By Alex Taylor III
December 2, 2010

If you had to pick the one import car brand least likely to survive the economic turmoil of the last ten years, Kia would have been at the top of the list.

It is the most recent entry into the U.S. market, having only arrived on these shores in 1994, later than third-tier Japanese companies like Suzuki and Isuzu.

American car buyers were hardly waiting for another Korean auto manufacturer to show up. Hyundai, which had arrived in the U.S. eight years earlier, was still finding out what Americans demanded in the way of quality. Daewoo, a third Korean automaker, showed up shortly afterward, only to collapse in a 2002 bankruptcy.

Nor did Kia have any competitive advantage or reputation on which to base its entry. For many years, it survived by selling the least expensive cars on the market.

That was then. At some point, Kia acquired critical mass and its sales began to take off. Some date it to the hiring of Peter Schreyer of Audi in 2006 as chief design officer and his subsequent creation of a new corporate grille with honeycomb mesh known as “Tiger Nose.”

Once rather bland, Kias now have a fresh, friendly look that is distinctive, attractive, and lifts them out of the bargain bin category.

Thanks to a surge of redesigned models, Kia sales have risen 39% this year (vs. 13% for the entire industry), and it has become the eighth most popular brand in America, ahead of Jeep, Dodge, and Subaru.

Three of its vehicles have been short-listed for North American Car and Truck of the year honors. No manufacturer has more.

Oddly, Kia’s most popular model is not one of its cheap and cheerful small cars like Rio or Soul, but its flagship: the 2011 Sorento crossover.

For 2011, the Sorento is all-new, moving from an old-style body and frame construction to a lighter, more flexible unibody.

It also moves up in price. Built in Kia’s new U.S. plant in West Point, Ga., the V-6 Sorento carries an MSRP of $28,095. My Titanium Silver test car with navigation system, leather, sunroof, and 18-inch wheels stickered at a not-insubstantial $34,840.

Clearly no Black Friday special, the Sorento stacks up ably against the other heavy hitters in this fast-growing, ultra-competitive segment of compact crossovers. It is functional, pleasing to the eye, and light on its feet. Steering precision and feel, ride and handling, and performance are above average for this group.

The availability of the six-cylinder engine is something the Chevy Equinox and Honda CR-V can’t match, and the Sorento’s third row of seats, while not adult-friendly, keep it in the game with larger vehicles.

Where Kia comes up short is in quality. Long a basement dweller in J.D. Power’s initial quality survey after 30 days of ownership, Kia still ranks below average, and it does only slightly better in three-year dependability.

That’s surprising, since Hyundai, one of the industry’s quality leaders, has been a minority shareholder since Kia went through bankruptcy in 1997.

Kia is a long shot at car or truck of the year honors for 2011, but given the speed of its development so far, that won’t be true for long.

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