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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."
Overall, J.D. Power's study found owners of nonluxury brands reported fewer problems than those with luxury models. And for just the second time in 30 years, Detroit's Big 3 automakers — General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler — all improved the reliability of their new models. Still, the Fiat brand remained toward the bottom of the list, with 174 problems reported per 100 vehicles. The industry average was 105 problems per 100 vehicles, an improvement over last year's 112.
One area where Kia and other automakers have excelled is improving the infotainment systems in their newest models. Issues with Bluetooth connectivity, navigation systems and other electronic features have become the biggest complaint for new car buyers, but Stephens said new cars are coming out with fewer glitches.
"Manufacturers are simplifying their controls to only show those controls that are most relevant to consumers," she said.
Consumers like Amy Nelson in Western Springs, Illinois, who said she bought a new Land Rover in part because the SUV's infotainment system did not overwhelm her.
"The appeal to me was that it didn't have all the bells and whistles, so it's simple and clean on the inside and is a good fit for me," she said.
The J.D. Power Initial Quality rankings were compiled after surveying more than 80,000 consumers about problems with their vehicles during the first three months of ownership.