When it comes to manufacturing products, it’s best to not under-estimate the Koreans. As a Hyundai insider once told me, they’re the only people of the planet who can make the Japanese look like slackers. Just look at Hyundai and Kia if you need proof; two decades ago they were the butt of jokes, but today they’re on fire. The Hyundai Elantra is kicking ass and taking names in the compact car segment, and their Sonata is doing the same in the midsize class. Kia’s Optima and Optima Turbo are poised to give Hyundai a run for their money, and it looks like Hyundai is positioning Kia as a younger, more sporting brand. When Kia says they’re looking at building a rival to Mazda’s MX-5, I believe they’ll succeed where others have failed.
It’s not a done deal yet, but Kia is seriously considering a two-seat roadster to go up against the Mazda MX-5. That means they’ve already dissected the current MX-5 and found a way to build it lighter, cheaper, more powerful and with equivalent or better handling. Given that the MX-5 starts at around $23,000, a base Kia roadster would have to squeak in closer to the $20k price point. On the top end of the line, I can see a 274 horsepower, 2.0 liter turbo-equipped Kia coming in below $30k, which could have a huge impact on sales of Mazda’s MX-5.
Other manufacturers have tried to dethrone the MX-5 as king of affordable sports cars, but all have failed. Remember the Mercury Capri, which tried to get by on being cute? How about the Toyota MR2 Spyder, which barely had enough room to haul a briefcase, let alone a weekend’s worth of luggage? The Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky came closest to beating the MX-5 at its own game (and actually rivaled it for handling), but GM pulled the plug just as the cars were getting the bugs worked out. Kia’s got the ability to build a successful rival if they choose to do so, and I’d pay close attention to their progress if I were Mazda.