LOS ANGELES – The Kia brand resonates with consumers, who give it high marks in studies measuring satisfaction with their vehicle. They are much less satisfied with Kia dealers, however. That must change, says Steve Center, chief operating officer of Kia America.
“There is no choice but for them to improve,” Center tells Wards at the Los Angeles auto show. “They have to find a way to meet customer expectations.”
The Kia brand scored well on different aspects of J.D. Power’s 2022 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout study, which measured owners' emotional attachment and level of excitement with their new vehicle. The brand also topped J.D. Power’s 2022 U.S. Vehicle Dependability study.
But it ranked last in the Mass Market 2022 U.S. Sales Satisfaction Index study, which measures buyers’ satisfaction with their dealership experience.
Center (pictured, left) says he cautioned attendees at the dealer meeting earlier this year in Las Vegas that Kia didn’t want to go the way of Sears, which was a retail powerhouse through its catalogue delivery service and was the anchor store in malls for decades. But Sears did not respond fast enough to the growth in internet sales and now struggles to survive.
“That is absolutely the most unacceptable business outcome,” Center says. “We don’t want to be Sears.”
Center, who spent decades at American Honda, was appointed COO and executive vice president at Kia America in January. He oversees Kia’s sales, service and marketing operations in the U.S.
Center declines to directly compare the two automakers but describes Kia as a “very aggressive brand” and the management as “focused” and “rather fearless about a challenge.”
The Hyundai Group owns both the Kia and Hyundai brands. The two companies, who don’t communicate with each other, are “like two competitive brothers,” Center says.
Kia’s customers are younger, well educated, and often have young families, he says. They expect a high level of customer experience at dealerships as well as more technology, even in entry-level cars.
That is why Kia decided to refresh its Seltos small CUV for model year 2024, adding more horsepower, redesigning the front grille and offering a panoramic screen display, among other upgrades.
Kia also refreshed its Telluride large CUV after just a few years on the market. “We didn’t have to redo the interior to the Telluride,” said Center. “There is a waiting list (for the model). We are squirting more lighting fluid on the fire.”
Kia currently has about 780 rooftops in the U.S. and is “selectively” growing its dealer count, he says. “We aren’t on a mission to add dealerships.”
But it does want to boost annual throughput, which is at about 1,000 units per dealership. Dealerships will need to invest in more modern, larger and “more capable” facilities, says Center.
Some of that investment will go into selling and servicing electrified vehicles. Kia, like most automakers, is committed to making and selling more EVs.
During the Investor Day in Seoul in March, its president and CEO announced Kia would become a leader in sustainable mobility. “Eco-friendly” cars will represent 52% of global sales, including annual sales of 1.2 million battery-electric vehicles, by 2030. Total global sales of all vehicles are targeted at 4 million units, up 27% from Kia’s 2022 sales goal.
How does Center envision the Kia brand in the U.S. in five years? The “halcyon” view is “we are the number one or two EV brand (and) dealers provide an exceptional ownership experience,” he says. “That is the North Star.”