It is a perfect example of No.2 trying harder.
Kia, South Korea’s second-largest automaker, has seen its business grow steadily over the years and now, at least in the U.S. market, ranks as one of the benchmarks for quality.
In the 2018 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, Kia came in second with the second-highest score ever, trailing only Genesis, the luxury division of Hyundai, its affiliated brand.
In the advanced powertrain field, the automaker is moving aggressively into hybrids.
In 2017, Kia ranked third among Japanese and Korean OEMs, trailing only Toyota and Honda. With the Niro leading the way, it sold 118,574 hybrid units, more than half of Korea’s 207,018 total and more than double the automaker’s previous year’s sales.
“It is a huge step for many buyers to go all the way from a gas car to 100% electric,” explains Orth Hedrick, vice president-product planning at Kia Motors America. “It involves how much confidence they feel. As range increases, anxiety will be reduced. So we think the hybrid and specifically the plug-in hybrid is a nice evolution to get people on the way to full electric.”
Adds Stephen Kosowski, Kia Motors America’s manager of long-range strategy and planning: “We have gone from about 1% of our volume as electrified to about 7%. That’s just for Kia.”
In first-half 2018, Kia sold 18,039 Niro and Optima hybrids and plug-in hybrids in the U.S., accounting for 6.1% of sales, according to Wards Intelligence data. Hyundai Ioniq and Sonata hybrid and PHEV deliveries totaled 11,392, or 3.5% of sales.
The top-selling models in the U.S. for the year’s first six months were the Kia Niro (13,237, up 4.4% from like-2017) and Hyundai Ioniq hybrid (7,448, up 57.7%).
The two brands also sold 1,303 all-electrics in the period, including 967 Kia Soul EVs, up 15.7% from year-ago, and 336 Ioniq EVs, up 114%.
In addition to the Niro, both plug-in and non-plug-in types, Kosowski attributes the growth to more and better product. “We have more Soul EV availability,” he says, adding “We are expanding (sales of) the car into the eastern part of the U.S. as well as on the West Coast.”
In 2015, Kia announced its “green car” road map including a $10.2 billion investment that is bearing fruit with the Niro, the Niro plug-in hybrid, Optima plug-in hybrid, Soul EV and a Niro EV in the pipeline. The investment runs through 2020.
By 2025, the automaker plans to have 16 electrified vehicles in its lineup globally, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, EVs and fuel-cell vehicles. Ten of the 16 will be sold in the U.S., according to Kosowski.
Combined electrified models by Kia and Hyundai are expected to grow to more than 30. The stated objective is a 25% improvement in CAFE.
Kosowski says the Niro is being marketed as a CUV: “This is the sweet spot of the market. It also happens to be an electrified vehicle which, in addition to being affordable, gets 50 mpg (4.7 L/100 km).”
The Niro plug-in hybrid has an all-electric range of 26 miles (42 km). The new Niro EV reportedly will have a range of more than 230 miles (370 km).