Travelling with Kia to this week's Detroit motor show, Australian media were given the opportunity to chat with design supremos, Peter Schreyer and Gregory Guillaume.
If you've been living under an old Cerato, here's a catch-up on these two fellows.
Schreyer was grabbed from Audi in 2006, after 26 years with the premium German brand, to lead Kia away from the "neutral image" that had contributed to its cheap-and-cheerful reputation over the years.
In 2012, Schreyer was named one of three presidents of Kia Motors Corporation, making him the first foreigner to be given the title. Reports suggest the accomplished 65-year-old is preparing to retire in the near future, but the company has yet to make an announcement.
Gregory Guillaume is the head of design for Kia Motors Europe, reporting directly to Schreyer. Along with Schreyer, Guillaume is credited as one of the lead designers on the muscly new Stinger liftback sports sedan (above).
Guillaume is another Volkswagen Group defector, joining Kia in 2005. He's played almost as significant a role as Schreyer in bringing about Kia's styling revolution. If indeed Schreyer is set to retire, Guillaume could well be Kia's next global design chief.
I joined an Australian media 'roundtable' chat with the two designers this week. Here are the best bits.
Describing the approach to designing the new-generation Cerato, revealed in Detroit this week:
Schreyer: I think in general, Kia is a young, fresh, sporty brand. So, in general, our cars have a sporty touch or notion to them. I think, with Cerato, the new one, we tried to get the proportion as good and as sporty as we can. Of course, it's a sedan - it's not quite a four-door sports car like the Stinger is - but on the street it's going to look very dynamic.
Guillaume: When you look at it, it is a little bit crisper than the previous generation, which I think was slightly softer in that respect.
S: A bit more refined, let's say.
On how we arrived at the new 'sports sedan' look of the Cerato without losing any interior space and storage, and how the same philosophy gave us the new Rio's oddly less exciting design:
S: We did not sacrifice boot space to get a longer bonnet [for the new Cerato]. To move the A-pillar on a front-wheel-drive car is an optical trick, let's say. We did not actually move the passengers back, and the layout is still very practical.
G: We had a similar thought process on the Cee'd, for Europe. It wasn't as though we had to simply live with the A-pillars being necessarily further back, we actually demanded that, to have a longer bonnet. Our intention was to change the proportion from the previous vehicle, which was rather more 'cab forward', which was, at that time, what we felt [was] right.
The second-generation Cee'd, and your Cerato, we felt that design was a "look at me" statement, "I'm here". We felt with the third generation, the car had matured and reached a… [it is] almost like a person, when you're self-confident enough that you don't need people to look at you.
And it's interesting that in playing with proportions, you can achieve that. And a car usually that has a longer bonnet and cabin slightly back, gives you that impression of sovereignty or self-confidence, or maturity somehow.
It was exactly the same with the Rio. The previous generation was very much cab-forward, very "look at me". It is a similar statement we were trying to do with this new generation.
On the inspiration taken from the Stinger project, and the idea of embracing the 'momentum' of that new hero car's global launch:
G: I think you can see some familiarity as well in the front, such as the headlights and the grille, to the Stinger. I think it's a fair thing to want to use some of the momentum of what's going on with Stinger - we always said it would be a halo car for the brand - so yeah, we're definitely using some of the momentum and positivity of the Stinger on other cars in the line-up.
S: Of course, a car like the Stinger is also, like the show cars, they do influence the designers. It gives them inspiration for the next thing they're doing.
G: I think it (Stinger) is important, it's kind of a brand shaper for Kia, because it's extending the range and shows what we are able to do.
Asked what the key styling attributes are, in designing a new model for Kia:
S: It has to be a Kia, first of all. (Suggesting it must be immediately recognisable as a Kia, even without the badge.)
G: When you look at our line-up, usually you'll see similarities. Not always in design, but definitely in… I mean, we do spend a lot of time working out proportions of cars, when we work on new models. Maybe three quarters of the time is getting proportions right, getting the packaging, the basics, right. The rest is usually a pretty clean and clear design language.
The architecture of the vehicle is quite simple to understand and to memorise. We have to have a lot of character to be exciting, yes, but we also don't like to do anything that will go out of fashion quickly.
S: A bit more timeless. I think it's more the approach, where you can feel a sort of "Kia-ness", a family feel, from the point of our philosophy and the way we approach every project.
On the permanence of the 'Tigernose' grille that has become so familiar and representative of the Kia brand, over three or four generations of new cars:
S: We'd be stupid to throw it away.
G: (After I noted the signature 'notches' in the grille design seem to be the thing that stays the same, like BMW's iconic kidney grille shape.) You've just said what makes the Tigernose; you pointed out, "the variations of the two notches", and this is exactly what it is for us. It's not the grille [overall], it's what happens in the middle, how those two tabs come together.
We always gave designers the freedom to do anything at the other ends. You can connect to the headlights if you want, you can put body colour in between, but the important thing is those two tabs, that is makes the Tigernose.
S: Basically you can do anything as long as you have the important bit in the middle. It's also what differentiates us. For example, like what BMW does… they are a lot more true to the original design, even if they morph it a little bit here and there. We knew from the beginning we needed a bit more freedom than that.
On their next big passion projects, after having finally delivered the Stinger:
S: We have a lot of passion…
Schreyer was tight-lipped, as most senior executives are, on what he's working on now. I threw a number of obvious next-step ideas at him: a convertible, a coupe, a super sports coupe, but it turns out the man has a terrific poker face. Guillaume fills the silence:
G: Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we did take a big risk with the Stinger, even if we minimised the risk as much as we could by doing what we believe has the most potential, that being four doors - or five doors as it is.
But at the end of the day, and I think all professionals [analysts, media] are saying that outside as well: it is a big risk for Kia, and they all wonder how much we are going to sell. And since it's new for us as well, we don't have the answer either. That's why we need to go one step at a time.
S: Let's just wait and see. The car's just arriving on the market, everybody's super positive about the car, but we need to sell the car.
G: We're a company that that has never made cars just for image - "and if it doesn't sell it doesn't matter" - no. We always want to sell whatever we do, so we want to see how it's going before we go to the next project.
S: When I got one new, everywhere you go you get the looks, everybody asking about it.
G: Same with me, it's the same. That's really nice - especially for us [the designers] - but that's not gonna help me in two or three years time, I'm not gonna go to the CEO and say "yeah but everybody said it's really nice" if he's gonna tell me "yeah but we only sold three".
(As an aside, Kia Australia chief operating officer Damien Meredith told me later: "We're more than happy with how Stinger's started. The dealer network is incredibly happy with how the car's gone. We start our advertising next week, but we're still limited by numbers - there's a lot of dealers with customers waiting for cars, especially with V6 models, due three or five months out.")
Above: A very old sketch...
On the idea of a ute:
S: There are no plans at this time [for a ute].
Not even a discussion?
S: There's always discussion.
G: We discuss all body types, all the time.
S: Also, shooting brakes. (Schreyer laughs. Who doesn't love a shooting brake?)
G: And convertibles. And coupes. And super sports cars. We discuss really everything, of course you have to! Especially a brand like Kia that moves so fast, we put everything on the table all the time.
But if you discuss everything, doesn't that discussion lead to "think of how much money we could make on a ute, let's make one"? No answer.
The conversation moves to SUVs and how clearly important those are to being successful today:
S: SUVs are, at the moment, they are still an unstoppable kind of thing. This is also why everybody, we too, are working on SUV concepts and variations.
G: Even though, from our side, we always say "this can't go on forever, it doesn't make sense", but the customers… it's still the growing market. It's still what they're asking for.
S: I mean, you know, you have the high seating position, you have space, it makes you feel safe, so it makes sense there is demand.
G: I think we've noticed in the last five or 10 years maybe, a move away from the standard answer of a car, and that's why normal sedans are going down. They just want something else. Definitely, in Europe at least, the SUV has answered that question in the best way. It was suddenly 'not the car', suddenly I'm not driving something like what everybody else had for the last… so many years. It was the SUV.
I think now what's going to happen is, in all segments, we're going to look for variations. But it's like crossing dog breeds… you're going to get more and more funny dogs! (Clearly Guillaume is not in love with SUVs, but he accepts this is what the market wants.)
Time's up. We're shuffled out of the room so an Asian media group can restart the questioning.
What do you think of Peter Schreyer and Gregory Guillaume's views on where Kia styling is at, and where it's going? Tell us in the comments below.