Pope Francis Ditches his Mercedes for a Kia

In Seoul, the Soul gets a big marketing blessing

It’s not the sort of branding opportunity that comes along very often. But when the pope picks your car as his ride, yeah, that’s a pretty good day for the marketing department.

Aside from the news he usually makes, Pope Francis made automotive headlines upon landing in Seoul, South Korea, when he popped his holy self into the back of an ordinary Kia Soul. The five-passenger “urban hatchback”—whose glossy black paint job set off the white papal robes nicely—is manufactured in South Korea, so the pope truly was doing as the locals do. Even though he wasn't in Rome …

More to the point, he was handing quite the compliment to Kia. “It’s very good advertising,” said Hayes Roth, principal of New York-based HA Roth Consulting. “Here you have arguably the world’s No. 1 religious leader and he's riding in a Kia. When you have that kind of horsepower doing the driving, sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Kia evidently is. Asked to comment on being the papal wheels of choice, a Kia spokesperson would say only that “we at Kia Motors are honored to see the pope using our Soul CUV during his visit here.” (And, hey, no kidding.)

Of course, the flip side of this event is that the pope’s gesture was also a bit of a snub—albeit unintentional—to the mighty Mercedes-Benz, which is the pontiff’s usual ride. Speaking to a Spanish newspaper, the pope referred to his car as a “sardine can.” 

Photo: Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

His Holiness was referring to the $600,000 customized Mercedes-Benz M Class that company president Dieter Zetsche personally delivered to Pope Benedict two years ago. That was an event of sufficient publicity value to warrant the presence of a photographer and a press release wishing His Holiness well “on his future journeys.”

Mercedes had worked nine months on that vehicle, which carried the pontiff on a white leather hydraulically controlled seat—literally referred to as “the throne”—inside a box of bulletproof Plexiglas.

If those quarters did seem a bit can-like, it wasn’t Mercedes’ fault. Popes frequently traveled out in the open until the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul II brought the so-called Popemobile—which sheathed the pontiff in a glass box grafted onto a G-Class sedan—into being.

Paul Eisenstein, who runs automotive site The Detroit Bureau, believes that Mercedes can handle whatever slight may have been dealt it. "I don't think they're going to ask the pope for an endorsement anytime soon," he said. Besides, considering that Pope Francis "has maintained traditional Jesuit values and shown a disdain for the trappings of a rich, church-sponsored lifestyle, this is no surprise."

In fact, what Francis did by hitching a ride in an ordinary car is somewhat historic. Excepting a few instances in which popes took a quick jaunt in a Peugeot—and, once, even a GMC—Mercedes has made the pontifical cars since 1930, when Pius XI took delivery of a Nürburg 460.

Pope Pius called his Mercedes a “masterpiece of modern engineering,” which Mercedes must have liked much more than the sardine comment. Still, Francis’ comment seemed to come more from a philosophical place than any dissatisfaction with the Mercedes brand itself. Asked about the risk of riding in an un-armored car, His Holiness said, “it’s true that anything could happen, but let’s face it, at my age I don't have much to lose."

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