Why Everyone is talking about Kia
From cheap and cheerful to design innovation leader giving the Germans a run for their money, we fly to Seoul to trace the rise, the now and the next of Kia design, and how the rational and reasonable can still be fun.
GQ Australia, March 2023 (link)
In the space of a fortnight, Kia sent a proverbial horse’s head out to its fellow rivals within the automotive industry. ‘The rules have changed’, ‘don’t underestimate us’, the text between the lines said. The high-volume marque dropped two new EVs, the EV9 SUV and its smaller sibling, the EV5 concept. The new models are unlike anything else currently on the road. They’re boxy, spacious and futuristic, and they’re shattering the mould of what a mass market family car looks like. So if it seems like everyone is talking about Kia, they are. And there’s good reason to.
While the Germans have been busy making noise in the premium sector, the 78-year-old South Korean motor company has been quietly chipping away at their foundations. So this is a path Kia has been treading for some time. In 2005, the company hired lauded designer Peter Schreyer (the man responsible for the Audi TT, no less), to lead design for its next era, which would see Kia aim for the European market and where a lot of learnings would take place. Twelve years later, and with a little help from big sister Hyundai, which recontextualised Korean car performance with its motorsport-adjacent N brand, Kia launched Stinger. Soon the V6 sedan stepped into the hole left by Holden and Ford, landing Kia a place on the affordable muscle segment map. Recently, new-look Cerato, Seltos and Carnival are all blowing their competitors out of the water, especially in terms of design appeal, and the latter people mover is even achieving the unfathomable and convincing Australians they don’t need SUVs.
But what really caused Kia’s competitors’ necks to snap to attention was a new futuristic-contemporary rebrand, that arrived in tandem with the sleek multi-award-winning EV6 in 2021 (followed by the EV6 GT high-performance variant). As a side, in 2021, a bemused source at Kia told me the new badging was such a hit, dealers were reporting cases of de-badging crime (where owners of newer Kia’s badges were being stolen by owners of older models) and new badge retro-fit requests. It also drove awareness as consumers, who, confused by the typography, rushed to google ‘KN’ only to be pleasantly surprised/shocked it was something familiar. Clever.
“Now we are in a different stage, in the sense that design is not just styling,” Artur Martins, Kia’s chief marketing officer tells me at the EV9’s reveal in Seoul. “The past was very much about exterior design and a little bit of the interior design.” From here, he says, electrification and driving technology now offers a new way for us to enjoy the interior of our cars. This means, the old school ideas of what a car ‘should’ look like inside can be tossed aside, allowing for new rules to be written and rewritten over time. “The role of the car as a space will evolve to be something else, it can be your office, it can be a place to inspire you,” he says. “So, how that will evolve is almost infinite. It’s not only about static and lines anymore.” Martins points out that with this, automotive design is experiencing an enormous surge of external inspiration, with influences and designers themselves overlapping, from architects to interior designers, even gaming and digital designers, all reconsidering how we use our personal space.
The car as a third place, after work and home, is a consideration happening across the board. Volvo wants to create calm, Range Rover is nailing grand sanctuary, Tesla has reimagined the den via its in-car cinema and gaming partners—all hallmarks of the marques’ homeland cultures, I’d argue, accidental or not.
Instead of looking to the west, Kia’s design team’s muse is the vibrancy and dynamism of Seoul. Korean culture is rich in conviviality, where flavourful dishes are shared, connections happen frequently and where newness rules. The EV9 aims to emulate this by introducing a more social in-car experience. Spacious and bright, the triple-row SUV puts negative space and the flat-floor advantage of battery power to good use. The second row seats, for example, can be swivelled around to face the rear row, giving the space a more lounge-like, conversational feel, and the front head rests have a hole in the middle to create a sense of openness. The use of leather, new plastics and high-shine piano black is no more, as the marque moves to more sustainable materials made from fishing nets and recycled plastics, and soft fabrics that have been chosen to create warmth and familiarity. “I don’t know if you really feel that vibrant spirit of downtown,” Karim Habib, Kia’s head of design tells me. “But when you’re inside, there should be a little bit of a feeling of something new, something different, something optimistic, something positive and something that kind of promises a better future.”
At 5,010mm (L) x 1,980mm (W) x 1,755mm (H), the EV9 is a Lego-like polygonal Goliath of a car, yet it miraculously also has a futuristic friendliness that doesn’t make it appear cold or menacing. In real life, it appears smooth and modern, just like a digital render—a nod to the AI-generated world of tomorrow’s aesthetics. Overall, it is unlike anything else on the road. And that’s a good thing. “You know how when you hear a song on the radio that you like right away. It grows old quickly,” Habib says, using an analogy as to why polarisation increases a design’s longevity in the real world. “When it’s a 3D object, like a house or something, you want discover things over time. If it’s easily understandable from the first impression, I’d say maybe it lacks richness.”
At the pointy end, the EV9 claims a WLTP range of 541km (long-range variant, 19-inch wheels) and has the capability to replenish a meaty charge of 239km in 15-minutes, at peak capability. Three different variants will be on offer: a 150kW/350Nm standard Rear Wheel Drive (RWD) variant powered by a 76.1kWh battery, a 160kW/350Nm RWD long range variant and a 283kW/600Nm All Wheel Drive (AWD) car; with the latter two both powered by a 99.8kWh battery.
Unsurprisingly, Kia has also joined the ranks of more premium marques, such as Tesla and Porsche to now offer over-the-air updates. While the brand has also stepped up its safety technology to offer level 3 autonomy, which works using two Lidar sensors and 13 more sensors in a 360-degree field of view.
Considering how often we talk about sustainability, electric performance and emissions-free driving in a luxury context, some of these specs might not make your eyes water, but there’s one important factor at play here: volume. Kia makes around 3 million cars a year and operates in more than 160 different counties. This is where tangible change happens at scale. Pivoting to sustainable materials, creating new affordable electrified mobility solutions, offering high-end safety tech and continuing to meet the energy and mobility needs of every market is not easy en masse. But it also offers the opportunity to craft a new narrative—and this is what makes the Korean brands interesting ones to watch.
“Tesla did us a big favour,” Martins says. "Because Tesla broke the paradigm of needing a hundred years of building cars in order to be able to produce quality cars or advanced engineering. So consumers don’t think about that anymore. You are a new brand, you work for five years, you bring a new car to market, and you’re premium the next day, right? For a brand like ours that had different stages of introducing itself in different markets, starting with small cars that were maybe not the best quality at the time, electrification is like a restart button.” Beyond the EV6, EV9 and EV5 concept, what’s next? It won’t be boring, teases Martins. “Everything that we know, by the way, about segmentation, we invented it. The car manufacturers created the segments. There’s nothing that is restricting us to stick to very conventional body types,” he says. “And that’s exactly what we will not be doing.”