In the early 2000s, Kia was an upstart player in the U.S. market, with vehicle sales starting here in the mid-’90s. The plan was to expand the lineup with a new Kia truck — and it came very close to reality. Here’s why it didn’t.
In 2004, the company’s lineup consisted of three sedans (Rio, Spectra and Optima), a minivan (Sedona) and a compact SUV (Sorento). So, there were a lot of potential gaps that could be filled in the lineup. I was a product planner with Kia Motors at the time and was deeply involved in deciding how we would fill those gaps.
Mind the gap
Kia’s product planning team — with collective experience from Mazda, Toyota, Nissan and Ford — identified two areas for potential growth: sports cars and pickup trucks.
After much study and internal debate, the small sports car idea was shelved as there was no way to make the business case work. There was too little volume, too many unique (read: expensive) components and insufficient R&D experience at Kia in Korea with that type of highly specialized vehicle.
The midsize pickup, on the other hand, looked more promising. It was a higher-volume segment, meaning it could support a new entry from a smaller company, and it could use the same basic component set from the body-on-frame V-6-powered Sorento. Plus, Kia had experience building the Sorento in Korea.
Enter the Kia Mojave
To test the waters, Kia developed a concept truck, the KCV-4 Mojave, which was styled at the company’s new U.S. design center in Irvine, California, and shown 2004 Chicago Auto Show.
The Mojave was sleek (for a midsize pickup) and looked to be competitive with the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier and Ford Ranger. The platform would be a stretched version of the Sorento SUV’s ladder frame with its V-6 engine, independent front/live-axle rear suspension and available 4WD system.
As is typical of concept vehicles, the Mojave had a few design innovations that would not make it into a production version, including the sliding rear wall of the cab, similar to the MidGate on the Chevy Avalanche, which extended the length of the cargo bed by about 8 inches. A feature like this would make it difficult to seal out wind noise, weather and squeaks, but it looked cool on the auto show turntable — especially with a surfboard in the bed.
From drawing board to showroom
Before we delve into why it didn’t make it to market, let’s back up and understand how a vehicle comes to market.
The first part of the process involves sketching concepts and creating clay models — first in 1:5 scale, then 1:1 full-size exterior models and interior bucks. At the same time, the company’s product planners begin to determine the vehicle’s competitors and which features will be needed to give it an edge. With an existing product like the recently launched next-gen Ford F-150, these things are well-known. With an all-new product, the planners must define the competitive set and target price as well as study the target buyers and unmet needs.
This process typically takes four to five years (YEARS!) for a mass-market vehicle, but it can stretch to seven or more for a low-volume specialty model. The new vehicle team is simultaneously moving forward on several fronts – including design, product planning, engineering and testing – while also putting together plans for the business case, manufacturing, marketing, service and sales training.
The more pressing questions the team is trying to answer at this point, include:
- Can the company build and sell enough to make a profit?
- Where should it be built?
- Can it be built in an existing factory?
- Can the assembly line be shared with one or more other products?
As soon as the new vehicle is far enough along (about two to three years in), it’s time to show it to prospective buyers to gauge reactions. With an existing product, this is done through clinics and focus groups. This involves showing full-size mock-ups of the new model to carefully selected groups of target buyers — usually owners of the current model and its competitors — and asking them to say what they like, don’t like and why.
The downside here is consumers aren’t very good at articulating what their future needs will be. So, the product planners must have a vision and try to predict what the customers will want — even before the customers know it themselves.
With an all-new vehicle, companies will sometimes develop a concept, which is a highly finished model with some advanced features. The concept is sent to one or more major auto shows to gauge reactions and generate some “buzz.”
Assuming the feedback is positive, the product planners and engineers make adjustments to address any weaknesses. At the same time, marketing determines how to sell the new vehicle to the target customers.
At this stage in the game, final decisions are being made about:
- How it will be positioned in the marketplace
- Which media are best for reaching the target buyers
- What vehicle strengths to emphasize (or potential weaknesses to avoid)
- Where and how the new vehicle will be built
Additionally, this is also when the automaker builds fully functional prototypes, which are then used for durability and quality testing as well as marketing for ads, auto shows and PR activities.
If all goes well, these various activities culminate in a successful, coordinated vehicle launch, and the product is a sales hit.
Challenges of bringing the Kia Mojave to market
Now, back to the Kia Mojave.
There was one major non-product obstacle that likely doomed the Kia Mojave pickup from the start: It had to be produced in a North American factory, and at the time, Kia did not have one. This restriction dates back to a 1960s trade dispute and the “Chicken Tax,” which levies high tariffs on imported pickup trucks. Chicken what? Yes, it was so named because it was a retaliation for German tariffs on American poultry exports.
Without a U.S. manufacturing plant, there was no way for Kia to sell the Mojave pickup truck with enough of a profit margin to make the business case work. Coincidentally, this may have contributed to Kia’s decision to build its first U.S. plant in West Point, Georgia, where the company began building the Sorento SUV in late-2010.
The bottom line on a Kia pickup
Will we ever see a pickup truck from Kia? It is possible — especially now that Kia has North American manufacturing plants in Georgia and Mexico. However, any future Kia pickup would likely need to be hybrid or EV due to emerging trends in the market.
A pickup truck based on the Telluride SUV — similar to how the Honda Ridgeline is based on the Pilot — could easily be built in Kia’s Georgia plant and would provide incremental sales volume and profits for a relatively modest investment. In fact, Kia’s parent company, Hyundai, is taking this path with the upcoming Santa Cruz pickup, which shares basic components with the Santa Fe and Palisade SUVs.
So, stay tuned. We may yet see a reboot of the Kia pickup.