By on September 27, 2021

Kia

I got my first, in-person taste of the upcoming Kia EV6 this past weekend in Irvine, California. It was a beautiful 77-degree day spent amid rolling hills under blue, sunny skies – even the people I met were wonderful. They were tanned, attractive, “California” people who were cheerful and engaging. No matter what California sent to distract me, though, my eyes kept turning back to the EV6.

There’s simply no escaping it. The Kia EV6, especially in the matte metallic gray finish, is an incredibly good-looking car.

Not too far away, another Korean car caught my eye. This time it was the Hyundai Ioniq 5, which I was also experiencing in production form for the first time. From a few yards away, the Ioniq 5 looks for all the world like a retro-futuristic hot hatch, low and squat and ready in the way that old rally cars seem to want to pounce off the line, and barrel towards the next curve. Then the door opens, someone steps out of the car, and your brain has to recalibrate.

It’s not a hot hatch at all. The Ioniq 5 is a medium-ish, five-passenger crossover with 21-inch wheels and high-end LED lighting. It was all a trick of the light.

“How—” I begin to ask, genuinely surprised at how small the Ioniq looks compared to how big it actually is. “How did you guys do this?”

“We hired the best people in the world,” was James Bell’s simple, straightforward response.

James Bell is Kia’s head of corporate communications and was kind enough to spend some time with me last Saturday during the Electrify Expo e-mobility festival in Irvine and help me wrap my brain around just how far Kia has come in the last two decades. Which, if you weren’t around in the 90s, let me tell you: Kia has come a long, long way.

“The company decided it was going to hire the best people it could find,” said James (I’m paraphrasing a bit here). “Not just good people, but the best people – even if that meant we had to look outside of Korea to find them.”

The team that Hyundai and Kia have put together to develop their new Electric-Global Modular Platform (E-GMP) reads like an automotive take on the Traveling Willburys.

Bell starts with Albert Biermann, who was originally hired as a chassis and suspension engineer at BMW in 1983, and who worked on every classic BMW you want while working his way up to the role of Vice President Engineering BMW M Automobiles and BMW Individual in 2008. Hyundai hired him away from BMW in 2015, specifically to ensure that the new Hyundai and Kia models built on the E-GMP platform were as good, from a dynamic perspective, as anything else. Ed. note: Biermann also was involved in the Kia Stinger and, of course, the N line of Hyundais. We regret the oversight.

Next, he mentions Luc Donckerwolke, a superstar car designer whose portfolio includes the all-conquering Audi R8 LeMans racer, the Lamborghini Murcielago and Gallardo, and both the 2013 Bentley Flying Spur and the EXP 10 Speed 6 concept. This guy can draw cars, in other words, and he’s proved that again and again since joining Hyundai with the 2018 Palisade, 2020 Sonata, 2021 Elantra, and G/GV80 Genesis models. He oversees the look and feel of the cars.

Finally, we get to Karim Habib, another BMW alum who penned both the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe (swoon!) and the EV6 that’s in front of us.

“I love this car,” I tell James. “I just wrote an article about it, actually. I said it looked like a Lancia Stratos.”

“That’s a good thing to look like,” he says. “There might be some Lotus, too.”

We talked a bit about some of the other players in the EV space who have – let’s say, “struggled” with translating some traditional styling cues into a modern, crossover-y electric vehicle design language, and whether those styling cues were doing more to hurt or help those brands as they transition to EV.

“Do you think that Kia, because it’s kind of a younger brand with maybe less of a legacy, has more freedom to make really bold design choices?”

“Yeah,” James says, thoughtfully. “Yeah, I think so. The design language that Kia has is really forward-looking. When I was at GM, there were a lot of ‘competing interests’, shall we say?”

We joke a bit about Fiero/Corvette conspiracy theories and a “You can’t have a coupe; Buick just got a coupe!” mentality.

“At Kia,” he says, “there’s none of that.”

It’s clear just from the EV6 that Karim Habib is making the most of his opportunity to lead a design department that isn’t beholden to the past.

“EV6, as the first dedicated Kia EV, is a showcase of human-centered, progressive design and electrified power,” Habib said, in Kia’s official statement on its new, “Opposites United” design philosophy. “The philosophy is based on five key design pillars,” the statement continues. “‘Bold for Nature’, ‘Joy for Reason’, ‘Power to Progress’, ‘Technology for Life’, and ‘Tension for Serenity’.”

Which, I mean – that’s some pretty dense PR-speak that I really want to take issue with … but I can’t. The EV6 really does look bold, and I want to put some aggressively knobbed tires on it and take it out into nature. It looks joyful in the way that sportscars look fun and thrilling, but it’s a four-door crossover that I can make a logical case for. As for power – well, Kia did debut the 576 horsepower EV6 GT by lining it up alongside a Lamborghini, an AMG, a McLaren, a Ferrari, and a Porsche for an airstrip drag race.

The Kia didn’t win that race (the McLaren won), but it wasn’t last. Not by a long shot – and that says a lot about what Kia seems to have figured out about the car business: People build cars. And, if you hire the best people to build your cars, it makes sense that you’re probably going to end up building the best cars. Or some very good ones, at least.

With handling by the guy who made BMW M into the BMW M, a forward-looking design language, and the guy who brought Lamborghini and Bentley into the modern era keeping an eye on things, it’s hard to imagine Hyundai and Kia doing anything else.

James was a very good sport and spent a lot of time talking cars and Kia with me at the Electrify Expo. I wanted to return the favor, so I asked him if there was any point or message about Kia that he’d like to add to the article. After a bit of a pause, he hit me with the following: “We believe the launch of the EV6 will be long remembered as a pivotal moment in the history of Kia here in the US.  It will be our proverbial ‘vehicle of change’ as you will never forget the first time you see one on the road, and therefore is a perfect representation of Kia’s new Opposites United design theme.”

“I love it!” I said with a chuckle.

“Hopefully you can sense that I LOVE the car biz!” he added.

I do get that sense. I love it, too.

[Images: Kia, Hyundai]

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42 Comments on “Opinion: How Hyundai and Kia Have Made Design a Strength...”


  • avatar
    dwford

    Yes they are good looking cars, but designs that look like on thing but are actually another tend to have a tough time in the market. Consider the original Chrysler Pacifica and original Toyota Venza. Both tried to inhabit a middle ground between wagon and SUV, and both flopped. Chevy tried desperately to convince us that the Bolt was a crossover, when it obviously looks like a regular hatchback. So now Hyundai comes out with a rather large “crossover” EV that looks like a compact hatchback from 1980. The typical car buyer is short on imagination, and rightly or wrongly buys based on stereotypes.

    • 0 avatar

      I think that’s true, but it doesn’t track like a hatchback in person. Once you’re next to it, it’s properly SUV-sized. The question is whether people will see it in photos, think it’s a hatch, then ignore it in the market because of that. Hard to say.

    • 0 avatar
      thegamper

      Personally, I think the Hyundai/Kia EVs are some of the more compelling EVs yet for the average consumer of new vehicles. I kind of love the Lancia Delta look of the Hyundai and the Kia is pretty sleek and unique.

  • avatar
    ajla

    “I begin to ask, genuinely surprised at how small the Ioniq looks compared to how big it actually is”

    Why do you consider that a positive? IMO I find the Brobdingnag scaling to be off-putting and I think it will be amplified once these are in traffic.

    If you want a fun bit of scaling whimsy, an ’88 Cadillac DeVille is a half inch *longer* than a 2022 Avalon and a ’91 Toronado was 3 inches longer than a 2022 Challenger but most people seem to think they were only a touch larger than a Mazda3.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    “Do you think that Kia, because it’s kind of a younger brand with maybe less of a legacy, has more freedom to make really bold design choices?”

    In the past we’ve seen Kia and Hyundai “borrow” designs form competitors. At least that’s been my impression. It’s good to see that they’ve evolved.

    Hopefully these EV’s will be more dependable than their ICE cars. My son started working at a Kia dealership last year. One of his first tasks was to empty an entire repair bay full of dead engines by taking them to the local scrap yard.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      That crankshaft recall covered a LOT of cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        Kia just sent new engines. No rebuilds.

      • 0 avatar
        dukeisduke

        @SCE Yeah it does. I was at a Hyundai dealership recently, there with my wife and my mother-in-law, to pick up my mother-in-law’s 2017 Elantra Limited. Lined up long a wall in the building (the place is almost empty, since they had less than ten new cars to sell) were ten wooden crates or reusable plastic containers holding new engines for customers’ cars.

        My oldest daughter’s 2012 Kia Forte Koup SX (2.4l Theta II) was added to the “engine fire” recall list in January. The engine warranty runs 15 years or 150,000 miles; she has 152,000 on hers. Cars brought in for checkout on the recall get the ECU reflashed, to “tune” the knock sensor to listen for bearing knock (made more sensitive, or less sensitive?) along with spark knock.

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      Automakers “borrow” from each other all the time, and these days, plenty are borrowing from H/K – for instance, the chrome strips which extend beyond the outline of the greenhouse.

  • avatar
    Astigmatism

    I find the idea of “reserving” a car (as was pioneered, I think, by Tesla, but now applies to every interesting new vehicle from the Ford Maverick on up) inherently silly, but I plopped down $100 the day that reservations opened for the EV6 and I’m eagerly waiting to see it in person when it’s available early next year. It looks great in photos, people have said good things about its interior quality and handling, it’s got competitive range and a lot of space for stuff; it seems head and shoulders above the other options in the medium-ish electric CUV space (Mach-E, ID4, I-Pace, etc.).

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      Just as a warning: Hyundai’s “reservation” system for the new Santa Cruz truck-let has been a complete disaster. Read the fine print, you are not ordering or reserving anything. Its more like a 3rd party request that gets passed along to a dealer that may or may not honor it. Dealer allocation is sometimes filled based on these requests but a vehicle with different colors or options may be substituted. Hopefully H/K has learned from the SC mess and is working to improve the system. All I know is there is tons of frustration from people who felt that setting a $100 on fire would have gotten them better results. In the end those working directly with a knowledge dealer got the best results. Many dealers that got inventory immediately put mark ups of $2k to $10k on these “reserved” vehicles knowing they had a list of potential buyers lined up. In the end many frustrated customers just canceled and bailed.

      • 0 avatar
        Astigmatism

        Hm, that is a worthwhile warning. There had been some chatter online about approaching a few dealers in advance and asking them if they’d commit to take delivery and the sale at MSRP-$500 (which still leaves them with about $2k of profit for nothing other than an hour’s paperwork), but there’s really no fine print to even read to figure out how transferable the reservations are from dealer to dealer.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        Hyundai has botched the Santa Cruz launch to an impressive degree.

      • 0 avatar
        bd2

        Hyundai’s “reservation” system is the same, old pretty much useless system it’s always been.

        Oddly enough, one can actually custom order a Kia Telluride from the factory.

  • avatar
    MitchConner

    I can’t stand Korean cars as their home market restricts outsiders while their government-subsidized products enjoy massive distribution here.

    That said, the design of the latest Genesis products are very, very impressive — and represent a real challenge to all their competitors, foreign and domestic, with their subsidized sticker prices. The new GV70 by any measure is an excellent product.

    Of course, you can say that our automobile industry is subsidized as well — hello GM and Chrysler — but at least they’re paying corporate taxes and employing a lot of people here while competing in an open and fair market. The Korean manufacturers don’t.

    • 0 avatar
      conundrum

      Righteous fluff. Get out much? Kia has a plant opened in 2009 that makes the Telluride in West Point Georgia. Hyundai has a plant in Alabamaa.

      The Chevy Impala, of all things, sold well in South Korea six or seven years ago. You sound like Alan Mullaly who used to go on about Japan not buying F150s to tool around in on their tiny roads while they exported cars to the USA, most of which were designed for the market here in North America. Nope, Japan was supposed to love the F150 just the damn way it was! Even with the steering wheel on the wrong side, likely.

      Before making silly statements, there is this thing called Google to use to see if what appears unchecked as fact in one’s head is not just the brain manufacturing its own nonsense, because, well, because um, er, well, “that’s the way I feel and nothing anyone can say will change my mind and Covid is a hoax, so there, Wah!”

    • 0 avatar

      I mean, how is that different from the US? The US heavily taxes foreign made trucks to limit competition for US buyers and subsidizes the market for large, gas-guzzling vehicles through prolonged military intervention in oil-rich countries, does it not? As you say, the American auto industry is subsidized, but I think the degree to which it’s subsidized would shock most people who think of the US as “a free market”.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        I’m not sure you understand the concept of the Kissinger Petrodollar.

        https://www.financialsense.com/contributors/jerry-robinson/the-rise-of-the-petrodollar-system-dollars-for-oil

        Related:
        https://wtfhappenedin1971.com/

    • 0 avatar
      bd2

      Really?

      The Korean market is one of the largest and most lucrative for the German automakers.

      Mercedes would often sell more E and S Classes combined there than in Europe or the US.

      Funny how the Germans are able to be a big success despite all the “restrictions.”

      And with just 2 models currently available, Tesla has been a huge success there as well (if the Model Y were available, Tesla would sell over 10k units a month).

      Lexus sells far more than Cadillac in Korea, which just shows how poorly managed the domestics makes are when it comes to overseas markets.

      Cadillac has the advantage of not having to deal with the historical enmity between the 2 countries, in addition to having the parts, distribution and service infrastructure from GM Korea.

      And where the heck do you get the notion that H/K don’t have to pay corporate taxes?

      They, along with Samsung and LG, are the biggest tax payers in Korea.

      If they don’t, then neither does GM Korea which has also gotten hundreds of millions in govt. aid.

      In fact, US automakers get a benefit that the German, Japanese, Brit and Chinese automakers don’t get (and there is tariff on imports from the US).

      Each US automaker gets 20k (imported) vehicles EXEMPTED from having to meet Korean emissions and safety standards – who else offers that kind of benefit?

      The Korean auto market is big on large luxury sedans.

      The Germans are good at doing that, the US automakers, not so much.

      It’s pretty simple as that.

      As for GM Korea, with crappy offerings like the Trax, it’s hardly surprising that sales haven’t been good.

      The new and better Trailblazer has been selling well.

  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    MitchConner-

    “In a penned statement from CEO of Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia or the KMMG plant, Hyun-Jong Shin stated that the KMMG plant is home to the KIA Optima and the KIA Sorento in the U.S. He also added that the two vehicles continue to pave the way for KIA in the U.S. car market. KIA team members stay devoted to building quality vehicles on American soil, while implementing the latest technologies and amenities inside of each KIA manufactured.

  • avatar
    BSttac

    I think this was true about 5 years ago. Hyundai/Kia styling peaked with the Stinger and has become vomit inducing with the Hyundai Santa Fe, Kona, and now Elantra N. They have become the Honda of exterior design for Hyundai (not a complement) and piano black plastic masters in the interior for Kia. Really like What Hyundai/Kia/Genesis were doing,but there future looks awful honestly.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    @Jo,

    First of all,
    A) Spending 40 minutes a week at Target has distorted your perceptions.
    B) Tan people paid to smile at you in perfect weather didn’t help any.

    Having said that,
    “Hyundai and Kia Have Made Design a Strength”
    • Kia yes, mostly
    • Hyundai no, not so much

    Styling is subjective. (This means I’m right and you’re wrong.)

    [If you reply we can discuss, but the first thing we are going to discuss is your hat.]

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’m an admitted H/K fan, but I’m getting frustrated with their looong runup to products with very limited availability at first, and possibly limited in the long run.

    Despite H/K’s promises, the US market won’t see these cars for another 6 months in ‘friendly’ states, and much later than that for new states. They are chronically short on battery supply and therefore cannot meet demand anywhere in the world.

    These show-n-tell press events result in pieces like this, keeping the pump primed for would-be buyers.

    AFAIK, no US journalist has even driven one of these cars in the US. “Fall availability” is intentionally vague, which means H/K is having supply chain problems like everyone else, and/or their dealers simply aren’t ready. Heck, the EPA figures aren’t even out yet.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      If the Santa Cruz launch is any indicator I agree with the above. Inventory is limited to a handful of units that sell immediately to the highest bidder: https://www.thedrive.com/news/42368/2022-hyundai-santa-cruz-dethrones-corvette-as-fastest-selling-new-car-in-us

      The SC took around 5 months from unveiling to reach dealerships. During that time various details slowly leaked out but there was no build-to-order site that gave model specific pricing or trim features breakdown. Hyundai kept showing off the loaded model resulting in confusion and disappointment when people learned many “included” items were not available on lesser trims. The lack of official pricing or trim break down let people wondering what exactly they were buying.

      While I think H/K makes good products their marketing, dealers and production facilities couldn’t handle the SC launch. Granted supply and assembly shortages challenged them however the real problem was the lack of communication to early adopters.

      Even basic things like tow hitches have been so limited the aftermarket is already a better option for new owners. Dealers are clueless and just adding insane $10k mark ups in an effort to cash in on this situation. I can’t blame them (high demand / low inventory = no consumer friendly) but their attitudes have turned off many would-be customers.

  • avatar
    Syke

    I’ve got serious hopes for this car. Having lived with my Bolt, the wife definitely wants to go EV for her next car. As her first choice, a Tesla Model 3, is definitely out of our budget, and given our past and current successes with Kia, I’m definitely nudging her in this direction.

  • avatar
    Mike-NB2

    Not entirely on topic as I’ve never seen these vehicles in person obviously, but to my eyes Hyundai and Kia have been knocking their designs out of the park for the last while. I’m no big fan of any manufacturer’s anonymous blobs (aka CUVs) but the H/K cars look great. Last week I saw my first new Sonata in the flesh (I don’t get out much…) and was very impressed.

  • avatar
    mcs

    On the engineering side, along with Porsche, Hyundai now owns a chunk of Bugatti-Rimac. Should be some interesting stuff coming out of that.

    https://web-cdn.rimac-automobili.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/05160615/Rimac-Group-Shareholder-Structure-2880×1645.png

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    Good, clean designs can be timeless. Unless the designer begins to tweak them because next year’s car can’t be permitted to look exactly like last year’s car no matter how good the latter is.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I don’t think anyone makes attractive cars anymore, but I give KIA/Hyundai credit for making cars and especially SUVs that look as pricey as the Germans. A new Telluride next to a new GL looks to be in the same price category.

  • avatar
    bd2

    I’d say it’s been a mixed bag (more so for Hyundai than for Kia) sheetmetal-wise.

    But at least when HMG designers come up with something that only a mother can love, it’s not boring (i.e. – Elantra, the upcoming Sportage).

    There’s nothing worse when it comes to design to do something that is both bland and ugly like a few automakers have done.

    Borras didn’t mention Sang-yup Lee, who’s actually the head of design for both Genesis and Hyundai (who was the head exterior designer for Bentley; Luc brought him over to HMG).

    Plenty of other great designers from Gregory Guillaume (penned t H E production version of the Stinger to Sasha Selipanov (penned the Genesis Essentia concept) who’s now at Koenigsegg, and of course, Peter Schreyer.

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