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Bidding starts on South Korea’s Kia Motors Corp.

On this day in 1998, South Korea’s government opens the bidding for the Kia Motors Corporation, the country’s third-largest car company, which went bankrupt during an economic crisis that gripped much of Asia.

Founded on the outskirts of Seoul in 1944, Kia began as a small manufacturer of steel tubing and bicycle parts. The name of the company was derived from the Chinese characters “ki” (meaning “to arise” or “to come out of”) and “a” (which stood for Asia). By the late 1950s, Kia had branched out from bicycles to motor scooters, and in the early 1970s the company launched into automobile production. Kia’s Sohari plant, completed by 1973, was Korea’s first fully integrated automobile production facility; it rolled out the Brisa, the country’s first passenger car, in 1974.

Kia’s lineup by the late 1980s included the Concord, Capital, Potentia and Pride. Ford Motor Company brought the Pride to the United States, calling it the Ford Festiva; the company later sold the Kia Avella as the Ford Aspire. In the 1990s, Kia began selling cars in the United States under its own name, beginning with the Sephia. At first available in only a few states, Kia gradually rolled out across the country, jumping on the success of the sport-utility-vehicle (SUV) category in the mid-1990s with its Sportage, released in 1995. 

By 1997, Kia was struggling financially, and that July it collapsed under $10 billion worth of debt. The automaker’s failure marked the beginning of a full-blown economic crisis that eventually led South Korea to seek a record international bailout of some $57 billion. Auto sales plummeted nationwide, and by the time bidding for Kia opened in late July 1998, both Hyundai Motor and Daewoo Motor, South Korea’s largest and second-largest automakers respectively, had suffered heavy losses as well. The two companies placed bids for Kia and its commercial-vehicle subsidiary, Asia Motors; the other bidders included another local company, Samsung, and Ford Motor, which along with its subsidiary Mazda already owned nearly 17 percent of Kia.

Hyundai managed to win the auction that October, having offered the highest bid; Daewoo was the runner-up. As a subsidiary of Hyundai, Kia made improvements in its cars’ quality as well as their reliability, including the introduction of a new warranty program in 2001. It also began concentrating intently on the European market, building a sleek new $109 million design center in Frankfurt, Germany, in early 2008. At the Paris Motor Show that fall, Kia unveiled its new Soul, a subcompact mini multi-purpose-vehicle (MPV). Designed jointly by studios in California and South Korea, the Soul debuted on the global marketplace in early 2009.

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