LOS ANGELES — Kia eked out a sales gain in the U.S. last year by a mere five units.
But Kia Motors America COO Michael Cole sees bigger growth opportunities for 2019, even if sedan sales across the industry continue to sag or the overall market weakens.
That’s because Kia is expanding its lineup this year with more utility vehicles, including a new nameplate in the three-row Telluride and an all-electric edition of the Niro small crossover.
It has also reduced its dependence on basic cars, with the Sorento crossover overtaking the Optima, Forte and Soul as Kia’s top seller and the Stinger premium sports sedan notching 16,806 units in its first full year on the market.
Yet, Kia still has a hill to climb in getting its brand message across, said Cole, who joined Kia’s U.S. arm in May 2018 after a five-year stint as COO of Kia Motors Europe, where sales surged 40 percent during his tenure.
“We need to ensure we communicate with the wider car-buying public who Kia is,” Cole said during the Los Angeles Auto Show in November. “More people have heard of Kia, but we really want them to know who we are. We want to use products like Stinger, products like Telluride, to explain we’re not only a company that offers rational products. We offer these emotional products with outstanding quality, durability, reliability, great technology.”
The Telluride is Kia’s first three-row entry in the crossover/SUV segment since the short-lived Borrego, which quietly disappeared after barely a year in the U.S. market. Along with the Palisade, it will have to take on such powerful players in the segment as the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Explorer.
Looking ahead, Cole sees a way for Kia to gain ground even if the industry falters. The light-vehicle market grew just 0.6 percent in 2018.
He isn’t sure how much further the car market will fall, but if it stays at its current level of around a third of the light-vehicle market, he said, Kia can still expand its share there as other manufacturers back away.
A redesigned Soul, available in new rugged and sporty trims, is coming in the first half, and an electric option will be available in some markets. Sales of the boxy subcompact dropped 9.5 percent in 2018.
The Forte compact, Kia’s top seller in 2017 at 117,596 units, was down about 13 percent in 2018, but still finished with more than 100,000 units.
For the 2019 model year, Kia infused the Forte with Stinger-inspired cues such as a long hood and short deck that suggest a fastback shape. The Forte also received an engineering overhaul that improves fuel economy and powertrain refinement.
Cole thinks Kia can hold its own on the sedan side and pick off more sales with its expanded crossover roster.
Cole said the Niro plug-in hybrid is gaining popularity in California, and the all-electrified crossover nameplate is defying the trend in hybrids, thanks in part to its more conventional looks.
“We want them to be seen as more regular cars, but offering environmental credentials,” Cole said. “Niro doesn’t look odd. It is a good-looking vehicle, but it happens to give you good fuel efficiency because it’s a hybrid, plug-in or an EV.”