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.

A number of years ago my friend, comedian Henry Cho, pointed out there is a tradition in the South, and especially in Texas, if you don’t have something nice to say about someone you just say: “Bless your heart.” It’s a classic, polite-but-biting, passive-aggressive put down.

Your neighbor chops his toe off with his lawnmower: “Bless his heart.” You’ve seen a baby that looks like it may have escaped from either the zoo or a Ringling Brothers Circus, “Bless his heart.” The woman at the office who can’t figure out how to open a link in an email, “Bless her heart.” Dodge rolls out the so-called “new” Avenger? Bless their hearts.

Dodge is in transition. Again. The current Avenger is a mid-life update of the mid-sized four-door sedan that Dodge sells tons of. Unfortunately, such sales figures are thanks mostly to budget-minded rental car companies and not real-life consumers. It was introduced in 2008 as the replacement of the Cloud cars (Stratus and Sebring), just as Dodge was beginning to descend down a very dark road into bankruptcy.

Honestly, Dodge does do a number of things right. They make fantastic full-sized trucks, great full-sized cars, such as the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. They also make some fun muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger and, well, let’s face it, they own the minivan.

What Chrysler has never done well is build a good small car. It’s the weak hand in a stacked deck. Look back in the same market space and you’ll see a tremendous trend of sad, tepid little cars like the Plymouth Breeze, or the Dodge Reliant K Car. Even before those, however, the Dart and Plymouth Volaré we’re taking up space in lots. Not even Ricardo Montalban could charm his way out of that dud.

Even their smaller cars have a history of being problematic. The first car that I bought myself, with my own money was a Plymouth Horizon, so I have a great deal of hands-on experience dealing with this story. The current smallest Dodge is the Caliber, which replaced the Neon. I’ve referred to this car as one of the worst cars in the market today, as it’s awkward, underpowered and just plain ugly.

I was driving the Avenger around when I had to do a little soul searching on this. I had to wonder if the issue with the car was me, actually. I’ve spent 25+ years reviewing cars and honestly, most of what I end up reviewing are sports, luxury and some pretty high-end rolling stock. So, there I was, sitting in the driver’s seat of the Avenger thinking: “I have more comfortable lawn furniture!” when I then wondered to myself, “Am I a car snob?”

Is the fact that the car is cheap casting such a bad taste in my mouth? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve driven a lot of other “cheap” cars that are thrifty in a way that seems to have a far more cohesive package.

I also have a fundamental belief that your standard-of-care on an economy model must be higher because the money being invested into the purchase is considerably more of the consumers total worth. If you are buying a $19,000 car, you’re doing so because you really need it. Odds are, you’re buying a car to transport a young family and possibly to get to multiple jobs to keep a roof over your head. Your monthly car note will be the second biggest expense behind your home and every penny has to count.

Further up the food chain of options, where people go out and buy Jaguars, or Land Rovers, the percentage of income-to-vehicle is not nearly as dire. That end of the market has its value, but odds are the customer has never had to take a jar into the “CoinMaster” to make the car payment.

So it’s not really a snobbery thing, after all, I too understand the reality of creating a meal out of offerings from the “Dollar Store,” and pinching a penny ’til Lincoln yells “uncle!” I realized the other day that my wardrobe has come almost exclusively out of Marshall’s and Ross, and the reason I learned auto-mechanics was because of that Plymouth Horizon. For me, it was either: Learn how to fix it myself or start earning more money to pay someone else to do it.

So in a way, I kind of owe part of my career to Chrysler for building such a horrific car back in the 1980’s. And if the Avenger was available then, it would have been one of the best cars in the market, where even into the 1990’s, the bar was higher and this would have been considered a run-away success. As the standard has increased along with the level of competition, I can’t help but say if I were looking for something in this price bracket the Avenger simply would not be the one for me.

Kia, Hyundai and even Ford have far better driving cars in this space, which are head and shoulders above the Avenger.

I spent some time with my friend Tony, who recently purchased an Avenger. In discussing why he made this choice, I understood that it was more of an appliance purchase than it was one of a car enthusiast. His principal automotive need is to get to work, and he looked at the Kia and Hyundai, but the Avenger simply had a bigger back seat for his growing, soccer-playing daughters. The Avenger does have a much bigger back seat than the competition, and as he put it, “I got the biggest car I could get at the price.” He loves his Avenger because it does what he bought it for, but also points out that if the family is going on a trip, they’ll be loading into his wife’s Pacifica.

It’s extraordinarily expensive to bring a new car into the market. From concept to curbside, it takes years and untold millions of dollars. The Avenger’s midlife update is a step in the right direction, at least. It’s better than the Avenger it replaces and in reality, it’s the end of the whimpering line of cars from Detroit.

Chrysler has never really figured out how to build a good small car their new owners, Fiat, specializes in. Not only do they have the experience, designers and desire to excel in this market, they also have that indefinable Italian passion that exudes confidence and flair.

I look forward to what comes out of the new Chrysler as they invest in the replacement for this rental-ready Avenger, as well as its sister car, the Chrysler 200. Sorry, Chrysler: Even with Eminem providing the Detroit-centric theme music for the rebirth of the company, I can’t help but think of another Southernism I once heard an old rancher say: “You can’t polish a turd. Bless your heart.”