- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

When Kia launched the new Soul in South Korea last fall, negative comments about some interior features filtered back to the company. Kia quickly mobilized its designers and engineers to fix the issues, not waiting for a yearly model change to make the remedies.

“Things move much quicker here than they do at Ford,” says Michael Sprague, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors of America. He came to Kia about a year ago after a stint at Ford.

As an example of quick movement, Mr. Sprague says the Soul concept made its world debut at the Detroit Auto Show in 2006 and went on sale in South Korea in 2008. It’s now on sale in the United States as a 2010 model.

The principal complaints of South Korean customers who purchased the Soul focused on the front side doors and the center console between the front seats. Hard plastics in the doors were unacceptable to early South Korean buyers.

The same complaints were voiced by American automotive journalists earlier this year after they tested part of a small fleet of South Korean spec cars brought to California for evaluation. In addition, customers and journalists complained that the center console made it difficult to lift and release the parking brake.

“We will do running changes in the doors starting in June,” Mr. Sprague says.

The hard plastic in the door liners below the windows will be replaced with a cloth insert that is softer to the touch. It took only four months to make the change in the front doors from when the problem was first noted by South Korean customers. Kia will use the same kind of cloth inserts in the doors of the new Forte, scheduled to go into production in April and on sale in the United States in June.

Kia will also use a “soft paint” on the grab bars of the Soul’s front doors to provide a softer, more lubricious touch. “The soft paint is used by high-end manufacturers a lot,” Mr. Sprague says.

Kia collaborates with the same suppliers to effect the changes, he says. The console supplier rushed a redesign of its component through in 30 days so it was ready for production for the U.S. launch of the Soul.

This kind of continuous improvement is part of the Kia drive to respond quickly to customer reaction. When the 2009 Borrego premiered last year, the market asked for an upscale version of the SUV. Kia was able to develop a special limited version into production two months after Job 1. It featured new technology such as a push button start switch. Some early buyers also requested a backup camera, and Kia developed one for a running change starting in September.

The Borrego’s ride quality also displeased some customers. Kia engineers designed modifications for four dampeners to smooth ride quality. The running change will go into production in June. Also, the carpeting in the 2009 Sedona drew customer complaints that it soiled too easily. Kia immediately substituted a darker color that was less prone to soiling.

The Soul got off to a fast start in its first month on sale in the United States and has produced more feedback to Kia about customer reactions to the model.

The company is considering even more improvements. “We’re keeping the Soul as fresh as possible,” a Kia spokesman says. Other interior enhancements will soon be incorporated into the funky new box-shaped Soul.

Mr. Sprague says Kia is determined to remain flexible and nimble when it comes to responding to customer feedback on its products. The quick changes to the Soul are part of the drive to respond to customer concerns quickly and effectively.

When the coup version of the Forte goes on sale early next year, it will also benefit from the same type of changes that Kia incorporated in the Forte sedan, the spokesman says.

Responding quickly to customer comments is costly, but it may be profitable in the long run to keep its buyers satisfied. That may be why Kia is one of the few brands that’s faring well in the imploding automotive marketplace. The South Korean brand continues to pick up market share as other brands suffer shrinking sales and fortunes.

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