Kia – the power to surprise, the power to disappoint

kia-kx35-concept-1A Kia concept, said to preview a China-only SUV model, at a second-tier Chinese motor show. Hardly big news, especially as the industry was focused on the Los Angeles show at the time. But the Kia KX3 unveiled in Guangzhou show a few days ago is an interesting product for what it says about the brand.

Its front-end styling has the same basic form as a Porsche Cayenne, the SUV which saved the German carmaker, accounting for half its volumes and becoming a talisman for the brand in China.

Kia, like its Hyundai sister brand, has been a revelation in the last few years, growing phenomenally and producing very well designed products. It’s secret has been to add good styling to the value brand proposition. But it’s an overstretch for Kia to try to assume some of Porsche’s cachet.

And there’s a very good reason not to ape Porsche design: the Cayenne’s unloved styling was a direct result of applying iconic 911 design language to a front-engined, four-door car for the first time. And the 911’s styling was borne out of the rear-engine layout, meaning that it could have a very low bonnet line. This resulted in a unique – and aesthetically problematic – form in which the Cayenne’s headlights sit above the radiator grille, giving a bug-eyed, ungainly look. There’s been no other car like it. Until now.

Porsche-Cayenne-S-E-HybridThe original Cayenne’s looks were universally unpopular. They’ve been refined but whether you like them or not is not the issue. The point is that they were, and remain, a must for Porsche in communicating its brand: the Cayenne may have been a heavy, high-centre-of-gravity beast but its engineering and dynamics were as cutting-edge as those of a 911. It was an SUV but it was a Porsche. Aesthetics had to be secondary. The design of the Kia KX3 has no such rationale.

Kia has been a revelation in the past five or so years, growing phenomenally and producing very well designed products. In a visionary move, in 2007 Kia recruited the European designer of the iconic Audi TT, Peter Schreyer, to head its styling. He’s since become the boss of all Hyundai-Kia design and the most senior non-Korean in its business globally. In so doing the management has elevated the brands and created a compelling combination of the rational and emotional.

1bUnder Schreyer, Kia has been a triumph of unexpectedly confident, contemporary, original, perfectly proportioned designs – ironically everything that Porsche design is not and cannot be. This is especially true of the Sportage, which the KX3 is, in reality, thought to be previewing.

Now they’re trying to differentiate Kia from Hyundai, especially in design terms. They want to add more emotion and sportiness, and a stronger design signature. But the best brands are aligned with great original design: think Apple. And they give consumers what the consumers don’t know that they want: again, think Apple. Allowing the Chinese market to define wider product and design strategy would be a mistake.

Kia is on the rise. It’s just been ranked 74 in Interbrand’s 100 Best Global Brands, with brand value up almost 500% since Schreyer’s arrival. It’s fulfilled the brand message ‘The Power to Surprise’. But if the KX3 signals the next design phase it also has the power to disappoint.

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