Guillaume, a life-long car lover in a way some design chiefs are not, defines the way in which the Stinger combines imposing proportions with power by referring to his inspiration, the Giugiaro-designed Maserati Ghibli of the early 1970s.
“We didn’t take anything from that car’s design,” he says, “but from its character. It was built for making journeys in great comfort across Europe, and that is the spirit of the car we set out to create.”
When you see it for the first time, you have to wonder why Kia didn’t press the button on the Stinger a long time ago, given that it’s closely related to the Kia GT concept revealed at the Frankfurt show in 2011. Kia has been noted for its design flair for a few years now, impressing with its SUVs and small cars, and Guillaume is one of the pioneers of Kia’s era of good design, arriving slightly before colleague Peter Schreyer, who is also credited as leader of a revolution.
But there’s more to a car like this than building it, says Guillaume. “It’s not easy just to launch yourself into a car like Stinger,” he explains. “You have to know the timing is right, and that the brand has the credibility to carry such an emotional product that aims challenge some of Europe’s best. We believe we’ve reached that stage.”
Another important point was knowing the car would have the underpinnings to match its looks, an area where Korean cars have failed in the past. These concerns led the company to hire Albert Biermann, former head of BMW’s M division, as chief engineer. Guillaume proudly remembers Biermann’s first reaction at the sight the Stinger prototype: “Right,” he said. “We’ll have to make sure this car drives the way it looks…”
We’re meeting in Kia’s European design HQ, from which Guillaume usually operates, although he travels monthly to Korea. The Frankfurt viewing studio is five floors up, with a double-height ceiling, huge windows emitting a flood of natural light and giving a panoramic view of the city. Guillaume is showing us three models today: the original GT concept that usually lives in Korea, an interim full-size model used to investigate alternative design details and a fully representative late prototype, which has been in the UK doing road trials with Biermann and his team and was tested by this magazine earlier this month. Kia believes that a car that can handle UK roads will work everywhere.
We’re also seeing an amazing early cockpit buck with gold seats (“I thought that if we were doing something different we should take it quite far…”) and another much closer to the keep-it-real, driver-focused, “more analogue, more honest” treatment that was eventually chosen for production. Powertrain details are well known: two petrol engines, one diesel, all driving through an eight-speed torque converter auto with a similar degree of driver control to a typically European dual-clutch set-up. The car also has Brembo front brakes, 19in tyres that are differently sized front to rear on the top model and a new adaptive damping system. All the accoutrements a quick car is going to need, in other words.
We take a walk around the car with the man who inspired it, noting the finer features of the design, such as the prominent rear diffuser under a graceful coupé back-end, the subtle but strong rear haunches, the taillights connected by a reflector and the lower air scoop that carefully avoids stealing emphasis from the classically Kia ‘tiger nose’ grille.
Even for this emotional car, Guillaume says, there were numerous areas where design restraint was needed, such as leaving out a rear hatch. “We wanted the fastback look,” he explains, “but not the extra structure and weight of a hatch”. Likewise, they decided against an active rear spoiler because of weight, complexity and the fact that it would have introduced an extra rear shutline. But the original concept’s vents behind the front wheels were kept (Guillaume calls them “breathers”), because they have a genuine function in reducing aero pressure in the wheel housings.
Guillaume’s favourite feature is the Coke-bottle shape, which isn’t very noticeable at first but becomes more implicit as you gain familiarity with the exterior. “It’s represents the car’s whole character,” he says. “It’s relatively subtle, but powerful, too.”