Texas®

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, let me give you the good and the bad news: Kia makes some of the best looking cars on the road. That is all. You can decide if that is good or bad for yourself.

The 2011 Kia Optima showed up outside of my door the other day, and it’s a really good thing they put big logos on the grill and tail, because you really have to convince yourself it really is a Korean car. It looks like Kia took lessons on how to design a car right off the page of Honda or even BMW. And guess what? They did.

Kia’s design team has hit one out of the park before most Americans even realized they were playing. For years, Kia occupied the bottom wrung of the automotive ladder by providing the most “economical” (read: cheapest) cars in the market. What they had was a brand new car with one of the best warranties in the business but you had to live with driving something that felt as “Economical” as it indeed was.

A couple of years ago, Kia had a perception problem. After all, this company lead their landing in this country with a Ford-branded mini-car called the Fiesta. It was tiny, underpowered and rather pathetic. They then began to establish their own dealer network and started to roll out cars carrying their logo. The first couple of generations really didn’t help that quality reputation as they had the on-road handling of an Igloo Cooler with wheels and bore more of a horsepower comparison to a lawnmower than to the average American car. Most people saw them as cheap and were mostly worried about the little things breaking, so Kia addressed this by rolling out the longest warranty in the business.

Kia is now a part of Hyundai, their one time major Korean car rival. And the two companies share platforms the way General Motors does. The Optima and Hyundai Sonata are under-skin twins, which allows for shared development costs. This allows both brands to share in some stunning engineering and design success.

Driving around North Texas in the Optima was unique as I kept checking to see if it really was a Kia. For a while there, I thought one of my suppliers was trying to trick me and slipped me an Accord with Kia badges on it into my driveway. It really is that good.

A four door sedan that looks this good sounds like a great idea. Add in the fact it produces a respectable 24/34 mpg number out of either a four cylinder, or even a turbocharged option, and pushes 200 horsepower out of the normal 2.4l, and a very impressive 275 out of the turbo. Bring all of that together and add an interior with a feel of quality not-in-the-least cheap or clunky. Really, the interior of the Optima is as good as any car from any manufacturer, and when you consider the as-tested price of $27,440.00 comes in thousands below comparable vehicles, it starts to sound even better.

This car helps Kia, and the Korean automotive business in-particular, establish themselves more firmly in the North American market. Their incredible increase in sales numbers are testament to their success. Hyundai and Kia both have been on fire.

As important as the sales success and money that goes with it is to them, the Koreans covet something even more: Respect. Consider if you will: South Korea is the only country currently competing in the global automotive market that was once occupied militarily by three of its major business rivals. The Japanese, Chinese and Americans have all invaded, occupied or fought wars on Korean soil over the last 100 years. They share a peninsula with one of the few truly megalomaniac dictators left who seems hell bent on making South Korea an island by imploding the north in a great, James Bond-worthy master villain plan of destruction.

If ever there was a country that could suffer from “collective short-mans syndrome” it would be Korea. Their focus on not just building cars, but building the best cars, has been mirrored in other businesses. Just look at how companies like LG and Samsung have dominated the consumer electronics business over the last five years. They’ve usurped Japanese companies’ once total domination of that market by undercutting manufacturing costs and becoming true technological innovators.

If you look at it, Korea has done to the Japanese what the Japanese did to American manufacturing only 20 years off-step. This is a significant number, as I see Hyundai/Kia as sitting in almost the exact place that Toyota and Honda occupied 20 years ago. They have a great product line that includes sporty cars like the Forte Coupe (where the Civic SI used to be), the Optima (Camry Accord), and even the Hyundai Genesis, reaching into where Lexus and Acura once roamed unchallenged.

If you don’t believe in the idea of a Korean car with that kind of curb appeal, I highly recommend going out and driving the Optima soon. Also consider, that in the early 1980’s, people laughed at the idea of Toyota someday competing with Cadillac or Mercedes with their new Lexus Brand.

Oh, how times continue to change. But we as consumers win on this one.

Something has happened to Ford lately that I didn’t think would, or could happen. Ever.

A few years ago, Ford was in turmoil, the kind that can only happen when family is involved. It was in some ways like watching, from a distance, reruns of ‘Dynasty’ or ‘Dallas,’ where the bickering wealthy family members are at each other’s throats.

The great grandson of the founding Ford, Henry, had ascended to the big corner office of his birthright, only to find the glass tower was a little wobbly. For a generation or so, people not named Ford had led the company across some of the hardest days in American business.

The last family boss was Henry Ford II, or “Hank the Duce,” who took over as CEO of the company in 1960 and was at the helm during the introduction of the Mustang, the roaring 60s market, into the OPEC oil embargo and market crash, and watched the company head near the brink of disaster by the end of the 1970s.

Ford was, at the dawn of the 1980s, the world’s fourth largest industrial powerhouse, but aging product, inefficiencies in production and planning, and a global economy about to take a cyclical dip, the Ford Motor Company fell hard. So hard it almost went bankrupt. But in great crisis comes opportunity. Ford literally bet the future of the entire company on what became one of the most successful car launches in history, the Taurus.

The Duce had first come to the company during WWII, after the death of his father Edsel, and his grandfather Henry Sr., had erratically been tossing the company into and out of problems as a result of his own late life battles with what now is presumed to be Alzheimer’s. The federal government was on the brink of taking over Ford to ensure the reliability of war supplies generated by the company when The Duce was released early from his commission in the US Navy.

While leading the company, The Duce took the family business public and in part created both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. The company structure would place the “REAL” power in the hands of shareholders who held Class A stock, and virtually all of that stock was owned by Ford and Firestone family and the trusts they set up to perpetuate their wealth.

During the cycle of crisis and tremendous profits, it seems automobile companies make the mistake of believing their own press and take their eyes off the ball only to fall back into crisis. Ford did this with enthusiasm, spending billions on buying Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, and a great big chunk of Mazda.

Really the only one that has had enduring effect has been the relationship with Mazda. The Japanese company has become the de facto small car and truck division for Ford. Shared platforms and development costs have finally resulted in what is truly the first Global product for the blue oval, the Fiesta.

Ford used to claim “World Car” status because they sold the same name plate, the Escort, across multiple markets, but any car enthusiast could tell you the Escort they sold in Europe was head and shoulders above the anemic one we got on this side of the pond.

With the Fiesta, Ford has finally given us a car that is just as good in Mesquite as it is in Manchester, Marrakech or Madagascar.

It took a while for Ford to figure out that the American marketplace really is no different than Japan and Europe, at least when it comes to small cars. As long as you can meet the basic needs of the consumer with a high quality, good looking, responsive product you don’t need to load it down with chrome and bits of boy racer bravado.

The four door Fiesta featured here was a neat and proper Euro-Asiatic four door economy car with quality on par with any other maker in the world.

The purchase of any economy car is a need-centric buy. The Fiesta satisfies every need and then some.

The interior is nicely laid out with a minimalist approach with manual everything except the windows. The one enthusiastic accessory is the Ford/Microsoft developed Sync System. It works very well and is one of the best combination information/phone integration systems in the marketplace.

With the super economy class, you almost come to expect a lack of refinement, plastic that feels cheep and seats that feel like you are sitting on a milk crate. Nothing could be further from the truth in the Fiesta. The manual adjustments of the driver’s seat take a little fine-tuning, but once dialed in are quite comfortable. The manual clutch and 5-speed tranny is very Mazda-ish, which is high praise.

You are never going to set any speed records with the Fiesta, unless you drive off the top deck of a parking garage, but sticking the revs into their upper quadrant and keeping them there makes for a fun little point and squirt car. It’s only limitations come from the inherent performance issues that are typical for any front wheel drive car.

There is surprisingly efficient trunk space under the rear hatch, but the Fiesta’s rear seat might not be the ideal place for a long journey. As a point of reference: after adjusting the driver’s seat to my ideal position (I am 6’1”), I noticed the seat back was well behind the B pillar, fully visible through the outside rear door.

As a need-satisfying option, the Fiesta competes with products from all over the world and does so with an observed fuel economy of +35MPG. Cashing out (as tested) at just a tick over $17,500, the Fiesta is a very good option that should be considered.

The metallic ‘Lime Twist’ car provided to Any Driven Sunday was taken up around the back roads by Celina High School for the accompanying images, and it really is a fun and efficient way of getting around. The color kind of gave me the feeling that I was driving a lime in search of a colossal margarita, but a little car like this can handle the flamboyance.

Ford’s greatest PR win in years came during the depth of crisis, as former Boeing CEO and current Ford Chief, Alan Mulally, sat in Washington alongside his Chrysler and GM counterparts. They sat in one of the most hostile meetings before congress, as GM and Chrysler were seeking help from the federal government as their companies teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. When asked what Ford wanted from these bailouts he quietly answered, “Nothing, we are just here to support our friends at General Motors and Chrysler.”

Two years before Ford had again bet the farm, literally mortgaging the entire empire including the Intellectual Property of the Blue Oval’s iconic brands to again rework the company. This time they did it just before credit dried up and the bottom fell out of the economy.

To many observers of all things automotive, it was a shocking whisper. It would be something like hearing the Detroit Lions (also owned by the Ford family) had just won the Super Bowl. Those words and the fact that Ford didn’t need to accept federal bailout money has turned into a marketing an PR boon for Ford, along with the positive ink suddenly shining on Dearborn, the perennial halo of infallibility on Toyota was tarnished by the gas pedal fiasco, and damn if Ford didn’t manage to look good on that one, too.