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the green highway

I'm no expert on Korean corporate culture so I don't really know how significant this is, but Kia just appointed its chief designer as the company's first non-Korean president. There are three presidents at Kia and now Peter Schreyer is one of them. There is, of course, only one chairman and that's the all-powerful Chung Mong Koo, who runs the management board of Hyundai-Kia Group.

Nevertheless, the appointment serves as an endorsement of the job Schreyer had done to transform Kia cars and SUVs from nondescript boxes sold on price to a lineup that regularly wins design awards. I firmly believe that the chief designer is the second-most important person at any successful auto maker. Chung Mong Koo must have a similar view.

Kia Motors thought it had scored a coup when it hired Schreyer away from the Volkswagen Group in 2006. He had worked at VW and Audi for more than 25 years when he was headhunted to lead Kia's global design operation, supervising the company's design centres in Frankfurt, Los Angeles and South Korea.

He gets celebrity treatment at all the big international auto shows and dresses the part of the celebrity-designer in his trademark black suit and oversized, heavy-framed black glasses. He has been thrust into the role of leading spokesperson for the company and is unfailingly courteous and patient with journalists' questions. The last time I sat down with him, the topic switched to art and his face lit up as he described the one-man show of 60 of his paintings that was running at a gallery in Seoul. I suppose any creative person who spends so much time on airplanes needs an artistic outlet.

Kia has enjoyed a period of unprecedented growth since Schreyer took over design. He has helped the company transform itself from a budget brand to one of innovation and style. Who ever thought a Kia could look like an Audi? Check out the new Kia Optima and you'll see a reflection of the years Schreyer spent as Audi design director.

The "tiger nose" grille is a signature of Schreyer's Kia designs. It gets applied on everything from the subcompact Rio to the Sportage and Sorento SUVs to the Optima sedans. He hasn't hit home runs with everything he's touched; the odd-looking Soul has been a flop and both the Rio and Forte became more attractive only with the addition of five-door (hatchback) models. Yet the progress of the overall brand image is undeniable.

Kia is controlled by Hyundai Motor and, combined, Hyundai-Kia rank fifth in global car sales at around seven million units a year. Inspired by Schreyer's success, Hyundai lured designer Christopher Chapman from BMW last year to head its U.S. design centre.

Missing from the Kia lineup is a high-status roadster although Schreyer has done the rounds of a few auto shows with an exciting concept car. Also in the near-term future is a luxury or premium rear-wheel-drive sedan to compete with the German and Japanese brands. There is currently one on sale in Korea named the K9 (to please you dog lovers, I'm sure). I have driven one and the resemblance to the BMW 5-Series is remarkable. But pushing into luxury car space has proven difficult for Hyundai-Kia.

I'm happy to see a chief designer made president of a car maker, as it illustrates the importance of good design. It's also a timely, good news story for Hyundai-Kia, which has had a big blow-up with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over discrepancies between the EPA's fuel economy results and data submitted by the company. The company is going to reduce its fuel economy claims by about 3 per cent across the board and offer compensation to people who purchased vehicles on the basis of the old fuel economy numbers.

Schreyer can't do anything about that, but the chief designer-president has to make sure his design studios churn out products with enough curb appeal to make customers forgive that transgression and purchase German-looking style at Korean-looking prices.