Sometimes I wonder what an Oldsmobile would look like today if GM hadn’t given the brand the axe. Although I’m pretty sure no matter what they would be building, it would be a derivative of any garden variety Chevrolet or Buick, there’s always room to fantasize. But, no matter what would have become of the brand, it would be squarely aimed at the demographics that kept the mark alive as long as the last remaining customer. Then, GM would kill it. You can call it a mercy killing. I know I would.
Oldsmobile couldn’t survive the death of its customer base and by 2004 there were so few customers left that GM just went ahead and signed the death warrant, offered up a last meal, and shot it dead at sunrise. They saw all the signs that it was a road apple. So, when GM spat out the final Alero, shuttered the factory and tossed the keys into the trembling hands of the last interested octogenarian customer, the soul of that ancient brand died and headed off into automotive history. Or, did it?
I began to wonder if the spirit of Oldsmobile had been captured just before slipping of to the Island of Obsolete Brands or wherever it is that terminally outdated companies go after slaughter. Had someone bottled the essence or Oldsmobile? And, if so, was that essence mothball?
These thoughts popped into my head as I was floating down I-75 in a 2017 Kia Optima Hybrid. And, it did so because I think Kia is exactly the car company that Oldsmobile would be today if it had been given a chance to redeem itself.
Kia isn’t my father’s Oldsmobile; it’s my Oldsmobile.
That might sound a little harsh, but hear me out. Across the board, all the Kia models are pleasant. They don’t stand out too much nor do they fade into the landscape. From the most basic Rio to the K900, these cars embody all the characteristics that made Oldsmobiles the darlings of middle America. Cars that say “Yes, I’m comfortable” but do it in a way that doesn’t scream “I’m rich”.
You see, back in the day Oldsmobiles were the car that you bought, provided you were a GM man (because that’s who we’re taught to believe made the car buying decisions back then), when your income or status lifted you above Chevrolet. Sure Pontiac was the next step on that ladder, but those were for sporty folks. You bought the Oldsmobile because it looked and felt like a luxury car and a Buick was too flashy and a Cadillac was just out of the question and budget.
That is exactly where Kia finds itself today. As a brand, they’re comfortably nestled in a layer of the automobile market where buyers go to find a comfortable car that doesn’t make the neighbors think that they’re garish, financially irresponsible, or a drug lord.
This impression was one that solidified as I made my way down I-75 into South Florida. Kias are everywhere down there. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one. And who’s driving them? Well, let’s just say that the customers aren’t young. In fact, if Oldsmobile were still around, maybe half of those Kia drivers would be in the modern day equivalent of the Cutlass. So, maybe the assertion that Oldsmobile’s customers had died off was wrong. Maybe the base hadn’t died off but rather the brand failed to keep up with the changing wants and needs of its aging customer base.
Could Kia face the same gloomy fate? Could their customer base age to the point where the brand becomes another Oldsmobile? It sure could but it won’t. Why won’t it?
Because of this.
This is the Stinger. It’s Kia’s insurance against becoming obsolete by expanding their customer base beyond the middle market and into the exciting world of high performance sedans.
This is a remarkable car for the marque. The Stinger is an all out assault on the Teutonic sports sedan, the BMW 3-Series in particular.
Kia is confident in way that manufacturers rarely are. Talk to anyone from Kia about the Stinger and they’ll tell you stories about how it had unanimous corporate support. They’ll wax poetic about their own personal feelings about it. You’ll get an earful about how it’s simply known at Kia headquarters as “The red car” because the first prototype/mockup was a brilliant red.
“The red car” comes standard with a 255-hp 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cylinder but the optional 3.3 liter twin turbocharged V6 is what will move Kia into the sporting ranks and insure the brand from becoming another Oldsmobile. Both engines are, regrettably, only offered with an eight speed automatic though both drivetrains will be available in rear and all wheel drive versions.
If Kia can dedicate itself to this direction, you can be assured that its future is more BMW than it is Oldsmobile. And, by anyone’s standard, that’s a very, very good thing.