In­qui­si­tion: Kia’s mar­ket­ing mav­er­ick

Ford, Opel – Kia’s com­ing to get you! Mar­ket­ing chief Ar­tur Martins charts the Kore­ans’ trans­for­ma­tion, from value brand to style-con­scious – with a new fo­cus on dy­nam­ics

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WHO THE HELL does Kia think it is? With this au­tumn’s launch of the Stinger GT, a rear-wheeldrive, four-door coupe set to cost less than £30,000, plus a sleek sports wagon con­cept that presages a pro­duc­tion car, the Korean car maker is on a mis­sion to re­shape its im­age. Ar­tur Martins is the Euro­pean mar­ket­ing VP tasked with mak­ing Kia ‘cool’, a no­tion that not so long ago would have trig­gered more gig­gling than a ni­trous ox­ide leak.

But thanks to some canny Ger­man re­cruits sprin­kling fairy dust on an ag­gres­sive new model cy­cle, the brand con­tin­ues to make in­roads in Europe. This year has brought four all-new cars – the Pi­canto and Rio re­place­ments, the Stonic baby cross­over and ul­ti­mately the Stinger – plus Op­tima and Niro plug-in hy­brids as Kia surfs the elec­tri­fi­ca­tion wave too.

One man does not a car com­pany make, but ex-VW de­signer Peter Schreyer was the first crit­i­cal ap­point­ment, the equiv­a­lent of Zla­tan go­ing to Paris Saint Ger­main foot­ball club. ‘Fer­di­nand Piech said his big­gest mis­take was to let Peter go,’ Martins says con­spir­a­to­ri­ally. ‘We went from be­ing a brand with­out any de­sign as­pi­ra­tion to lead­ing on de­sign in some seg­ments.’

Per­haps Kia now has its Ney­mar in ex-BMW M Di­vi­sion boss Al­bert Bier­mann. His re­mit is sus­pen­sion and chas­sis tun­ing, plus high-per­for­mance mod­els. ‘We al­ways heard from the me­dia and con­sumers: “Kia makes good look­ing cars that don’t drive the way they look.” Well, Bier­mann’s chal­lenge is to make them drive like they look!’

None­the­less Martins is prag­matic about the mar­ket share Kia’s 4-se­ries Gran Coupe ri­val will take. ‘You can’t mea­sure its suc­cess in sales. Suc­cess will be us do­ing a Mk2. It’s about the Stinger’s im­pact on the brand; we will use it as an in­spi­ra­tion for fu­ture mod­els and the way we will po­si­tion Kia.’

Does that mean Kia is no longer a value brand? ‘That was

ba­si­cally the propo­si­tion when we started in Europe,’ ex­plains Martins, ‘but the prod­ucts then ver­sus to­day’s, you can­not com­pare them! Peo­ple don’t look at our prod­ucts be­cause they are cheaper; in a lot of coun­tries we are more ex­pen­sive than his­tor­i­cal Euro­pean mak­ers.’

Aside from de­sign, a seven-year war­ranty un­der­pinned by de­cent re­li­a­bil­ity has been the back­bone. While Kia and its sis­ter brand Hyundai have had to re­call 1.5m cars in Korea and the States, it’s rank­ing highly in Euro­pean JD Power cus­tomer sur­veys. Martins says the group makes a high pro­por­tion of com­po­nents in-house, driven by the fear that a big qual­ity is­sue could prove ex­or­bi­tant given the war­ranty.

The next Kia is the Stonic, an­other zeit­geisty baby-SUV. How will it stand nd out from ri­vals ar­riv­ing con­cur­rently? ‘Cus­tomers are run­ning away from con­ven­tional hatches. We didn’t go for com­peti­tors mak­ing SUVs for the coun­try­side. This is a bold cross­over that’s dy­namic, ur­ban, cool.’ Martins says there’s clear dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion from the Hyundai Kona, with the Stonic based on the Rio plat­form for a lower ride height, no 4x4 ca­pa­bil­ity and a lighter, more ef­fi­cient car.

Will the Stonic also trig­ger a cull of Kia’s other com­pact niche mod­els, the Soul and Venga MPVs? ‘We are look­ing at how we re­or­gan­ise,’ says Martins. ‘There’s some clash with the Soul but that’s driven by the US, where it’s a gi­gan­tic suc­cess. The Soul is po­lar­is­ing but it’s an iconic Kia, and we need the EV to meet our 2020 [emis­sions] tar­gets.’ Martins’ de­fence of the Venga is less em­phatic: it and the Carens look set for the MPV knacker’s yard.

Martins claims only Kia has grown in Europe for ev­ery one of the past eight years, and 2018’s new Ceed fam­ily aims to keep that up. The sport wagon and an­other cross­over SUV are likely as the three-door Pro­ceed hatch is phased out. Clearly th­ese vari­ants will com­mand a higher price than the ba­sic Ceeds: is this a pre­mium push? ‘We cover 90 per cent of Europe’s seg­ments, so the next step is prod­ucts that help dif­fer­en­ti­ate the brand.’ Con­cludes Martins: ‘We are a main­stream brand sell­ing main­stream cars in main­stream seg­ments – we want to keep be­ing that, but re­in­force our po­si­tion and aware­ness.’ Looks like the Kia jug­ger­naut won’t be com­ing to a halt just yet. PHIL Mc­NA­MARA @CARPhilMc

Shoot­ing brake con­cept rein­vents the Pro­ceed hatch as sleek, pricier wagon

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