The automobile industry knows design is important, so enormous energy and funding is applied to it, but it's famously difficult to know how effective those efforts and expenditures really are. Except in one precise, clear-cut case: Kia's.
Six years ago, Kia cars were nondescript tin boxes of no particular consequence in the grand scheme of things, sold on price and certainly not as world-class desirable objects. Today's Kia range is admired, respected, even envied. Its cars are well-made, good performers, and -- above all -- good-looking. That quality can essentially be attributed to one man, Peter Schreyer, chief design officer for Kia and our unanimously chosen Man of the Year.
Despite his youthful appearance and vitality, Schreyer, 58, is an industry veteran, having spent more than half his lifetime in automobile design, first with Audi in 1980, then at Volkswagen, and back to Audi as its chief designer from 1994 to 2002, wherein he was instrumental in Audi's worldwide recognition as a premium design brand. Schreyer was personally acknowledged with the highest design award of the Federal Republic of Germany and an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art, where he studied in 1979 and 1980.
Schreyer doesn't have to claim to be a car guy; he's the real thing. Impressed in his youth by the Jaguar E-type and the Porsche 911, he owned a Fiat X1/9 at twenty-one, and today he has a supercharged Pininfarina Spider Azzura (Fiat 124) roadster and a V-12-powered E-type coupe. He has a Frankfurt apartment during the week, but he kept the family home near Ingolstadt so his teenage children weren't uprooted from their schools when he joined Kia in 2006.
"I've been to Korea eighty-two times now," he says, and although he is meant to do the trip once a month, "on average I make about twenty trips a year." Given that he is responsible for the European studio in Frankfurt, another in Irvine, California, the main studio near Seoul, and a new satellite studio in Shanghai that he hasn't visited yet, he spends a lot of time in airplanes. He sold his own Cessna a couple years ago, never having time to fly on his own.
As with many multinational studios, the principal language for Kia design is English. Schreyer is "trying to learn Korean, but it is so different from anything else I know" that he doubts he'll ever master it. "Their minds work differently. I have to keep everyone on the same wavelength, and English works for that." He says that Kia's management is demanding, but they want to progress and are really supportive.
When Schreyer arrived at Kia, the Soul was almost finished, and he added only the characteristic grille now common to the line. Subsequent models from his regime have impressed us enough that two of them, the Rio and the Optima, recently competed in the final round of our our All-Stars test. Kia's first rear-wheel-drive car, the dramatic GT concept presented at Frankfurt, shows there's more good work to come from Peter Schreyer and his team.