How Kia went from peddling econoboxes to challenging BMW

Even the younger ones among us remember the time when driving a Kia was the automotive equivalent of drinking Shasta soda. We’re talking about the not-too-distant era when Kia’s flagship model, the Amanti, looked like a Mercedes-Benz E-Class viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Few took much notice. The ones who did explained the purchase with a resigned shrug.

“We considered hiding the fact that it’s a Kia.”

But then, something unexpected happened; Kia evolved. Its cars began to feel appreciably nicer inside, to drive much better, and, importantly, to develop a design identity of their own. Not convinced? Check out the Stinger, a world-class rear-wheel drive sports sedan that’s got enthusiasts excited like citizens of a newly-founded republic. Digital Trends sat down with Orth Hedrick, Kia Motors America’s vice president of product planning, to get insight on the brand’s astounding transformation.

Digital Trends: When I was in high school, about 10 years ago, driving a Kia wasn’t great. No one aspired to own a Sephia. Now, you’ve got the Stinger, which by all accounts is a great car. How do you take a car brand this far in such a short amount of time?

Orth Hedrick: If you look at some of the great brands, like Toyota and Honda and others, they also had humble beginnings. Do you remember the original Civic? Or, the Corolla and the Corona from the 1960s? You go through this period and it’s a generational thing. I think for us, one of the key points is the fact that we have the Kia badge loud and proud on the front and back of the Stinger.

Kia Orth Hedrick
Orth Hedrick, Vice President of Product Planning at Kia Motors America Geoff Robins/Getty Images

We had this massive discussion about “why don’t we hide the Kia badge and just put Stinger on the front?” We considered hiding the fact that it’s a Kia. We’ve noticed a lot of folks pry the badges off of their Optima. They love the car but they can’t stand the badge or the brand. I think it’s just going to take time. It’s going to take time and experience in the marketplace.

We’re getting there; we almost made car of the year. That’s huge growth from our design-led transformation and from building vehicles that look as good as they drive. Now, think of someone who is in the market for a new car every six to seven years, which is about average. There are a lot of people who still remember the “old Kia.” The question is, how do you go about making that transition? It’s time and persistence, and I think eventually it happens.

What role has design played in this transformation?

It’s been huge. We coined the first chapter our “design-led transformation.” It was driven a lot by bringing [former Audi designer] Peter Schreyer on-board to change the look and design of our cars. Albert Biermann joined us from BMW to help with vehicle dynamics.

He was heavily involved in the Stinger, which was about a third of the way into development when he joined. He went and actually moved suspension touch down points and made changes to the geometry, which kind of delayed the program because then they had to go back and redo everything. It was so important to get this thing right that the changes were made. And because of him, and because of the work he’s doing on the performance side, we’re developing the engineering competencies to improve the dynamics and handling of other vehicles.

Vehicle dynamics were a huge challenge on the Stinger because it’s a five-door. You’ve got a big opening right above where the suspension is doing its thing. That was a major, major engineering challenge. It took a lot of time and effort to achieve the stiffness we wanted. Audi was able to do it with the A7, Porsche with the Panamera, and it was a great technical challenge, but we were able to deliver on that. The payoff is the car handles and feels great.

Why develop a car like the Stinger?

It was really born out of passion. I don’t know if you remember the GT concept we had on the show circuit. That was a designer’s dream car. They were figuring out what to put on the circuit and the guys in the Frankfurt studio are the ones that put the car together.

“There wasn’t a business case for the Stinger. It was fueled by passion from the studio.”

They grew up when the notion of a gran turismo was big in Europe. Now, a getaway weekend is Southwest Airlines. You fly down to Nashville. Back in the day they didn’t have that. They had fast, powerful coupes for two couples to take off with all their stuff on the weekend. They’d go to the south of France, in the vineyards, but they needed to get there in a fast car so they created the GT. It wasn’t about ultimate performance or ultimate Gs; it was about fast and comfortable motoring.

That was very influential for some of our designers. These were the aspirational cars for a young 13-year old guy. When it came time to develop a show car, they said “this is what we were drawing when we were 13; let’s make one of these!” That turned into the GT concept. It went through the show circuit and got huge response and huge accolades. It fell to the engineering department to figure out how to make one of these things.

One of the main points was to move to a five-door body style to get that room in the back for stuff. It was born out of passion. There wasn’t a business case; it wasn’t like we ran market research and figured out “this is the vector we’re going to take.” It was fueled by passion from the studio.

So, there wasn’t already a product behind it?

No. Six or seven years went by between the time the GT concept first went on the circuit and the time the Stinger came out. We started and we brought Albert on board. He spent 30 years at BMW. He knows that millimeters on a 20-foot long object that weighs 4,000 pounds make a big difference. Small adjustments; that’s what took so long.

Are there lessons from the Stinger you can apply to other cars?

Yes, a lot. On the Forte, we redesigned the sub-frames so that there’s more lateral stiffness but still plenty of compliance on vertical travel. When you’re going through a corner, the sub-frames are able to keep the wheels in a very specific geometry in relation to the body. You don’t see a lot of movement or sloppiness in the corners. That’s because of those details. The body-in-white is 16-percent stiffer, too. It provides a very solid foundation for the suspension to do its work.

It’s already paying off on cars like the brand-new Forte. We’re getting fantastic reviews on the new Rio. We hear a lot of people say they can’t believe it’s a sub-compact car. The lead market for that was Europe. The general feel is that, as time goes on, our cars are going to feel a lot better than previews cars. It’s just getting people to come drive them. To your point, perception of the old cars and the experience they had is quite different than the new cars.

Where do you see the Kia brand going in the next 10 years?

We refer to the Stinger as an inflection point. As we sort out what we stand for and what we represent, I think we’re centering around this vibrant and young-at-heart idea. The cars are part of that personality trait; they show us doing things differently. The Niro, the Soul, and the Stinger are all good examples of us doing things differently. They don’t fit a normal recipe or category definition.

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