Kia plots rear-wheel-drive strategy

Kia is going rear-wheel drive. The company’s first-ever production rear-wheel sedan will launch in Korea in the first half of this year. It’s code-named “KH,” and it shares a platform with the Equus, Hyundai’s top-of-the-line RWD sedan.

The car will be sold around the world, according to a press release issued on Sunday night. Still, a spokesman in Korea declined to say whether the KH is coming to the United States.

“Kia Motors America is still evaluating plans for KH in the U.S. market, and there is nothing further to announce at this time,” the spokesman told Autoweek. A U.S.-based press official also said that the RWD car is being evaluated, though the official wouldn’t elaborate.

Still, Kia has been experiencing a period of tremendous growth in the United States, and sales surged 36 percent last year, to 485,492 vehicles. A rear-wheel-drive halo car could slot in above the Optima to provide a premium vehicle with athletic ethos.

The Equus was a reasonable performer for Hyundai in its first full year in the U.S. market in 2011, selling 3,193 copies. That augmented the less expensive though still luxury-oriented Genesis, which improved a solid 13 percent last year, to sales of 32,998.

Clearly, Americans will buy well-equipped, rear-wheel cars from a Korean company.

While the spokesmen wouldn’t confirm whether the KH will come to the United States, the sedan has been conceived to be a flagship model for Kia, and it’s hard to comprehend why the company’s most formidable model wouldn’t come to one of world’s most important markets.

Soon Nam-Lee, Kia’s oversees marketing director, said in a statement, “Although launch timings for overseas markets are yet to be confirmed, this all-new, rear-wheel-drive large sedan will definitely become the leading model of our lineup around the world, showcasing the best of the best of Kia.”

That’s reinforced by the visual evidence. The KH, in the words of a Kia press release, has “a classic-car-like feel,” and the initial sketches depict a vehicle that has the gravitas of Chevrolet Impalas and Ford Galaxie 500s of old. Kia’s “tiger” front grille is evident, though it appears to be bolder than in today’s products. There are also prominent headlights and taillights.

Kia has laid out ambitious growth plans for the United States and Europe, targeting a sales increase of 10 percent in America this year and nearly 23 percent in Europe.

The KH was presaged last year by the GT concept, which was revealed in September at the Frankfurt motor show. That concept also drew inspiration from larger, performance-oriented cars of the past, and styling cues from the GT likely will appear on the KH. The concept ran a turbocharged V6 making 395 hp, paired with an eight-speed automatic. If the KH comes stateside, look for a similar high-output engine and eight-speed gearbox to be among the powertrain options.

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