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Everything you need to know about Kia

Kia was once a budget brand – now it is a top one. Read on to find out how the Korean maker was transformed into a success story envied by rivals.

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If you were driving in the 1990s you might remember the Kia vehicles of the time – they were distinctly bargain basement cars sold from tiny dealers and offering very little to write home about either in specification or quality.

Fast forward to 2024 and Kia is one of the most highly regarded manufacturers on the global market, regularly topping quality surveys and its product constantly appearing in Car of the Year shortlists – the Kia EV6 was our 2022 Car of the Year, one of many awards that model has received. Mix in the extra publicity gained from massive levels of sports sponsorship, the Kia brand today is as well-known as Ford or Volkswagen.

In less than 20 years, Kia has been transformed from a brand on the verge of bankruptcy to a top maker recording more than $4 billion in profit.

This has been masterminded by parent Hyundai, and focused on developing a recognisable and strong brand image. It has led to Kia offering cars that are both practical and of excellent quality, sold through dealers offering top levels of customer service.       

So who or what is Kia?

Kia is the second largest car manufacturer in South Korea, with almost three million annual global sales. It’s only beaten by its parent company Hyundai, which has owned Kia for close to 30 years.

Kia – the name roughly translates as ‘Rising from East Asia’ – was formed in 1944, initially as the catchy ‘Kyungsung Precision Industry’, making steel tubes and bicycle parts. The company’s first vehicle was a bicycle called the Smachuly, launched in 1951.

Licensing deals enabled Kia to manufacture Honda motorcycles from 1957 and, by 1974, it was producing both cars and trucks under licence from Mazda. Similar deals were later done with European makes Fiat and Peugeot but, when dictator Chun Ddo-When came to power in South Korea in 1981, Kia was forced to give up car manufacture.

By 1987 cars were again emerging from Kia plants, now in partnership with Ford, which had taken a stake in Mazda. One of the first Kia models to come to the UK was the Pride three-door hatchback, which was effectively a Mazda 121. The first Kia Sportage, launched in 1993 and the first Korean SUV, was based on the Mazda Bongo van. 

Kia products were aimed firmly at the budget market but the company could not sell enough of them and when the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, Kia faced bankruptcy. At this point, fellow Korean car maker Hyundai entered the picture. Irt took a 51% stake in its rival and started the process that would transform Kia from budget brand to highly respected mainstream car manufacturer.

The Sorento mid-sized SUV, launched in 1999, was the first ‘transformative’ Kia. Seven years later, the company shocked the automotive industry by appointing leading car designer Peter Schreyer as its chief design officer – he had previously been working for the Volkswagen Group, creating such design icons as the Audi TT. 

Schreyer came up with the ‘tiger nose’ grille design that has been a Kia signature ever since, and led Kia’s new focus on Europe which saw the opening of a major production plant in Slovakia in 2006.

New core models, including the Picanto city car, the Cee’d range of family hatches, and successive generations of the Sportage SUV, accelerated Kia up the car-maker pecking order, fueled by continual improvements in quality and being at the forefront of technology – Kia’s first electric vehicle, the Soul, was launched in 2009 long before EVs became a trend. 

By 2016, Kia was winning a host of awards for both its cars and customer satisfaction. The transformed image of Kia has been reflected in the brand’s sales –  from 500,000 cars annually in 1998 to more than 3 million in 2023.

What models does Kia have and what else is coming?

Kia’s current model range can be split neatly into two – the traditional, mainly combustion-engined, models and the much newer range designed from the start as electric vehicles  – currently this second range numbers just two.

Launched in 2022 and claiming The Car Expert Car of the Year award, the EV6 is a sharply-styled SUV closely related to the Hyundai Ioniq 5. It comes in two or four-wheel-drive form, buyers being able to choose their model with an emphasis on range or power.

Launched late in 2023 was the EV9, a much bigger and blunter model with seven-seat capability and assuming the role of Kia’s flagship offering. It recently won the World Car of the Year award.

These aren’t the only electric choices in the Kia line-up however. The small crossover Niro, and box-shaped Soul, have both been offered as combustion models but are also sold in electric form, with the Niro also available as a hybrid.

Core of the traditional range is the Ceed family hatch. Its range includes a sporty estate called the ProCeed and a crossover, the XCeed. 

Some model names have been around a long time – the Sportage and Sorento SUVs have both been through several generations, as have the Picanto city car, the Rio supermini and its SUV sister, the Stonic. 

Kia’s future plans are focused firmly on the EV range – first to arrive is expected to be the EV5, effectively a smaller version of the EV9, while in the next five years we are also likely to see an EV4 rivalling the Tesla Model 3, and a smaller SUV dubbed the EV3. 

Current Kia range on our Expert Rating Index

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Where can I try a Kia car?

You won’t have too far to go if you fancy trying a Kia for yourself – over the years the brand’s UK network has grown to the point that its around 190 outlets are only beaten for quantity by Ford and Vauxhall.

Kia dealerships all have the same quality corporate image but in terms of size and location vary immensely. The flagship outlet in Brentford, London, rises over four floors and towers over the elevated section of the M4 motorway, whereas Gravells, a Welsh group that consistently takes Kia’s top dealer award, has its main showroom in Kidwelly, a town of only around 3,500 people.  

What makes Kia different to the rest?

Most car makers produce a model or two that fail to impress, a sense of ‘why did they bother doing that’ but this is not something that can be levelled at today’s Kia – even the Stinger, a large grand tourer-type car very different to typical Kia product and only on sale for five years, had plenty of fans who were sad to see it go. 

Kia’s exterior styling with the signature tiger-nose grille is generally positively received, but the cars sell mainly on a combination of quality and technology that is at the forefront of the mainstream market and comparable to some premium offerings. 

A Kia fact to impress your friends

Always had a desire to get yourself an example of a 1990s-era Lotus Elan? Check the badges, as it might not be a Lotus…

After the Norfolk maker canned the Elan in 1995, it sold the rights to the car to Kia, which then built it in South Korea between 1996 and 1999. 

On the outside, the Kia Elan looked virtually identical to the Lotus version (the main difference being the tail lights), but under the bonnet it had a Kia 1.8-litre petrol engine rather than the 1.6-litre turbo from Isuzu that Lotus used.

Only around 1,000 were made, sold only in Korea and Japan.  


There’s no such thing as a car maker that can do no wrong but Kia appears to come pretty close – once easily dismissed, Kia is an automotive success story with its cars driven by thousands of happy owners.

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Andrew Charman
Andrew Charman
Andrew is a road test editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.