How Kia Went from Worst to First in Reliability

Korean automakers took three of the top four spots in J.D. Power’s 2022 Vehicle Dependability Survey.

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Owners of three-year-old Kia vehicles reported fewer problems with their cars and SUVs than owners of other vehicles, according to a recent survey from J.D. Power. That’s a far cry from what Kia drivers reported as recently as a decade ago, when the budget Korean brand ranked well below average in J.D. Power’s Vehicle Dependability Survey. If we flip our calendars back just a few decades, when fledgling Kia offered just a few models that were largely bought because of their low price tags, we’ll find a perennial bottom-dweller.

No car brand has rocketed from bottom to top as quickly as Kia, though its sister brands Hyundai and Genesis are right behind. The Kia Optima (now known as the K5) even ranked top three as most dependable in the midsize car segment. In 2022, owners of these 2019 model-year vehicles reported the least amount of problems to J.D. Power:

  • Kia (145 problems per 100 vehicles)
  • Buick (147 problems)
  • Hyundai (148 problems)
  • Genesis (155 problems)
  • Toyota (158 problems)

Just how did the Korean automakers get here?

There’s no easy answer, especially since Kia wasn’t willing to comment on its meteoric rise in dependability over the last 20 years. The brand’s secret sauce recipe for reliability will stay locked up. David Amodeo, director of global automotive at J.D. Power, told Capital One that dependability is a two-pronged effort that starts with a well-conceived vehicle and extends to a willingness to make quickly design changes as problems arise.

“It’s all in making sure the right specs are being used to design and execute [a new model],” Amodeo said. “Then if there are issues, have an unwavering commitment to rapid and continuous improvement.”

New Tech Is Making Modern Cars Less Reliable

Cars are only getting more complex and, subsequently, more problematic. In 2012, the industry average was just 132 problems per vehicle versus the 192 reported in the 2022 study. That’s mostly due to connectivity. Infotainment systems result in twice as many complaints as any other category, J.D. Power said, and those trouble spots tend to center around voice recognition systems and smartphone connectivity. These types of problems are forcing automakers to think more like tech firms, which have a reputation for responding quickly to bugs.

“Automakers must take advantage of [over-the-air updates] to fix problems, improve features and add capabilities to keep owners satisfied,” Amodeo said.

While they are not marketed as siblings in the way that, say, General Motors sells Buick and Chevrolet models, the three Korean automakers all fall under the Hyundai Motor Group umbrella and can tap into shared resources. Amodeo calls it a “relentless” focus on quality, which J.D. Power first noticed when the brands began to climb up through the ranks in its Initial Quality Study. That survey looks at problems reported in the first 90 days of ownership.

Ten years ago, the Koreans ranked below average. In the early 2000s, they anchored the bottom of the charts. By the numbers, it seems as if Kia, Hyundai, and Genesis are taking what they’ve learned in their early days in the American market and are applying those tweaks to their cars — perhaps quicker than some of their rivals.

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.