It marked an extraordinary journey for the firm who, in the space of 12 months, have helped changed their image from the maker of value-for- money motors, into a car company that can build a stylish car to rival some of the most established names in the business.
The Sportage has not only done its bit in transforming the company that builds it, but it has created a template for all successive Kias to follow. The changing fortunes of the Korean firm means the dealers who rode through the unfashionable days are now laughing all the way to the bank – and there are many more joining a long queue to get hold of the franchise.
To celebrate this ground-breaking Kia, Car Dealer headed to the factory that builds it, in Slovakia, to watch the 7,000th car created. We’ve also spoken to Kia UK boss Michael Cole and the dealer principal of Kia Bolton to find out what it’s like selling such a pioneering car.
firm introduce a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty as standard across its range. Soon after a British firm went a few steps further by introducing a warranty that lasts a lifetime. Arguably the first to realise a good warranty is key for UK car buyers was Kia. It has been providing a warranty that covers 100,000 miles and lasts for seven years since 2006 – and January of last year saw it rolled out across the entire model range.
The first Kia which came with the then industry-leading warranty was the Cee’d, a car which started to reverse Kia’s fortunes and began to show Europe that the brand could produce a well-built, attractively styled and keenly priced competitor in the all-important C-segment.
It was – and still is – an important car for the Korean firm who cannily realised that one of the best ways of convincing Europeans to buy Kias was not only to hone the car’s handling characteristics on European roads, but also to build the car in Europe.
A 410-acre site, deep in the mountains of Zilina, north west Slovakia, was chosen for a brand new factory to build a new range of Kias which would transform the brand. The ground was broken in April 2004, construction began in October of that year, and by December 2006 production in large volumes began. In essence it’s the home of the seven-year warranty.
‘The Cee’d having the seven-year warranty from launch was a real message about quality and reliability and of the standard of product coming out of our European factory,’ Kia Motors UK managing director Michael Cole explains.
‘The UK wasn’t the creator of the seven-year warranty – it was something which we wanted to have. But we pushed hard for it to be extended to the whole range because we knew the benefit it would bring to our sales.’
The extension of the warranty to all models in January 2010 was helpful as it conveniently formed part of Kia’s exit strategy from the scrappage scheme. ‘We also had that message out there that here is a car company that is giving its buyers seven years of warranty – that is a confident car company,’ added Cole.
There’s no doubt that Kia could not have adopted such a confident stance with the seven- year warranty without a state-of-the-art factory in Zilina. The plant is the workplace for more than 3,000 employees who have helped build some 730,000 Kias since 2006. Along with the Cee’d and, from October, Venga, the Zilina factory also produces the Sportage.
Last year 90,000 Sportages were made at the plant, and with the all-new model penned by ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer launched last year, Kia is quickly reaching major production milestones. One of those is the 7,000th model for the UK.
This special car’s build process starts in the press shop where the major outer and inner panels are made. Large rolls of steel are processed in pressing machines which work tirelessly punching and churning out what were flat sheets of metal into recognisable car parts.
One panel can be pressed in just 20 seconds, and Kia’s astonishing attention to detail begins here with the panels checked by a 3D optical inspection process. Afterwards the panels are stored in an enormous Homebase-like shelving system which can house up to 7,000 panels. A dance between fork-lift trucks and a robot ensure they are stored quickly with minimal effort.
The next destination for our 7,000th Sportage is the bodyshop. It’s here where the Sportage starts to take on the look of an actual car, and the Schreyer-designed lines, gorgeous in bare steel, are revealed as a whole for the first time.
Different parts such as the Sportage’s floor, side structure and roof are all welded together by more than 300 robots, each one carrying identical spot welds. The production line can cater for eight different models but currently deals with five. Sat in front of the Sportage and amid a shower of sparks sits a Cee’d SW, and behind a Pro-cee’d. The robots can distinguish between the Cee’d family, the Sportage and, within time, the Venga.
The welded steel bodies are next transported to the paint shop, located over three floors. The Sportage is treated to a pre-treatment process, an electrochemical coating, a sealer and deadener, a primer coat, and a top coat. A 360-degree dipping process ensures the whole car is treated and painted, then an inspection and a wax follows.
‘Painting a car sounds an easy process,’ says the plant’s spokesman Dusan Dvorak, ‘but 10 different colours can be applied to the Sportage, and each car travels 4.6 miles by a conveyor belt in the paint shop alone.’
The Kias are then stored to dry out. Again it’s another DIY store-like storage system where 140 bodies can be placed to dry. ‘It has to be a speedy process,’ says Dvorak. ‘140 drying places quickly fill up.’
The painted Sportages, now adorned in their customers’ colour choices, then make their way across a glass-walled tunnel into the assembly shop. The 7,000th Sportage, finished in Arctic White, waits with others destined for left-hand drive countries.
All doors are removed and are taken away by more robots. ‘It makes the workers’ jobs easier to do it with the doors out of the way,’ explains Dvorak.
The doors will be reunited with the cars later. The running gear is the first to be attached. More than 1,100 workers, on two shifts, are beavering away adding the suspension arms to Cee’d platforms and braking systems to Sportages.
Via tracks, the engines are delivered. They’ve come from the adjacent engine shop. Like the car production line, there’s five production lines in the engine shop – four cutting lines and an assembly line. Two petrol engines and three diesels are made there – but you wouldn’t know it. It has one of the cleanest floors in the world.
The Sportage body is then taken along a series of tracks high above the workers’ heads and lowered just in time to meet the exact platform and engine.
Then it’s on to the interior fit. The seat belts – being an important installation – have already been fitted. Lines of seats wait overhead, while robots pluck dashboards from a conveyor belt for fitment in the waiting car. It’s here where everything is stunningly timed – a Pro-Cee’d arrives along the belt and its specific dashboard waits on another conveyor belt, and its seats wait on another. No dashboard will go into the wrong car.
At the end of the assembly line, workers wait to inspect the work of their colleagues. ‘If there is a problem, it’s better to see it now and fix it immediately rather than later on in the process,’ remarks Dvorak.
And then off rolls the 7,000th Sportage. A factory worker jumps into it and starts it up. For her this Sportage is like no-other, and she trundles off to the exit where the Sportage is driven around the factory’s test track.
When the Sportage returns from the track, it’s driven through a tunnel where water is showered onto it to check for leaks (it’s just emerging from that stage in the picture on our cover). A final quality control and inspection follows and it’s then out into the parking lot. When the time is ready, the Sportage will be driven on to a train transporter to begin its journey to the UK.
IT’S A journey which finishes in dealerships like Alex Purdie’s. He’s dealer principal of Kia Bolton and every new transporter-load of Sportages puts a smile on his face.
‘I can’t help but like it – it makes up 20 per cent of my volume and is our biggest seller,’ says Purdie. ‘Seriously, though, I honestly like this car because of the way it looks. Though a fine car, the previous Sportage was just too utilitarian for the majority of buyers. It was more 4×4-like than the new one and traded more on its value-for-money positioning.
‘The latest Sportage really does appeal to all types of customer now. I can tell you many a story of a BMW X5 driver coming in and saying they have got to have a Sportage. We have had many buyers trading in their premium cars for the Sportage.
‘There is a waiting list, but we’ve realised that most customers are happy to wait for their car. ‘The problem came when we were selling the First Edition Sportage. We were putting customers’ names onto a never-ending waiting list. This was something which customers were surprised by because they were having to wait for a Kia, and our salespeople had never dealt with customers who had to be told they had to wait for their car.’
‘We make no apologies for the fact today’s Sportage is several thousand pounds dearer than the old one,’ says Cole, frankly. ‘That’s because we know that customers are accepting the brand more, and the Sportage is the car that represents this more than any other.’
Cole is frank about where he sees the Korean firm in the UK marketplace too.
‘The change in brand perception is going very well and we are continuing to move forward,’ he explains. ‘More people are considering us, and more people have a higher opinion of us.
‘But my own view is that if you went back to the Kia six years ago – with the exception of Sorento – the perception would have been cheap. It’s the same with clothes and electrical goods.
‘I had a Sportage for three months and I can genuinely say that in those few months, more people asked me about that car more than any other in my entire 25 years in the motor industry. The number of people who asked me in petrol stations “how does that drive?” – and I even had a few “what’s that?”, it was unbelievable.
‘The Sportage has really caught UK buyers’ imaginations, and if you put together that combination of cars looking good, excellent build quality, reliability, and the fact they come with a seven-year warranty, then it has made consumers question why wouldn’t they buy it. There’s still people out there, for sure, who still say “but it’s a Kia”. The difference is that we’re confident in what we’re doing is now big brand behaviour.’
And as we wave the 7,000th Sportage off on the train it dawns on us, Kia really has come a long way in a very short space of time.