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Steve Murray

SHIFT

Hawaii Convention Center is gearing up for the 2014 First Hawaiian International Auto Show March 14-16, where you can check out the latest rides and ‘Get into Your Dream Car’

When did Kia become cool? To those comfortable in tweed who believe modern engineering and design peaked in 1964, it’s a ridiculous question. But for those in the business of selling cars, and most important, those who are in the market to buy a car, the good-looking and sporty vehicles are what’s hot.

That’s impressive for a car company that just a decade ago represented little more than affordable transportation. Long gone are the yawn-inspiring designs. Today Kia is one of the world’s fastest growing brands, boasting everything from the baseline yet drivable Rio to the brand new K900 that looks to challenge BMW and Mercedes in the luxury sedan market.

None of this is lost on those selling the Korean cars. In fact, the rags-to-riches story represents a definite level of pride.

“It used to be, if you drove a Kia you must have bad credit. Those days are gone,” says Bill van den Hurk, president and CEO of Aloha Kia. “Since the new-bodied Optima came out, the new-bodied Sorento came out, the cars began to move upscale and the customers began to move upscale.”

Van den Hurk points to the trade-ins on his lot – Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes – to make his point.

“People now just like the Kia. The quality of the car and the performance of the car are important, but the big thing is the warranty: 10 years, 100,000 miles.”

Perhaps the best example of the new, cooler Kia is the redesigned Soul. Called one of the “Coolest Cars Under $18,000″ by KellyBlueBook.com, the sporty people carrier is easy to drive, customizable and hauls more gear than ever. All of this makes the Soul a perfect car for Hawaii’s outdoor lifestyle, says van den Hurk.

KBB isn’t the only site praising the new Soul. Vroomgirls.com, which bills itself as “The Best Car Site for Women,” says the Soul “is as cool and cute as these cars get, and among the more affordable.”

Michelle Wie drives a Soul and loves it. Hers is not just another celebrity endorsement, although she does represent Kia as a brand ambassador. Last month Wie arrived at the Golf Channel studios in Orlando, Fla., for a 4 a.m. shooting. She lacked makeup and a proper hairstyle but did drive her customized Soul, even though it could barely be seen in the dim light of morning.

So the Soul is a young woman’s car? No, says van den Hurk. He recently was contacted by a group of young, male car buyers wanting to start a Soul club. In fact, the first Soul bought was by a 71-year-old man because of its easy access and egress.

Perhaps the Soul isn’t about the young driver as much as it’s about the driver wanting to feel young.

“As of last Thursday (Feb. 20), I am driving a special-edition Soul myself,” says the guy simply known as Bill Van. “Just because I’m 68 it doesn’t mean I have to be old.”

Aloha Kia opened its doors in 1997 as a Hyundai dealership. It now has seven locations in Hawaii; its newest location on Kauai opened a few weeks ago. It added Kona last June. Aloha is a family-led operation that includes

Bill’s wife, Niki, executive vice president – and “chairman of the board” Annie, their 12-year-old, half-blind, half-deaf dog who has the run of the office and is much more spry than one would think.

After driving a rented Sephia a few years later, van den Hurk thought the manufacturer would be perfect for Hawaii. He just had to convince Kia. The company had gone into bankruptcy in 1997, and was looking toward the contiguous U.S. for an economic rebound. After endless phone calls, Kia relented and van den Hurk got his dealership. In 2005, he sold off the Hyundai side and has since focused only on Kia. It was a smart move.

Kia had its highest U.S. sales figures in history two years ago and its market share has increased each year for the past 18 years. According to its annual report, Kia sold 1,059,000 units in 2008. By 2012, that number more than doubled – to 2,228,000. That takes more than trim-fitted hamsters. It takes talent.

Much of that came in 2005, when Kia hired former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, who created Kia’s unique grill and changed what people thought of Korean cars.

“Our chairman wants a company that is always looking forward,” says van den Hurk. “Kia reflects the outstanding technology coming out of Korea.”

The next step in the technological and stylish growth of Kia is the soon-to-be released K900, which is directly targeting Audi, Mercedes and Lexus in the luxury sedan market. The K900 is not about making money for the company; it’s about expanding Kia’s brand image among car buyers and further redefining what the company can do.

The public’s first look at the K900 came during the Super Bowl in an ad featuring Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus from The Matrix. Hawaii’s first look will come March 14-16 at the 2014 First Hawaiian Bank International Auto Show at Hawaii Convention Center. Kia is sending one K900 just for the show, and van den Hurk expects to have the highly touted car in his showroom in April or May.

He couldn’t be happier. Van den Hurk likes nothing better than to put on a T-shirt, build sets and arrange cars while leaving his younger employees in the dust.

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