IRVINE — Kia Motor Corp., the South Korean auto maker that produces the Festiva subcompact sold by Ford dealers, plans to join its homeland rival Hyundai as an independent auto importer and distributor in the United States.
The company, which established a small temporary office in Irvine in January, said it wants to keep its headquarters here. It will become the sixth Asian auto maker to anchor its U.S. import arm in Orange County.
Other importers based here are Hyundai and four Japanese companies--American Suzuki, Daihatsu America, Mazda Motor of America and Mitsubishi Motor Sales of America.
H.F. Jun, manager of Kia's Irvine office, said the company has not yet established a timetable for setting up its U.S. dealership network. Company officials earlier had said they hoped to start importing Kia vehicles by early 1994.
"It is difficult to decide now" on a launch date or even the type of dealership network the company will use, Jun said. "The American auto market is in a difficult situation."
Most small import-car companies use so-called dual dealers to begin sales in this country. In a dual system, a major-brand dealer takes on the new line as a secondary product.
Jun said Kia's plans are to begin selling at least two vehicles--a sport-utility truck in the same class as the Suzuki Sidekick or Daihatsu Rocky, and a subcompact passenger car, which could be available as both a four-door sedan and a convertible, to compete with cars such as the Toyota Corolla, Suzuki Swift, Mitsubishi Mirage, Hyundai Excel or Mazda 323.
Mazda owns 8% of Kia and Ford Motor Co. owns 10% of the company, which builds several cars and a line of buses, trucks and industrial vehicles in South Korea.
Kia officials said their U.S. products won't compete with the Festiva, which it will continue building for Ford.