There was plenty to do before Piech’s rueful moment, however. “It was always my goal to really create an identity, and the tiger nose grille is a signature you can recognise on cars everywhere,” says Schreyer of Kia’s horizontal, doubly indented air intake. “Kia was a very neutral brand; you didn’t recognise them on the street.” So the task in hand was relatively clear.
What came next was the firstgeneration Kia Cee’d, the Golfchallenging hatch largely designed at the brand’s Frankfurt studio and arriving before Schreyer could have much impact on it. While the Cee’d wasn’t especially distinctive, it was entirely contemporary and pretty capable and it suited European tastes, as intended. There was room for improvement, however.
“When I first started, I was sure I could really make a change and do some good stuff,” says Schreyer. “But if you look at where Kia is today, at the time I wouldn’t have dreamt of making such a difference. I knew I was capable of doing some good cars, but it depends a lot on the atmosphere and how you get along with people.”
Schreyer is clearly enjoying his time in South Korea and is now responsible not only for Kia’s design but also for that of Hyundai and Genesis, which is “a new brand and a fantastic project – very exciting”. Feeding the inspiration necessary for the task is Schreyer’s obvious love of all things Korean.
“There’s a very strong tradition,” he explains, “and then there is the modern life, from K-pop to electronics and everything; it’s quite progressive. I go when I can. I know a few people in art and architecture. I think it’s important to have an exchange with this, and not only at work. I’ve had a lot of good experiences, I’ve met a lot of people, I’ve been to a lot of places, I’ve got a new perspective.”
So is there a Korean cultural influence in Kias? “I think so,” he says. “People say our cars look very European. They do but they don’t, although it’s hard to nail it down to a detail. But this is where there’s a difference between us and the others.” And it’s a difference that has helped to power Kia into the top 10 of global car makers.
Schreyer has overseen the debut of multiple widely admired production cars, from the Soul to the Sportage to the Optima, as well as numerous concepts, several of them best-of-shows. Did he encounter resistance from Kia’s established designers when he arrived? “In general they were and are very open; they’re more ‘It went well’,” he says of teams based in Korea, Germany, the US and Japan. What does he tell a designer a Kia should be? “Like a snow crystal,” he says with a laugh. “It’s important to understand the brand. It’s a youthful challenger. I always talk about the simplicity of the straight line as a design philosophy. There is no straight line on a car, but it’s more about the cleanness and simplicity – not overworked.”