I am looking at two of the latest quality studies from J.D. Power and Associates and thinking about Tae-Hyun (Thomas) Oh, Kia Motors’ chief operating officer in charge of international business.
“Eventually, Kia would like to be one of the mainstream brands like VW [Volkswagen],” he recently told trade journal Automotive News, adding, “For the time being, we have to look at quality over quantity. Who gives the final go-ahead for start of production? It’s not the chairman. It’s not a salesman. It’s not the finance or planning or procurement people. It’s the quality-control people."
Quality over quantity. That’s what he’s saying; Kia won’t buy share by slashing prices, over-producing and risking a lapse in quality that would hammer a brand on the upswing.
And so the J.D. Power scores. There’s good and bad news. The good news for Kia is that, in the Initial Quality Study (IQS), Kia’s above-average score was tied with Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz, and ahead of Audi, Cadillac, Buick, Lincoln, BMW and a long list of others.
The bad news is in the three-year Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS). There, Kia is below average with about twice as many problems as the No. 1 Lexus brand. Ouch. Obviously, Kia is making progress, but the quality push that Oh and other Kia bosses keep talking about remains a work in progress.
Kia Canada chief operating officer Maria Soklis and the rest keep reading from the “better quality” playbook, however. The relentless focus on quality, they say, will be matched only by a commitment to selling cars that look rich and are stuffed with technology.
Promises, promises. At least Kia is being thoroughly public about these things. The proof is in the product and the latest Kia to find me is the 2014 Rondo. Before my first drive, I’d had a good look at the Rondo in Geneva last spring, at the big international auto show. In Europe and other markets, the Rondo is known as the Carens and, whatever you call it, this is an astonishing step forward for Kia.
The old Rondo was a dumpy little wagon with undersized wheels, an oversize roofline and an interior that looked like the product of tasteless, unimaginative cost-cutters with poor eyesight. Practical? Sure. But who said practical transportation needs to look dull, disproportionate and homely.
This new Rondo, though, is a looker. In fact, comparing the old Rondo to the new one reminded me of the before-and-after versions of French President François Hollande. In the run-up to the 2012 election, the socialist Hollande underwent a head-to-toe makeover – new spectacles, new suits, new haircut, a little weight loss – and it no doubt helped him beat that old dandy, the former French president and one snappy dresser, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Rondo is the new Hollande. Except, of course, Kia does not want Rondo owners to sour on their cars as quickly as the French have on Hollande. This is an apt point of discussion about the Rondo for a good reason: good looks can mask bad substance, which brings us back to those quality studies. A pretty car that breaks is not going to help Kia and its customers, any more than a pretty candidate who breaks down at being president is going to help the French people. Style is nice and always welcome, but worthless without substance.
Ah, substance. There is plenty in this new Rondo. The materials look and feel first-rate and they are put together with narrow seams and tight fits. The most expensive Rondos – my loaded EX Luxury seven-seater lists for $32,195 – had this fancy panoramic sunroof, leather upholstery, navigation, voice-activated Bluetooth, foglights, heated power seats.
Way in the back was a third-row seat that folds completely flat. A tight fit for adults, but okay for little ones on short hops. Either way, you get cargo and crewing options here. The base Rondo at $21,695 is more modest, though all versions have the same 164-horsepower, direct-injection, four-cylinder engine. Standard interior features on even the base Rondo include air conditioning, second-row heating and cooling air vents, power windows, heated front seats, a six-speaker audio system and keyless entry with power locks.
Now take note of that point about the engine. Kia and its corporate cousin Hyundai are sweeping through their lineups with modern direct-injection engines, something Toyota, for one, has yet to do. The Rondo feels quick and responsive, though steering feel and suspension tuning remain a place for improvement. Not bad, but the Rondo is no VW Golf wagon.
Good design, however, is not only about good looks. The human side of it is ergonomics and that’s all about function. The Rondos have a dashboard with clear and sharp instruments and controls. Nothing is confusing or a stretch to reach and operate or understand. For personal comfort, there is a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver’s seat. Down below is what Kia calls an “organ-type accelerator pedal” that pivots on the floor to match the “movement” of the driver’s foot.
The conclusion: Kia is not VW yet, but the Germans shouldn’t get complacent.
2014 Kia Rondo EX Luxury seven-seater
Type: Compact wagon
Price: $32,195 (freight $1,665)
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 164 hp/156 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 9.2 city/6.3 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Volkswagen Golf Wagon, Mazda5, Ford C-Max
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