Including a Kia with a serious sports car pedigree.
Kia has become a fairly mainstream brand developing a strong product portfolio in several key markets,. Most of its markets tend to mimic the same line-up, give or take a model here and there. But in the brand’s history, there have been more than just a couple of models you likely never knew existed. Some you may have encountered by chance, but for the most part, these are models you’d never even know were on the road, let alone wore Kia badges.
This might come as a surprise, but in the 1990s, Kia sold a genuine sports car in some Asian markets. How genuine a sports car, you might ask? Try Lotus-sporty. That’s because the Lotus Elan was actually sold under the Kia brand, with a Kia badge. Mechanically, it was almost the same as the Lotus-badged models in every facet, but featured a Kia 1.8-liter engine instead of the Isuzu 1.6-liter in the Lotus equivalent. Visually, a pair of badges and taillights was all that differentiated the two.
Despite a relatively youthful presence in the US, Kia’s actually been around for several decades, collaborating with other manufacturers numerous times in the past. In the1970s, one such collaboration saw it work with Mazda in releasing a version of the Mazda Familia. The Brisa, meaning ‘breeze’ in Spanish, was available as a compact single-cab pickup originally, but production spread to include a full passenger variant. It shared Mazda's 60-hp 1.0-liter engine unit, though the Kia variant had differing front end styling. In 1981, the dictatorship in Korea resulted in consolidation and an end to passenger vehicle production for Kia, killing the Brisa in the process.
Ever heard of the Kia Ray? Unlikely, as it’s limited to South Korea. It’s also far smaller than almost anything we get in the US, barring niche vehicles like the Fiat 500. The Kia Ray is a compact 4 seater city car available as both an EV and a combustion-powered vehicle. As an EV, a 67-hp electric motor drives the front wheels and gives the Ray an 86 mile range on a full charge. The Ray offers a unique city-friendly door arrangement, with the passenger side door sliding rather than swinging, while the driver side door swings traditionally.
Yet another compact car from the Korean manufacturer, though the Kia Picanto is hardly as limited as the Ray might be. It’s sold in several global markets, including throughout Europe, and fits in below the Rio in its international line-up. It’s a 5-door compact with engines ranging from 1.0-liters to 1.2-liters in displacement, offering peppy performance in a small package. In its latest iteration, it even offers stylish packaging, designed by none other than Peter Schreyer himself.
Once upon a time, Kia sold the 2nd generation Rondo in the States. But after 2010, sales were discontinued. Elsewhere in the world though, it was revitalized as a 3rd generation model, and in most markets it’s known as the Carens. It’s available as either a 5 or 7 seater with a range of gasoline and diesel engines driving the front wheels. As of the 2016 update, the Carens now features an option of Kia’s 7-speed dual clutch automatic transmission.
When Kia re-entered the world of passenger vehicles, it struck up a partnership once again with Mazda, who at the time were in bed with Ford. The result was the Kia Pride – based on the Mazda 121 and Ford Festiva. Prides were assembled under Kia license in South Korea, and was sold as a 4 door sedan, 3-door hatch, and 5 door hatch. Eventually, the Pride would morph and evolve into the Rio nameplate, resulting in the compact hatch and sedans globally available.
No, this wasn’t some crazy collaboration between Kia and the Dutch EDM group, the Vengaboys. What it is, though, is a European exclusive mini MPV manufactured from 2009 until today. It rides on the same basic platform as the Soul compact crossover, stretched by 2.6 inches, and repackaged for all the practicality expected from an MPV. Don’t be sad we’re missing out on the Venga though – this utilitarian MPV is about as characterful as a kitchen appliance – but at least a tumble dryer leaves something feeling warm and fuzzy. The Venga is simply boredom inducing.
Unlike several models sold only in Kia’s home country of South Korea, the K4 is a model you’ll only find in China. In a country in which the size of your car directly correlates to your social status, the Kia K4 slots neatly between the Forte and the Optima, riding on a 106-inch wheelbase and only available in sedan guise. Styling is familiar, as are the engines, which largely mimic those of the Forte. Where some models are always a possibility for global introduction, the K4 is likely to remain in China purely for the sake of adding another rung to the ladder of social status.
Closely related to the Kia Carens above, the X-Trek was sold only in Korea. Based on the first generation Carens/Rondo, the X-Trek featured a raised ride height and visual styling cues to differentiate it. It was only available as a diesel, and featured a self-locking differential to aid off-road drivability. The X-Trek was only briefly available though, with production lasting from 2003 to 2005 only.
Before the Kia Picanto came the Visto. It was the twin to Hyundai’s Atos (a model we didn’t receive either) and formed the affordable baseline of Kia’s model lineup. Power was derived from a 1.0-liter engine with modest outputs. Production was short-lived, lasting just a couple of years, with most models sold in Indonesia and Korea. Thankfully, Kia has improved its product vastly since then, as the Visto was truly worthy of some rather expressive expletives.