After years of being known for its nice, low-priced cars that rarely stood out on American roads, Kia has taken a huge step in changing that perception.
The automaker on Wednesday was rated the No. 1 brand in J.D. Power's annual survey of new model reliability, making it the first nonluxury brand to top the list since 1989.
"Ten years ago they were on the other end [of the rankings] and they've been slowly moving up, and moving up by leaps and bounds in the last few years," said Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive quality at J.D. Power.
Last year, the brand ranked No. 2.
Stephens credited the Korean automaker's steady ascent to its focus on "cleaner" launches of new models, where problems often pop up. She said Kia's manufacturing plants and dealers in the U.S. are doing a better job producing the brand's vehicles.
That improvement could explain why Kia was ranked slightly below the industry average in a separate study by J.D. Power earlier this year. In that survey among drivers of 3-year-old vehicles, Kia owners reported 153 problems per 100 vehicles, compared with the industry average 152.
Michael Sprague, chief operating officer for Kia Motors America, said the brand's No. 1 ranking in the latest J.D. Power survey "is the result of Kia's decade-long focus on craftsmanship and continuous improvement, and reflects the voice of our customers, which is the ultimate affirmation."