Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Design guru fuels Kia's growth

Lead exponent of esthetic ethos

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LOS ANGELES -- Attending events like the recent L.A., Detroit and Chicago auto shows, it's obvious that automakers spend millions (possibly billions) of dollars competing to get a new-car buyer's attention.

From the elaborate auto show stands to the full-on multimedia presentations to the post-show new-vehicle media-drive events, everyone is spending big bucks to differentiate themselves in a market where the bandwidth between reliability, features and pricing is paper-thin.

In a vast field of new vehicles that, objectively, all perform at a very similar level, the subjective nature of how a car looks can make or break it in the showroom. This is why, outside of marketing, automakers are also investing heavily in new-car design.

One of the automakers that has wholeheartedly bought into this "car-design-as-added-value" theory is South Korea's Kia, and its global head pen, chief design officer Peter Schreyer, deserves much of the credit for the brand's design renaissance.

However, the automaker's most recent and critically acclaimed (and bestselling) vehicles have come from Kia's Design Center America, located just south of Los Angeles in Irvine, Calif., and headed by American Tom Kearns.

"The studio does mostly production work -- probably 85 per cent is actually making proposals for production programs. But we also do a show car maybe once a year. So there's some advance work being done as well," Kearns explained.

Before joining Kia in 2004, Kearns was a General Motors man, his most notable work being the "art and science"-themed 2002 Cadillac CTS sedan.

In the eight years he's been running Kia's West Coast design studio, Kearns has overseen the debut of some of the brand's most groundbreaking designs -- vehicles that have driven the Korean automaker from an also-ran to a design leader, such as the original 2006 Soul concept, the 2007 KUE crossover concept (that previewed the current Sportage) and the 2008 Kia Koup concept, which led directly to the current Forte Koup two-door.

Kearnes said his team's goal is to create a look that offers a lot of "design content" or "design value," which supports Kia's fundamental brand values.

"If we can create a design that looks more expensive -- or you feel you're getting more for your money -- then I think we've done our job. You can see that in the Optima. You can get every option on that car, and it's hard to break $35,000. But the design -- for the average person, anyway -- looks like a BMW or a Euro-something that maybe should cost $55,000."

Kearns' "design value" ethos shows up on the sales charts as well. The majority of Kia's biggest sellers in North America originated from his studio.

"The original Forte sedan and five-door hatchback, the current-generation Sorento and the new Sorento facelift, the Sportage, the new Rio sedan and five-door all came from our studio," he said.

This all means that good design is helping sell more Kias -- 2012 was another record year for the automaker in Canada.

After the unveiling of the new 2014 Forte Sedan in December, it's hard to see Kia straying too far from this current path of success. Arguably, the front-wheel-drive, five-passenger four-door is the most sophisticated-looking car in its class. And Kearns says that's no accident.

"The overall shape of the car and its proportions can give an impression of value. And with the new Forte, I think we've done a good job with that," Kearns said.

The Kia designer added that much of the new Forte's design value can be found in the details.

"The LED daytime running lamps, the beltline, the chrome door-handles -- some of those are things that normally you might not see on a comparable Honda, Nissan or Toyota," he noted.

While the 2014 North American Forte shares its platform with the foreign-market Kia Cerato, the two cars are separate designs. Kearns' studio handled the North American car's exterior and interior design, then followed the car as it made its way from designer's sketches to the factory floor.

"We work the design up to a certain point. Then it gets finished for production in Korea, where we oversee the engineering refinements, powertrain evaluations, aero tweaks and any manufacturing issues," Kearns said.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A1

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