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Kia was the second South Korean automaker to enter the U.S. marketplace, starting in 1994 with the compact Sephia sedan. Hyundai had paved the way in 1986. A year after Sephia, a compact Sportage SUV joined up. Neither established a reputation for quality or general desirability, but they did attract customers who liked the prices-markedly lower than the competition.
The oldest vehicle manufacturer in South Korea, Kia was established in 1944, while World War II continued to rage, but cars were a long way off. Kyungsung Precision Industry began hand-making bicycle parts in the southern part of Seoul. In 1952, when the company issued the first domestically-built bicycle, the name changed to Kia Industrial Company. According to Kia Motors America, the Kia name stems from two Chinese characters: "ki" (rising up) and "a" (Asia). Roughly, then, the translation is "rising out of Asia."
In 1961, Kia began to turn out motorcycles; then, three-wheeled trucks. A Titan four-wheeled truck debuted in 1971. Kia introduced the first Korean-made passenger car in 1974: the Brisa. That model would be exported, but mainly to the Middle East. In 1978, Kia began to manufacture Korea's first diesel engine.
By 1979, Kia was assembling two European-derived automobiles, under license: the Peugeot 604 from France, and the Italian Fiat 132 sedan. As the result of an equity partnership with Ford Motor Company, Kia began to export a version of its subcompact Pride in the mid-1980s, to be named Festiva in the U.S. market. An American subsidiary was established in 1994, called Kia Motors America.
Right around that time, Kia was ready to enter the U.S. market under its own name with the little Sephia sedan. Sales began on the West Coast, helped by a price markedly below most competitive models. Still, Korean quality was uncertain, and the Sephia never really took off. Neither did the first-generation Sportage compact sport-utility vehicle, which arrived in 1995.
By 1997, Kia in Korea was facing serious financial woes, and wound up in receivership. In 1998, the company was taken over by Hyundai Motors-the other notable South Korean automaker.
As the 21st century began, Kia's Sephia morphed into the Spectra hatchback, which hung on into 2004 when a new Spectra model emerged. For 2010, Kia launched its Forte successor, initially in sedan form but later adding a two-door Forte Koup. Kia revived the temporarily-abandoned Sportage model name for a completely different compact SUV in 2005.
Kia introduced the first-generation Optima for 2001, based on Hyundai's midsize Sonata sedan. In the same year, Kia launched a car that was smaller than the Sephia/Spectra: the subcompact Rio.
Sorento, Kia's larger SUV, was introduced as the company's "flagship" for 2003. Built with a separate body and frame rather than the typical unbody construction, Sorento borrowed its V-6 engine from Kia's Sedona minivan, introduced a year earlier.
Stepping up a notch in size and luxury was the V6-powered Amanti sedan, which emerged for the 2004 season. Rondo was next on the list. Introduced for 2007, the Rondo wagon came only with front-wheel drive, built on the Optima sedan's platform. Not many automakers unveil a model that lasts only a single season, but that was the case with the 2009 Borrego, a midsize SUV that came with either a V-6 or V-8 engine. Sales simply never got rolling.
Like Hyundai, its corporate parent, Kia is viewed as one of the most-improved makes on the market, with a broad model selection. Choices even include a hybrid (battery/gasoline) Optima. Hyundai and Kia both deny close relationships between their models, but the similarities typically are greater than the differences.