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What Hyundai and Kia need to do to get more respect Add to ...

At some point, perception will surely catch up with reality when we consider Kia and Hyundai. Or, to put this another way, what do Kia and Hyundai need to do to get more respect? Make better cars?

Well, J.D. Power and Associates’ 2014 Initial Quality Study (IQS) ranked Hyundai fourth over all while Kia finished seventh, one point behind Toyota and Chevrolet and ahead of BMW, Honda, Audi and Mercedes-Benz. The combined ratings of Hyundai and Kia put Hyundai Motor Co. atop the IQS for the first time.

Among individual models, Hyundai Motor won five segment awards: Hyundai Accent; Hyundai Elantra; Hyundai Genesis; Kia Cadenza; and Kia Sportage (tie). Separately, Consumer Reports says the 2012-2013 Elantra is the best used small car (tied with the Subaru Impreza).

An Automotive News analysis of U.S. safety recalls shows Kia and Hyundai are small-time here. From 1990 through September 2013, neither ranked in the top 10 for recalls. General Motors topped that list and, at No. 6 was Toyota, with Honda No. 5. During that time, Ford recalled 106 million vehicles, GM 88 million, and Toyota 30 million. Hyundai recalled just 9 million.

Hyundai and Kia are also building cars that owners actually love, not merely endure because they got a good deal. In J.D. Power’s latest APEAL study, a snapshot of owner joy, both score above average among non-premium brands. The Accent was the most APEALing small car, the Kia Optima and Hyundai Sonata were runners-up in mid-size cars and Kia’s Soul was tops among compact multipurpose vehicles. The Hyundai Veloster and Kia Cadenza also were runners-up in their categories.

So if you buy a Kia or a Hyundai, you have good reason to think it will be durable, reliable and generally problem-free. You also might find yourself smitten by the design, performance, comfort, road manners and technology in any number of Kia and Hyundai models.

So why haven’t you taken some for a spin?

Here’s why: neither brand is particularly well regarded. I routinely run into people who are astounded to learn that, for instance, the all-new Soul is so well turned-out, so quiet at highway speeds, and that it has such a good sound system. “This is a Kia? Really? I never knew,” I hear time and again.

That’s anecdotal stuff. More scientific studies from well-respected organizations reflect my everyday experiences, though. Kia and Hyundai are ranked 15th and 16th in CR’s brand rankings, miles behind Lexus and Acura, Audi, Subaru and Toyota. Both have average reliability, says CR, but both are building “well-rounded, functional models that rapidly improve with every redesign.” These two are on the upswing.

Still, Millward Brown’s BrandZ ranking of automotive brands has Hyundai at No. 10 and that’s the best of the two South Koreans. Toyota’s brand is worth seven times more than Hyundai’s. Meantime, Interbrand ranks Hyundai No. 7 among automotive brands, Kia at No. 11. Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Honda are the leaders, even though Honda and Toyota combined recalled nearly 60 million vehicles from 1990 to 2013.

I have asked the top Kia and Hyundai bosses about their frustrations, about how tough it is to sway the public. How do they move the needle among consumers who think of their brands as strictly second-tier? Mostly, I get a shoulder shrug that says: “We can only do what we’re doing – continue to build good, reliable, modern and attractive cars – and eventually our image issues will improve.”

I believe we’re closer to a point where perceptions are going to catch up with reality. Younger buyers coming into the market are far less brand loyal than their parents. For millennials, the field of choices is wide open. At this rate, I can imagine a day when a Kia or a Hyundai will boast serious snob appeal. It’s not so far away.

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

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