The ex-VW design boss has transformed Kia and is now planning to do the same for Hyundai
Steve Cropley Autocar
23 May 2017

Anyone who ever doubted that great new designs dramatically boost sales of existing cars needs to study the extraordinary exploits of Peter Schreyer, winner of this year’s Sturmey Award, Autocar’s premier annual accolade for innovation.

A decade ago, Schreyer, then the high-flying design boss of Volkswagen, shocked the car world by moving to little-fancied Kia with an open brief to improve the look and function of its cars by completely overhauling their design.

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Back then, Kia was making honest but unstylish models that hardly ever went wrong but sold slowly because buyers looked past them at more eye-catching brands. After extensive research, the Hyundai-Kia group’s famously cautious bosses decided there was an opportunity to reboot Kia as a ‘design’ company and set out to attract the best talent they could find.

In the first few years, while Schreyer’s new broom was finding momentum, Kia’s sales figures improved steadily as better cars came down the pipeline, without pulling up any trees. But the arrival of the first truly all-Schreyer model, the third-generation Sportage of 2010, created an unprecedented tidal wave of interest.

Demand for the new car, as widely admired for its new brand of modern practicality as for its eye-catching styling, instantly hit the stratosphere. Buyers suddenly didn’t care about the brand; they just wanted a family SUV that looked as good as this. The model posted record worldwide sales of 433,000 in 2014, more than double the 190,600 its predecessor had posted five years earlier.

Since then, the success has continued without stopping through the Kia range. A revised Sportage 4 is selling even better. Kia nowadays has one of the best and best-looking car line-ups going. Its only impediment is the brand image, and even that is on the rise.

Schreyer has more than repaid his cautious employer’s faith. In 2012, six years after his arrival in Korea, the design chief was named as one of Kia’s three presidents – and he has since been given design authority over Hyundai, Kia’s larger stablemate, because the management believes it also needs improvements that won’t tread on Kia’s toes.

To discuss the details of his success, we met at Frankfurt’s Klassikstadt, a former mint-cum-iron metalworks near Kia’s European design HQ, because Schreyer loves classic cars (he has owned a Pininfarina-styled Fiat Spider for many years and has just sold a Jaguar E-Type) and takes influence from them in subtle ways. His family is still in Germany, but these days he is completely at home in Korea and travels there (and to Hyundai-Kia’s other design outposts) dozens of times a year.

“Going to Korea was a big decision,” says Schreyer, speaking in a thoughtful, unruffled style that barely communicates any risk, “although with the passing of time, you forget the details. I had little idea what the Koreans were doing because I was completely focused on VW work, which seemed like the centre of the universe. With what I suppose you could call my German arrogance, I didn’t really regard what they were doing as competition.”

The phone call came out of the blue, Schreyer says. He’d often had headhunters on the phone before, but this one was interesting because it was so unusual.

“It was tempting because only one of Kia’s cars had caught my eye – the old Sorento – which I thought was pretty good,” Schreyer says. “I wondered what the system was that had produced that. So I went to Korea and met the management. Their culture is completely different from ours, and I’d never been to Korea before, but quite early on I felt an affinity, a trust. They managed to make me feel it was only me they wanted.”

Schreyer formed a close bond with E S Chung, then the young (mid-30s) boss of Kia and and nowadays the Hyundai-Kia group’s heir apparent, and it remains as strong as ever. “Mr Chung told me Kia knew how to make well-engineered cars but was aware its weak point was design. It sounded like an exciting challenge so I made the move,” he says. Life at Kia hasn’t changed Schreyer much. The famous calm is unaltered and the designer still favours black suits and dark-rimmed Philippe Starck spectacles. But times have changed for the Koreans. “I just stepped in,” he says. “After a year or two, Mr Chung remarked that he felt I’d changed the company’s culture. That was quite a surprise. I was doing things quite a few of us learned years ago at Audi, where so many of us were influenced by the great Harmut Warkuss.”

To the observer, Schreyer seems nowadays to have supreme authority over the direction of Kia design, devising unmistakable profiles for the Sportage and Optima models, plus the elegant and instantly recognisable ‘tiger nose’ grille, which goes on every car. He wants to maintain that as Kia’s unique frontal signature as far forward as anyone wants to look. But he needs to be persuasive about that, because the Korean psyche is always to want something all-new and preserve little from the past. It’s why, in former days, Kia’s different models had little visual relationship with one another.

“For me, it’s vital to preserve the brand’s big picture,” Schreyer says. “The tiger nose does that, and I want to stick to it the way BMW sticks to its kidney grille. To bring a brand up, you have to differentiate it from no-name brands, which is how we might have been categorised a few years ago.

“The wonderful thing about the tiger nose is that the principles allow plenty of differentiation. As long as it has those two tabs, or teeth, in the middle, you can make it higher, lower, wider, whatever you want. And we will.”

Simon Saunders won the Sturmey Award last year - read about him here

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