Interview with Gregory Guillaume

At a glance, Kia Motors can come across as a puzzling kind of company. To illustrate this point, take the second generation Sedona MPV. It’s cumbersome, poorly resolved, characterless and could easily be twenty years old.

Now look at the production-spec Pro_cee’d Kia unveiled at this year’s Paris Motor Show. It’s alert, positive, captivating and will probably remain so for five years. What’s staggering is that both the Sedona and Pro_cee’d were made in the same year by the same company. Confused?  

In truth, the Sedona has been in production since 2006, but Peter Schreyer and his European chief designer Gregory Guillaume are taking full advantage of the carte blanche opportunity afforded them the Korean maker. We caught up with former VAG man Guillaume earlier this year to talk electric cars and tigers noses.

Green Car Design: Before we talk about Kia, why are you a car designer?

Gregory Guillaume: I think that as a kid I was always drawing cars, and when I was about ten years old I used to design cars – I had my own brand – with catalogues of cars, a logo and everything. Back then, though, I didn’t know there was such a thing as car designers. Design was no so talked about, at least in my family, and I didn’t know anything about the whole thing. Later on, through my teenage years, I still drew for myself but went on to study business. Then I opened a magazine that talked about a new design school that was opening in Europe where you could learn to become a car designer. I thought, ‘that’s exactly what I’ve always been doing!’ It was by chance almost.

GCD: Kia are undergoing something of a seismic shift in design strategy at the moment; for the first time they actually have one. Is this design language here to stay? 

GG: Every design language needs to evolve in time, but there are elements that are not just styling cues, like the tiger-nose grille and the architecture of the car and some of the surface development that is part of the identity of the car, and the brand.  So yes, we are trying to establish a kind of recipe and are finding a way to evolve that.

The first Cee’d was about showing that we knew what it took to make a good car. Maybe it didn’t have that much character, and wasn’t so fancy or wild, but that was almost on purpose to show people that we understood proportions and quality. We already knew that we could allow the next one to be more elaborate in its personality and its character, and to show more emotion than the first one because when you have that foundation you can then add what was previously missing, little by little.

GCD: Proportion is something that you and Peter [Schreyer] take very seriously, and it’s clear to see that the proportions of new Cee’d have been true from the beginning, so where is ‘genesis’ for a new Kia?

GG: Proportions are always something that are very difficult to explain. It’s about feeling and how the car stands on its wheels and how all the body units relate to each other. That takes time. It has a lot to do with the way we work as well and the method that we have. We don’t do everything on a computer – obviously we do a lot on computer, you have to now – but we still work in a very traditional way at the same time with clay models and I believe that’s how you can get the proportions right. By taking the time to work on a full-size clay model, to step back and look at it, to come back in the evening when it’s quiet in the studio and see how the car matures with time as you work on it.

GCD: And Kia’s new cars are aimed more European tastes, particularly the Cee’d and new Pro_cee’d. What does ‘European’ mean for an Asian brand like Kia?

GG: People say ‘yes, European cars’ – German cars, Italian cars, French cars – but what is a really typical German car design? It’s not so easy. We have a Western approach to our design language - it was part of our strategy right from the beginning that we were going to position Kia like that and this is the same everywhere in the world. Even in America we have the same design language. Yes, we’re still an Asian company in America, but the blend, or formula, works. In Korea we are the least Asian looking brand.

GCD: And is the far eastern market open to a European style?

GG: Yes. The market is changing very quickly over there. I’ve been with the company for eight years and I can remember the first trips to Seoul – we hardly saw any imports, they were really rare. Some, but not many, but that’s changing rapidly now. Obviously Seoul is not Korea, but you see a lot of imports, and that will influence the Korean manufacturers, not just us, in developing their cars. It’s going to get quite interesting over there.

GCD: So Kia are now building genuinely attractive cars, but is ‘green’ high on the agenda yet?

GG: I was going to ask you what you, as ‘Green Car Design’, go to see at a motor show these days? In the beginning it would have been the Toyota Prius, or the Fisker and the Teslas, but now ‘green’ is a theme that nobody ignores. Everybody’s working on their engines to reduce CO2 emissions and we almost don’t talk about it because everyone is moving in that direction.  Nobody can afford to ignore that anymore.

GCD: So away from traditional methods of propulsion, are Kia planning an electric car that could potentially rival an electric Golf or BMW i3?

GG: We have a hybrid already on the market at the moment in the Optima, as a petrol-hybrid, and we will be coming with a full electric car – I’m not sure when it will arrive in Europe but worldwide it will be coming pretty soon.

GCD: What sort of car is it?

GG: You’ll have to wait, but it’s not too big.

GCD: Hopefully a little bigger than the Pop, though. Yourself and Mr. Schreyer are now trying to advance Kia’s design quite rapidly. How long have you known him?

GG: Twenty-three years, something like that. We’ve known each other for a long time and we have a very similar understanding of design, and don’t have to convince each other. It’s been a great adventure. When you’re given the chance to build up a brand, and give it an identity, build a whole product range starting with a clean sheet; that’s pretty much the dream.

It’s always good to be part of that adventure and so long ago when I went to Audi, it wasn’t the cool brand that it is today, but I could sense that something was going to happen and I wanted to be part of that at the beginning.

GCD: That said, then, are Kia going to cater for more sporting segment – in the wake of the GT concept – and possibly with alternate powertrains?

GG: As a designer and a car enthusiast obviously I’d love that, but we are also very pragmatic and realistic. You need to go at your own pace as a company, and be careful. Usually we’re pretty good at that. We did show the GT last year – there’s a reason why we showed it last year - and we are actually seriously thinking about how the future of that show car could look like.

GCD: So where do you see Kia in three years time?

GG: Hopefully still surprising everybody. Our slogan is ‘The Power to Surprise’ and we’ve been trying to deliver that since we set up that strategy. We’re gaining momentum, people are more curious about us and what we’re doing. There’s more awareness about that brand so I hope that’s going to continue. We’ve got a long-term strategy and a long-term plan – let’s just see if it unfolds how we’re hoping.

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