For Kia, global product should come with local tweaks

For Kia, global product should come with local tweaks

One of the major reasons for Kia's phenomenal rise in recent years is its ability to produce specific models in and for the markets where they are sold. It's a 'think globally, act locally' approach.

The cee'd hatchbacks and estate are exclusively European products, for example, albeit closely linked to the Forte range sold in American and Asia. The KX3 is a small crossover made and sold only in China. There have been distinctly different Optima hybrids for US and left-hand-drive European markets.

But there are other Kias - Rio, Soul, Sportage, Optima and Sorento - which are sold globally, and here's where localisation proves more of a challenge. "You get what you get, then have to do the fine-tuning," says Hight Flexman, the product development manager for Kia North America.

For cars to be sold in the US, this work mostly takes place at the Hyundai America Technical Centre Inc (HATCI), a 4,300-acre proving ground in the Mojave desert 110 miles north of Los Angeles.

It is linked to the Hyundai Motor Group's laboratory centre at Ann Arbor, Michigan, but findings are also regularly exchanged with the main R&D centre at Namyang in Korea as well as the European facility in Frankfurt. HATCI will also have a lot of input into the cars that Kia will begin producing at its new Mexico plant next year.

"A lot of cars may be primarily designed for other markets," says Flexman. "We have to convince Korea that this is what we want a car to be because other markets may see it differently. We are currently drawing up a list of items to create a Kia North America DNA. It could be everything from how a horn sounds to how a car rides or how the steering feels."

HATCI does more than Americanise global products, however. Because of its inhospitable conditions - temperatures of 40ºC are regarded as mild, though heavy rain and even snow are not unknown - it is ideal for durability and materials testing. It also has a hand in the safety, design and quality of cars.

It was established in 2004 at a cost of US$58m and has 75 miles of road and off-road courses where cars can be pummelled mercilessly, plus its own offices, shops, car washing, fuelling and weathering facilities. One of the more bizarre sights is the area given over to racks and glass cases packed with interior and body components left out to bake in the sun to test their durability.

There are 23 permanent staff, but this can grow to more than 100 when the workload is high. The site is also home to bobcats, coyotes, rattlesnakes, birds of prey and even the odd brown bear, while all manner of desert flora springs up after a rain shower. A colony of endangered desert tortoises had to be moved and monitored for five years , at a cost of more than US$3 million, before permission to build the site was granted.

"We start [on a new car] two years before the product goes on sale," says Flexman. "We will look at the competitors and narrow down the field for benchmarks. A year later we see the first clay model with the people from J D Power."

There then begins a cycle of viewing prototypes, getting early on-road impressions, tuning, packaging the car for the North American market and collating objective data while continually sending feedback to Korea before the final ride and drive exercise.

"We get all the J D Power surveys and the verbatim complaints from customers [about outgoing models]," says Flexman. "Sometimes there are issues which can't be fixed before the next model or the next model year, but we see ourselves as the voice of the customer."   

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