Peter Schreyer, the former head of Audi styling who arrived at Kia Motors nearly a decade ago to bring a bold maturity to the brand's designs, looks like a proud papa at the delivery of his latest child. That is exactly what this is, in fact.
We are in a grand private ballroom with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower. The room is on the exhibition grounds of the Place de la Porte de Versailles where the biannual Mondial de I'Automobile 2014 – the Paris auto show – is held. And Kia has just unwrapped the third-generation Sorento sport-utility.
A lot has changed at Kia design since you arrived, hasn't it, Peter Schreyer, head of Kia and Hyundai design and a president of the Hyundai Motor?
"Light years. We are light years from where we were when I arrived," he says. The grille on the new Sorento is a signature now and it looks strong and readily identified as a Kia prow. But it's the interior that stands out most.
The outgoing Sorento is a bit rustic. Not this new one that arrives in showrooms in January. The materials look expensive and the panel gaps are tight. The seats are covered in leather and the foam is thick and supportive.
The idea with the Kia brand, he says, is to bring people into showrooms with the designs, please them with the test drive and then surprise them with the price. On that, don't expect the next Sorento to go up much, if at all.
More than the Sorento, however, is on Schreyer's mind. It's the team effort he wants to talk about. That effort was just rewarded with wins at the Automotive Brand Contest 2014. This is an international design competition run by the German Design Council, with winners picked by an independent jury.
Kia was named Team of the Year in recognition of the work done at its three design centres in Korea, California and Germany. As well, the Kia Provo, a small and sporty concept unveiled at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, was named Best of Best in the Concepts category and the new Kia Soul won the Exterior Volume Brand category.
"This is important because it's for the team," he says. "If just one car wins an award, you can say that was primarily the work of one designer or a small few and it does not have the same resonance as a team award. Our whole team has been recognized. That is an achievement."
The latest Sorento may or may not win awards, but it certainly reflects the progress Kia has made in creating a grown-up look and executing it in production vehicles. There is a richness here that belies a price tag that for the front-drive version will surely start around $28,000, with the four-by-four wearing a base price of around $30,000.
Designers like to work with imagery that inspires them. The Sorento to Kia's team is the "Streetwolf." Truly. This is how the creative types go about being ingenious. This rig, says Schreyer, reflects the evolutionary changes Kia is focused on now. That is, Kia does not need to shock and awe the public with its designs. Rather, changes are subtle but profound. Look at the old one and then the new, and you be the judge.
The interior is from Kia's Frankfurt design team. It looks and feels roomier and the width of the thing is reflected in the wider instrument cluster and the wrap-around shape of the dashboard. That dash actually extends into the door trim. Soft-touch materials and leather are in abundance on the show stand.
Kia is bringing less change to the power train lineup. Both the four-cylinder and the V-6 will be carried over, initially. However, Kia officials hint that a turbo-diesel might be added to the Canadian lineup. That would make sense.
As well, the engineers, say Kia officials, have re-tuned the suspension, tightened up the steering and improving ride and handling. They promise a ride that is equal to the design. We'll find out about that in a future test drive.
For now, the design work holds centre stage and that's where Schreyer has clearly made a huge impact. I feel like handing him a cigar.