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Stefan Sielaff tells all on the future of Zeekr and the differences between working in Europe and China

Stefan Sielaff has been one of the most prominent car designers of the past few decades, working mainly for the Volkswagen Group, where he led the design of Bentley and Audi among numerous other roles.

In September 2021, he succeeded Peter Horbury as Geely’s global design boss, overseeing all of the Chinese brand’s marques. His arrival coincided with the launch of Zeekr, a new electric car brand with global aspirations. We caught up with Sielaff at the recent Beijing motor show to talk Zeekr, and the different way that Chinese cars are designed and created.

How do you create a new brand like Zeekr from scratch?

"In the beginning, you define the brand, the brand philosophy, the corporate identity, the birthmark, the visual identity. This is all originating in the design department and is very, very important. Then the products and the brand statement are connected with each other, which is a very Western way of thinking. But I have the feeling that the Chinese OEMs are starting to understand this [brands] very well and put a lot of focus on this."

How does Zeekr differ from other Geely-backed brands Lynk&Co and Polestar?

"The positioning is higher than Lynk&Co but not necessarily higher than Polestar. Nevertheless, I think Zeekr is going to be more luxurious than Polestar. Polestar is very specific, almost dogmatic in a positive way, but delivering fantastic and homogeneous products. Zeekr has something that Chinese customers appreciate quite a lot: products not always looking like coming out of one mould, which we Europeans like. I always describe the design philosophy that we do certain chapters and then we mutate again." 

Why are so many new brands popping up?

"It is to do with electric cars. It’s a phenomenon that we saw 100 years ago, when new producers popped up all over the world but of course not everybody survived. Only the fittest survive when it’s like this and that’s the case in the Chinese industry as well. There are new brands popping up and some will be successful and survive and succeed. Some others will fail."

Are you designing a Western car to take to China or a Chinese car to take to the West?

"We are definitely doing a global product. We have 33 nationalities in the design department, which automatically generates a global attitude. Of course our focus is on China, but we are not doing a Chinese car. We do it as a global design and product. This is not so dramatic, because we observe a lot of expectations of Chinese customers that are not so different to the rest of the world."

What factor does speed play in the development of Chinese cars?

"It’s not only the speed of design: it's the speed of the whole development process. The Zeekr 007 was developed in two years from the first sketch to the finished product. We have everything in the design studio in Gothenburg to build analogue models but even more important is the software and virtual reality [VR} technology we have. Minute by minute, we can send data to engineers for a simultaneous exchange and we do VR presentations every week where our CEO can be in China. We can walk around models with VR, and see each other as avatars."

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How does that compare with other car makers you’ve worked at?

"Volkswagen is now on a four-year delivery channel, and they want to accelerate as well. I think it is sometimes quite difficult for a traditional car maker to do certain processes all of a sudden quicker, or cut processes, because it's the way they've done it for 100 years. The quality proves they’re right, as whatever you get from Volkswagen or Audi is top quality, but generally Geely is able to do the same now in a shorter period of time."

How have you found working at a Chinese car company?

"China is quite a special case. They are a bit more open for the world and I find it quite satisfying. Also there’s the fact that things are happening very fast, with faster decisions. There is not another kind of authority or another group of people who have to discuss and decide, and this helps accelerate the development process a lot instead of really recooking things again and again. The investment and budgets are there also. We’re not getting overwhelmed and we have to control the budget, but at least we have it. At the end of my career, this is quite satisfying to be honest."

Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.

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jason_recliner 9 May 2024

If he makes every model look as good as the Mix, Zeekr has a very bright future.