Ask The Best And Brightest: Could Kia Disappear?

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
ask the best and brightest could kia disappear

24/7 Wall Street seems to believe that Hyundai’s junior brand could go away in the next year and a half, as it named Kia to its “Ten Brands That Will Disappear in 2011” list. This despite the fact that Kia’s first-half sales were up 15 percent over the first half of 2009, and Kia’s rolling 12-month sales are over 22 percent higher than its performance in the previous 12 months. So, why does 24/7 Wall Street see Kia disappearing?

Kia Motors Corporation is one of the two car brands of Hyundai of South Korea. It has always been a marginal brand. Its stable mate, Hyundai USA, has a reputation for high quality cars like the Sonata and Genesis. Kia sells “low rent” cars and SUV nameplates like the Sorento and Rio. As GM and Ford have already discovered, it is expensive to maintain multiple brands and storied car names, including Pontiac, Saturn, and Mercury, are disappearing. Most Kia cars sell for $14,000 to $25,000. Hyundai has several cars in the same price range. Hyundai’s Sonata has quickly become one of the best-selling cars in America, and its Genesis flagship model competes with mid-sized BMWs and Mercedes. The parent company will take a page from several other global car companies and dump its weakest brand.

This is something of an increasingly legitimate point. With Kias now being styled by former Audi man Peter Schreyer, Hyundai’s budget brand is slowly moving to a more upmarket positioning, even as Hyundai itself moves upmarket with its Genesis and Equus luxury sedans. Hyundai’s Elantra and Kia’s Forte, for example, fight for the same C-segment customers, with only about $400 separating their base prices. Only $1,000 separates the Optima from the new Sonata, and with a new highly-touted Optima replacement due this year, that price difference could shrink further still.

And there’s more: just about a week ago, the Korea Times noted that even Hyundai is starting to acknowledge that Kia and Hyundai cannibalize each other. With Kia’s South Korean-market volumes approaching those of Hyundai, and with the junior brand receiving more media campaign attention from its corporate overlords, there’s talk of actually reducing cooperation between the two brands. According to the KT

Now, Chung Eui-sun, Hyundai vice chairman and the only son of Chairman Chung Mong-koo, has reportedly talked about the reduction of support for Kia. Hyundai has shared car platforms and served as an app store of sorts for Kia. The junior Chung’s remarks are interpreted as a show of frustration by Chung, who is not comfortable with Kia’s success.

Even official Hyundai spokesfolks admit that

I know that Kia is doing well and we are happy. But Hyundai is not doing well, which I believe is partially due to Kia’s success.

With the new Optima, Sportage, and several other new Kia products coming to market, Hyundai is afraid that its junior brand could actually surpass it to become the top-selling brand in Korea. Meanwhile, outside of Korea, Kia remains far too important to Hyundai’s success to simply go away. Hyundai is still growing faster than Kia in the US, though with new Kia products coming to market and a new US plant coming online, Kia is poised for continued growth. In the short term, there’s room for both to grow in the US market, so killing Kia makes little sense right now.

Still, in the long term, the two brands are insufficiently differentiated enough to create a bit of the Chevy/Saturn dynamic down the road. Sure Hyundai will offer upmarket cars, but both brands essentially stand for Korean value. Once Hyundai and Kia’s market-proof momentum slows (and it always does), competition between these two brands will become inevitable, and Hyundai will be faced with some tough choices. That almost certainly won’t happen by 2011, which makes 24/7 Wall Street’s prediction ring a bit hollow, but it’s definitely a problem that bears having an eye kept on it.

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  • DweezilSFV DweezilSFV on Jul 13, 2010

    This is nonsemse. To compare Kia/Hyundai to what GM squandered with it's brands and Ford and Chrysler never had the balls to do with Mercury,Plymouth and Dodge is comical. Similar prices but not the sort of Ford/ Merc re-arrangement of cosmetic hash or GM's brand whoring [oops platform sharing...]. At the very least Kia offers the customer an alternative to what other brands have including Hyundai. The Optima/Sonata are really the only pair I can see that use the old style Detroit Three "public will never know they're the same car" sort of camo that Chevy/Pontiac have done for the past 35 years. It will be a long time before that sort of toxic brand killing strategy will manifest itself in Kia/Hyundai. From what I could tell, Hyundai doesn't offer a clone of the Soul and the Forte is fresh and new compared to that[what I found to be]nasty and underwhelming Elantra. Even the Rio and Accent look different from each other and have different pricing. They are unique offerings from each manufacturer even at the very bottom of their ranges. Could you ever say that about the Escort/Lynx ? The Js, Ns, As and Xs of GM ? Or the Neons/Ks/Volaspens or Omnirizons? John Horner: you had it right again comparing the two to GM's policies of intra mural rivalry to keep the divisions on their toes and unique in the 50s and 60s. + 1 here.

  • BklynPete BklynPete on Jul 14, 2010

    Dweezil is right. This is nonsense. Now that Ford is finally sending Mercury to the glue factory, TTAC needs another dead horse to beat. It's Kia's turn. The trouble is that there's no there there. Congratulations, Mr. Niedermeyer -- we all fell for your ploy!

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