toyota."
That's what Kia hopes. It has become a much stronger brand after a nearly two-year blitz of new product. Breakout designs and edgy, high-profile advertising -- like the gold chain-clad hamster rappers in Soul ads -- give it a youthful buzz.
It was one of three brands in the United States to increase sales in 2009. Sales are up 12 percent this year, outpacing the overall market's 10 percent rise.
But Kia is fighting its past, when quality problems turned off many consumers. The question for Kia today is whether fresh designs and hip-hop hamsters will rid Kia of its legacy of creaky, plasticky econoboxes.
The brand's fortunes improved when the Kia Soul went on sale in February 2009. The boxy but futuristic hatchback was a statement, serving notice that Kia would challenge brands such as Scion and Mazda for young buyers.
Kia's eye-catching designs have been a far cry from the bland styling of Kia's early years. And Kia's advertising -- the hamsters, and hard-partying stuffed animals touting the Sorento during the Super Bowl -- push a playful, energetic identity.