Latest Recall Shouldn’t Diminish Kia Quality Drive

2016 Kia Optima photo

Kia announced that it will recall more than 377,000 of its 2011 to 2013 Sorentos. The popular crossover has a defect that could cause the car to move out of Park if enough pressure is applied on the gear lever, even without the brake being engaged.

The recall came just as Kia was introducing its new 2016 Kia Optima midsize sedan (left) to the automotive press in Colorado. A big part of the message is how far the Korean automaker has come in terms of quality.

Michael Sprague, Kia America’s chief operating officer and executive vice president, said the brand 10 years ago had little respect for quality. Kia was a brand you brought new as a last resort, with no money down and all credit levels accepted.

That’s changed. In what Sprague called a tipping point, Kia ranked second among all auto manufacturers in the 2015 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. It was tops among all non-luxury brands, because Porsche topped the list. Kia owners reported 86 problems for every 100 cars, which was well below the industry average of 112. (Porsche had 80 problems per 100 and was, along with Kia, the only brand in the 80s.)

This award is especially significant for Kia given that it was dead last in the 2001 rankings. “We went from worst to first,” Sprague bragged. He also pointed out Kia’s ranking by Consumer Reports as a Top 10 brand for reliability.

Kia also has two individual vehicles that finished at the top of their automotive class: the 2015 Kia Soul in the compact crossover segment and the 2015 Kia Sorento in the midsize SUV segment. The latter’s award could be seen as a strong indication that problems from the 2011 to 2013 model years probably haven’t carried forward.

The issue going forward will be maintaining Kia’s high perch for quality. “We will really get over that perception that we’ve had. Consumers will now discover the new Kia, and the Optima will lead the way in defining the new Kia,” Sprague said.

What they’re going to discover in the new Optima, which got driven from Aspen over the Continental Divide at 12,000 feet and back, is a midsize sedan with strong performance and lots of interior refinements. Probably the biggest sign of change for the brand is that it’s no longer unthinkable to spend $36,000 on a Kia.

That’s going to be the top-of-the-line price for the Kia Optima SXL with the 2.0-liter turbo engine. The base LX trim with the 2.4-liter naturally aspirated engine has a starting price of $21,840. All Optimas have a destination charge of $825 and will go on sale in November.

Probably the biggest sign of how far Kia has come would be its interiors. As Orth Hedrick, Kia vice president of product planning, said, “The interior by far is one of the most significant upgrades we’ve made. It’s to change the mind of what people think about Kia.”

Normally that’s just so much hype, but it doesn’t seem to be with the Optima and its abundance of soft-touch surfaces. The interior is also almost whisper quiet, even at high speeds. There’s also the integration of new technology like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Higher trim levels will also offer wireless phone charging.

So, Kia might be in the news right now for its quality concerns with the recall of 377,000 Sorentos. That appears to just be a minor speed bump in its ongoing drive for improved quality.

-Keith Griffin

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