Little more than a decade ago Kia was a no-frills, A-to-B Korean car brand recently saved from bankruptcy by Hyundai. But since the arrival of ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer in 2006, the marque has been transformed - in a similar way to fellow Korean brands LG and Samsung - and sales have rocketed, so much so that Hyundai-Kia is now the fourth biggest car group in the world.
Well-proportioned cars like the 2010 Sportage compact crossover and softly boxy 2014 Soul have added real character to the production range, while sportier concepts like the 2013 Provo and Niro and the 2014 GT4 Stinger suggest genuinely desirable product expansion options. Kia's in-house conventional petrol and diesel engines are already among the most fuel-efficient in their segments and innovative new electric-only powertrains are just starting to arrive.
Indeed, Kia already provides the lion's share of the vehicles available to hire in Seoul's new electric car sharing scheme (see the mini Ray EV) and will launch an electric-only Soul globally later in 2014.
Wallpaper* went to Kia's Namyang Design Centre in South Korea to speak to the director of the Kia Styling Group, Sae-Young Song about Schreyer's influence, Korean style and the brand's premium aspirations...
W*: How has Peter Schreyer's influence changed the way you work?
Sae-Young Song: His biggest contribution has been to establish a design philosophy and integrate the design departments across the globe (in California, Germany and Korea).
Do you think there is a Korean design style?
This is a difficult question. Historically Korea used to import a lot of its culture from China and Japan and then used to make something new out of it. Most of our designers have a Western education; so maybe Korean design is influenced by Western education and Eastern traditions.
Do Kia designers share expertise with sister brand Hyundai, or do they tend to stay separate?
It's rare for Kia designers to work for Hyundai, although it happens occasionally. But it's a big priority to differentiate the two brands and our design departments will separate even further in 2014 by moving into different buildings.
Why should design conscious customers consider buying a Kia?
A few years ago there was no design awareness of Kia design, those customers didn't think of Kia. But now they do, so expectations have been raised. We're trying to be more innovative and move Kia onto an equal level with European premium brands, and especially with the interiors.