Kia Gets Big Car Company-itis With Its First Set of (Gull) Wings

Last Updated Jan 7, 2011 7:23 PM EST

Kia (KIMTF.PK) maybe can be forgiven for a bit of Big Car Company-itis for the upcoming Detroit auto show, in the form of a concept car with gullwing doors, a crossover SUV-station wagon kind of thing called the Kia KV7 Concept. Gullwing doors are the kind that hinge at the top, so when both sides are open, the car looks like it has wings.

What's wrong with gullwing doors? They look nice, but with only a few notable exceptions in all of automotive history, they never make it into production. They're impractical, because you need room on either side of the car to open them, and since they never make it into mass-produced cars, they're presumably just about impossible to mass-produce so as to pass safety regulations and to be affordable at the same time.

They're an indulgence to designers. Designers just can't seem to resist gullwing doors. They crop up at auto shows all the time, and then disappear by the time cars make it into production. To traditionalists, there's really only one car that epitomizes gullwing doors, and that's a classic Mercedes-Benz from the 1950s. Mercedes-Benz earlier introduced the SLS, a modern version of its SL coupe with gullwing doors. Otherwise, I think other brands should just say no.

Danger sign for Kia
In Kia's case, what's wrong with gullwing doors is that they smack of Big Car Company-itis. That's the tendency in car companies to do things and spend money because they can and because "everybody else does it," not because they need to or because it's a good idea. I first heard the term years ago from Subaru, when Subaru was at a crossroads.

Subaru had to decide whether to be a Big Car Company and keep building front-drive cars to compete with giants like Honda (HMC) and Toyota (TM), or stick to its all-wheel-drive niche. Subaru stuck to its niche. Maybe it's been growing a little more slowly than it would have otherwise, but it's still been prospering ever since.

Kia seems determined to crash into the Big Car Company big-time, even though a certain scrappy, irreverent, underdog appeal is part of the brand's attraction. Kia has a lot of the other trappings of a Big Car Company, including advertising on the Super Bowl and a big-time professional sports endorsement with the National Basketball Association.

Of course, Kia is a Big Car Company...
To be fair, Kia doesn't just talk the talk. It walks the walk. Kia really is a Big Car Company in many ways. Kia now has a Top 10 market share in the United States. Kia is No. 8, just about tied with Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK). That's not even counting Kia's big sister, Hyundai (HYMLF.PK). Both brands belong to the Hyundai Group. Kia has a couple of models that are top sellers, the Kia Forte small car and the Kia Sorento SUV, which outsell Honda and Toyota in their respective product segments.

Therefore, like I say, maybe Kia can be forgiven for an indulgence like gullwing doors. What Kia needs to avoid is the Big Car Company attitude that goes with them.


Photo: Kia