When Kia Motors Corp. (IW 1000/103) begins building the 2012 Optima this month at its West Point, Ga., plant, the automaker will incorporate redesigned -- and cushier -- seats into the midsize sedan, merely a year after Kia launched an all-new version of the Optima in the United States.

While improved lumbar support lacks the sex appeal of spoilers, alloy wheels or -- let's be honest -- the 274-horsepower turbocharged engine in the Optima SX, the Optima's redesigned seats nonetheless represent a major shift in automotive R&D.

The South Korea-based automaker decided to modify the seat design after noticing a groundswell of complaints from consumers and automotive writers percolating on the Internet.

Kia, which uses business-intelligence software to monitor online comments about its vehicles, saw the Internet chatter about seat comfort and determined that it was "a bigger issue than we had anticipated," explains Kia's Michael Sprague.

Kia's Michael Sprague: With social media, "you can have a focus group of a hundred or a thousand people versus 10 or 20" plus, "you can do it almost in real-time."

From there, Sprague adds, "the fix was pretty quick."

"And in our world, for an automotive company to do something that quickly is almost unheard of," says Sprague, who is vice president, marketing and communications, for Kia Motors America.

"In most companies, it's like, 'OK, there's a problem, we'll fix that in the next refresh,' whether it's minor or major. And it could be three to five or seven years out."

Indeed, Kia's nimble response to the seat-comfort issue may be unprecedented for an automaker. But Kia isn't the only car company that views the vast sea of online chatter in social networks, discussion boards, blogs and online communities as a potential goldmine of product ideas -- free R&D, if you will.

"We believe that listening to the customers online is a tremendous opportunity to better shape our future product and company strategy," says Scott Kelly, digital marketing manager for Ford Motor Co. (IW 500/6).

Like Kia, Ford pays close attention to what people are saying about its brands on popular social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and elsewhere on the Web. But Ford has taken it a step further by inviting consumers to submit their ideas directly to the automaker, on a website called thefordstory.com.

The website's "Your Ideas" page allows consumers to post their ideas about existing or potential Ford vehicles, as well as comment and vote on other consumers' ideas. Based on the type of suggestion, Ford routes the ideas to the appropriate product-development team.

"It could happen in the shower. It could happen at the grocery store while deciding between one- or two-ply napkins. Most likely, it'll happen when you're driving," the website teases.

"A great idea pops into your head about how to make your Ford even better. Don't keep it to yourself. Post and read ideas here.

"You never know," the website continues, "your idea could become the next big thing at Ford!"