Mighty oaks from little acorns grow
On 1st August 2021, Kia UK celebrates a significant milestone of 30 years in the UK. Starting out with its cars being distributed by a small importer, the company has grown over the years into a wholly manufacturer-owned subsidiary.
On day one, there was just one diminutive model in Kia’s UK line-up – the Pride. Fast forward 30 years and the range has grown to 11 distinctive nameplates in the UK, expanding to 12 in October 2021 with the introduction of the exciting Kia EV6 – Kia’s flagship electric vehicle. The EV6 will sit alongside the e-Niro and Soul EV, its two award-winning zero emissions models.
Since Kia’s arrival in the UK in July 1991, more than 1.2 million cars have been sold here in Britain.
The first decade
In the early days, Kia was imported into the UK by MCL Group, based in Tunbridge Wells. The company also imported Mazda vehicles from Japan, as well as the Sao brand from South Africa. For the first four years, the Pride was the only model to be offered in the UK, in three- and five-door hatchback guises, or as a van.
The first launch for Kia in the UK was held in June 1991 at the Oakley Court Hotel near Windsor. The initial Pride line-up in 1991 consisted of 1.1L and 1.3LX models, with a choice of three- and five-door hatchbacks. A three-door van derivative arrived in 1992. The Pride continued on sale in the UK until 2000 and was subsequently replaced by two separate small cars: the Rio (launched in the UK in 2001) and the Picanto (in 2004). During the Pride’s nine-year life, several special edition models were launched, including the Graphite and Melody in 1994, Pzazz in 1995, Georgia and Phoenix versions in 1996, and the Shout in 1997.
The Kia range expanded with the launch of the medium-sized Mentor saloon in 1994, followed by the Sportage in 1995. The latter was built in Europe by Karmann in Osnabrück, Germany. More practical hatchback versions of the Mentor arrived in 1996, and 1999 saw the introduction of the Sedona seven-seat MPV, the Mentor II saloon, Shuma hatchback, and Clarus large sedan.
In 2000, a smaller MPV, the Carens, was added to the range alongside the Sedona, while the Rio supermini and Magentis saloon were introduced in 2001. 2002 saw the arrival of the Shuma II to the Kia UK line-up.
From 1991 to 2001, during its first decade in the UK, Kia sold a total of 55,903 vehicles.
In August 2002, the factory took over the responsibility for importing Kia cars into the UK, and Kia Motors (UK) Limited was born. The headquarters moved to a new address at The Heights at Brooklands, Surrey, with Paul Williams appointed as Managing Director. The prestige offices overlooked the famous Brooklands racetrack and backed onto the museum.
The Sorento made its debut in the UK in February 2003. However, rather than launch its hugely capable new model in the UK, Kia embarked on its most ambitious event to date and took journalists to Morocco to sample the five-door SUV. The tough terrain proved that the Sorento could stand up to anything that could be thrown at it. Even today, the original Sorento is still well regarded as a hugely tough towing machine with a 3.5-tonne maximum towing weight.
Kia sold its 100,000th new car in the UK during 2004, the same year that the Picanto first went on sale. The Cerato hatchback and saloon arrived, too, followed by the new second-generation Sportage in early 2005. The second-generation Rio arrived at dealers in September 2005.
A new era of management
2006 marked a major step change for the brand in Europe. In June that year, the new Sedona arrived in showrooms and one month later, Peter Schreyer – famed designer of the Audi TT – was appointed as Chief Design Officer. In the UK, Paul Williams left the business in August 2006 and was replaced by Paul Philpott in February 2007. Philpott’s arrival coincided with one of Kia’s most significant launches of the decade, with the new cee’d arriving at UK showrooms.
The arrival of the cee’d also marked the launch of production at Kia Motors Slovakia. This major landmark saw the brand start production at its first European production plant, located in Žilina, Slovakia, and allowed the cee’d to offer Europe’s first factory-backed comprehensive seven-year warranty. Designed and engineered in Europe, for Europe, the name stands for ‘Community of Europe with European Design’. Later in the year, the second-generation Carens seven-seater appeared in dealerships.
A three-door version of the cee’d was launched early in 2008, named the pro_cee’d, adding a slightly sportier aspect to the line-up. It had a lower and longer stance in comparison to the five-door hatchback that had already made waves in Europe.
The 2008 recession impacted car sales dramatically, yet Kia continued to grow its market share. The UK Government introduced a scrappage scheme to stimulate sales in the car sector, offering a £2,000 allowance available to anyone buying a new car, and trading in a vehicle that was more than 10 years old. Half of the scrappage grant was funded by the government, the other half by vehicle manufacturers. Announced in April 2009 and introduced a month later, the scrappage scheme continued until February 2010.
Kia was well placed to take advantage of the offer, and in 2009, its new car registrations grew by almost 60 per cent to 50,649 units – the first time that the company had sold more than 50,000 units in the space of a year. Paul Philpott was promoted to Chief Operating Officer for Kia Motors Europe in June 2009, with Michael Cole replacing him as Managing Director in the UK.
2009 – Soul arrival
One of the most distinctive Kia models arrived in March 2009, with a range of distinctively designed versions bringing more colour and interest to the brand’s UK showrooms. The Kia Soul made its UK debut with models named ‘Burner’, ‘Samba’ and ‘Shaker’. A range of additional special editions were launched throughout its life, including the ‘Hunter’, ‘Echo’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Quantum’ and ‘Searcher’. In November 2009, Kia announced the introduction of its first direct injection petrol engine, named GDi (Gasoline Direct Injection) and based on the ‘Theta II’ engine family.
2010 and 2011 – seven-year warranty and a Reasonably Priced Car
In January 2010, Kia announced that it was extending its comprehensive warranty to cover all models in the European line-up, from the Picanto city car right through to the then-new second-generation Sorento SUV, due to make its debut the following month. Although UK Sorentos were supplied from Kia’s Hwaseong plant in South Korea, the second-generation Sorento was the first Kia to be made in the USA at the company’s newly completed West Point factory in Georgia. Just as the Sorento arrived in showrooms, another newcomer waited in the wings: the Europe-exclusive Kia Venga was launched in early 2010, offered with a choice of petrol or diesel engines.
In June 2010, the newly facelifted cee’d blasted onto television screens in a regular Sunday evening slot, as BBC Top Gear’s ‘Reasonably Priced Car’. For three years, the reasonably priced cee’d ‘2’ 1.6 manual was raced around the Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey, with celebrity drivers including Rowan Atkinson, Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, John Bishop, Louis Walsh, Fiona Bruce, Bob Geldof, and Jonathan Ross to name but a few.
But it was American TV star and future Top Gear presenter Matt LeBlanc who topped the leader board, with a 1:42.1 lap time. Kia also provided a visually identical “cee-apostrophe-d” – as Jeremy Clarkson referred to it – with an automatic transmission for those who weren’t able to drive a manual, including Amber Heard, Alice Cooper, John Prescott and will.i.am. The wooden spoon went to Damian Lewis, who managed a lap time of 2:09.1 in the snow. During the three years that the cee’d played its role as Top Gear’s ‘Reasonably Priced Car’, a total of 41 stars found themselves behind the wheel.
Away from the glamour of Sunday evening television, the third-generation Sportage arrived in showrooms in August 2010, with a special First Edition selling out ahead of the regular model range arriving in November. This set the tone for many more future First Edition models that would arrive in the Kia stable.
The brand took another important step at the start of 2011, further enhancing awareness and contributing to the ongoing evolution of customers’ perceptions. On 1 January 2011, Kia announced its new partnership with Surrey County Cricket Club and its sponsorship of The Oval landmark. The partnership still exists today, more than a decade later, making it one of the longest in associations in English sport. The brand is synonymous today with the iconic stadium and its calendar of county, T20 and international matches.
Later that year, the second-generation Picanto and third-generation Rio were also unveiled at the 2011 Geneva Motor Show, with UK sales of each commencing later that summer.
This second decade was significantly different compared to the first, thanks to increasingly competitive, well-designed cars, and presence in a greater number of vehicle segments than ever before. As a result, Kia UK’s 10-year sales between 2001 and 2011 had increased by 514% to 343,119 vehicles.
2012 and 2013 – reaching half a million UK sales
One of the first cars Kia launched in 2012 was the Optima. The new saloon boasted sharp styling, a punchy 134bhp 1.7-litre CRDi turbodiesel engine and a choice of four trim levels. January 2012 also marked the one millionth car rolling off the production line at Kia’s Žilina plant in Slovakia. In July 2012, Paul Philpott returned to the UK and became the first non-Korean President and Chief Executive Officer of any Kia subsidiary in Europe. Repeating history, his return to Kia UK coincided with the launch of the new cee’d, this time in its second generation. Closing the year, the Sorento gained a facelift, a strengthened bodyshell and revised styling, arriving at showrooms in December 2012.
The Carens was replaced with an all-new seven-seater in early 2013, with its international launch taking place a stone’s throw away from the F1 track in Monaco. Testament to how far Kia’s engineering prowess had come, the Carens excelled on the famous racetrack, albeit journalists were asked not to hit F1 speeds in the multi-purpose vehicle. The media were given access to a second car too, with the first drive of the second-generation pro_cee’d also taking place during the international media event.
Kia achieved a significant sales milestone in June 2013, selling its 500,000th new car since the brand’s arrival in the UK in 1991. In the same month, Kia’s pro_cee’d GT went on sale in the UK, powered by a 201bhp 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine. With a top speed of 143mph, acceleration to 60mph takes 7.4 seconds.
A continued expansion of the business saw the company outgrow its Brooklands offices, with a move to a new three-storey headquarters at Walton Green, Surrey, in November 2013. The prestigious new address saw Kia’s head office double in size to 31,000 square feet, with space for up to five cars in a purpose-built ground-floor showroom.
2014 and 2015 – GTs and electrification
In February 2014, the cee’d GT arrived at showrooms with 201bhp and 265Nm of torque. The second edition of the Soul was also available to buy in UK showrooms from April 2014, with a choice of petrol and diesel engines.
The latest iteration of Kia’s largest car in the UK, the Sorento, went on sale in the UK on 1 April 2015, followed by the Soul EV – Kia’s first globally sold battery electric vehicle. The Soul EV initially went on sale in October 2015, and was later revised in 2017 with a larger 30kWh battery pack. The first step on the brand’s electrification journey, the Soul EV was joined by Kia’s second electric vehicle, the e-Niro in April 2019. July 2019 marked the introduction of the third-generation Soul, now sold exclusively in pure electric guise in Europe.
December 2015 marks the launch of the second-generation Optima saloon in the UK, which is sleeker, smoother and utilises even better-quality materials than before. The new Europe-only Optima Sportswagon joins the line-up the following September, at the same time as the plug-in hybrid saloon arrives in the UK. 12 months later, the Optima Sportswagon PHEV completes the line-up.
2016 and 2017 – three new best-sellers and the Stinger
The big-selling Sportage was replaced with a new model in February 2016 and this fourth-generation car has gone on to be the most popular iteration of the mid-sized SUV. In fact, in 2016, the Sportage set a sales record for the model with 40,083 examples registered in a single year, while in 2017, it came close to surpassing the figure with 39,683 cars registered. In April 2016, Kia celebrated the sale of its 750,000th model, with the landmark car a Sportage GT-Line.
Kia’s first purpose-built hybrid, the Niro, arrived in UK showrooms in July 2016, followed by plug-in hybrid and pure electric editions. Buyers took to the vehicle immediately and the Niro has subsequently become the second best-selling Kia vehicle behind the Sportage, with 18,530 units sold in 2020.
In December 2016, Kia celebrates ten years of producing cars in Europe, at its plant in Slovakia.
Just a few weeks into 2017, Kia dealers were readying themselves to receive stock of the fourth generation Rio, offered on sale from 1 February 2017 with a choice of petrol and diesel power. Its sister model, the Stonic – a new B-segment SUV – launched later that year. In March 2017, the new Picanto made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show. The third-generation Picanto was available to UK customers in the summer – and in 2021 is one of the UK’s best-sellers in the A-segment.
Before the year was out, Kia launched something rather special. The Stinger – the company’s new flagship fastback – hit showrooms in October 2017, with the range crowned by a 3.3-litre twin-turbocharged V6 petrol engine. With 360bhp on tap, a top speed of 168mph and acceleration to 60mph in 4.7 seconds, it called for a different kind of launch – and media were invited to max out the car on the live runway at Newquay Airport, with full approval from air traffic control.
2018 and 2019 – going electric
The Sportage hit five million global sales in March 2018, while an all-new Ceed family arrived early the same year, making its public debut at the Geneva Motor Show. As well as hatchback and Sportswagon estate versions, Kia unveiled a ProCeed five-door shooting brake as a third bodystyle. Replacing the earlier three-door pro_cee’d, the new model served as a more rakish, more practical successor, going on-sale across the UK at the start of 2019.
One of the most important cars in Kia’s current line-up was also revealed in 2018. The e-Niro was unveiled in May 2018, powered by a long-range 64kWh battery pack and capable of 282 miles from a single charge (WLTP, combined cycle). A marker of things to come from Kia, the e-Niro instantly won plaudits from across the industry for its blend of range, value, performance, and quality. It even topped the 2019 What Car? Car of the Year awards – making it the first electric car ever to win one of the most highly-regarded and influential new car prizes in the UK.
A major sales milestone was reached by Kia UK early in 2019: the brand announced that it had sold its one-millionth car in the UK. This was the result of an expanding model line-up and rapidly increasing popularity among British buyers.
May 2019 marked the introduction of the facelifted Niro as the hybrid and plug-in hybrid crossover continued to grow in popularity. A new stylish crossover was added to the Ceed model family in July 2019, named the XCeed. Initially sold in petrol and diesel guise, a plug-in hybrid version also arrived at the beginning of 2020.
A summer of sport for Kia UK, a special one-off Stinger was also created and revealed in July 2019, a track-only monster created in partnership with Hyundai Motor Europe’s technical centre in Rüsselsheim, Germany. Rather than send a pre-production Stinger to the crusher, a plan was hatched to repurpose it, with power increased from 360 to 422bhp and torque from 510 to 560Nm. The Stinger GT420 made its debut at the legendary Silverstone race circuit and has since toured UK dealerships up and down the country. More recently, it was exhibited at the 2021 Goodwood Festival of Speed.
2019 also marked Kia UK’s best-ever annual sales results for the eighth consecutive year, with 97,323 units sold across Britain.
For obvious reasons, 2020 was a dramatic year in other ways, with the Covid-19 pandemic interrupting plans and lives worldwide.
The launch of the fourth-generation Sorento – electrified for the first time in its history – was the brand’s first-ever digital debut as a consequence of the 2020 Geneva Motor Show being cancelled. The new model was the most technologically advanced vehicle launched to-date by Kia, exhibiting a bold new expression of Kia’s evolving design language and a significant uplift in quality and performance. The car was eventually launched in the UK in September 2020, with a new Sorento Plug-in Hybrid added to the line-up in early 2021.
2021 and beyond
In January 2021, Kia unveiled a new brand identity, combined with its new ‘Movement that inspires’ slogan. The change marks a move beyond traditional vehicle manufacturing, to create more sustainable mobility solutions for its customers worldwide. ‘Motors’ is dropped from the Kia Motors name used by Kia subsidiaries around the world – and in the UK, the company is officially renamed to Kia UK Limited. Alongside the new slogan and direction, the company also unveiled a new logo and corporate colour scheme, which now adorns the brand’s UK headquarters at Walton Green. The new identity is set to be rolled out across Kia’s UK-wide dealer network from the start of 2022 until mid-2024.
Having recorded a total of 399,022 sales during its first 20 years in the UK, the last 10 years have seen that figure grow even more significantly. Since 2011, Kia has now sold 812,449 vehicles in the UK, making up 67% – more than two thirds – of the company’s total UK sales to date.
Plan S and the future
The announcement of the brand identity coincided with the acceleration of the brand’s ‘Plan S’ strategy, which will see 11 new EV models from Kia by 2026 – seven built on the new Electric-Global Modular Platform (E-GMP) architecture, and four derivative EVs based on other models. The first of these new models, the EV6, was revealed in March 2021 and is set to arrive in UK showrooms from October 2021. As the company’s first dedicated electric vehicle, it offers long range, zero emissions, and ultra-fast 800V charging.
In May 2021, Kia also revealed the first images of the new Sportage, due on sale in the UK in early 2022. The news coincided with the announcement that the four millionth Kia had rolled off the production line at its European plant in Žilina – predictably, the landmark car was a Sportage.
Both the EV6 and new Sportage will help to fulfil Kia’s mid-to-long term strategy for BEVs, PHEVs and HEVs to make up 40 per cent of the brand’s total global sales by 2030. The company has an annual global sales target of 1.6 million units for such eco-friendly models – and as part of this, Kia aims to grow its BEV sales to 880,000 units in 2030 and become a top global seller. Purpose-Built Vehicles (PBVs) also form a key pillar of Plan S, with the company due to reveal a range of vehicles specifically targeted at certain types of business customers. The first such vehicle will be revealed in due course.