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How Kia is using design to go toe-to-toe with Premium Companies.

JEREMY CATO
GENEVA — Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Mar. 19 2015, 5:00 AM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Mar. 19 2015, 11:54 AM EDT

The champagne is flowing on a lovely spring evening in Geneva, the city of expensive tastes and expense accounts to match. The car companies have come here for the annual bacchanal, art exhibit and business pow-wow known colloquially as the Geneva motor show, and officially as the Salon International de l’Automobile in Geneva.

In a midtown warehouse-like space, Kia Motors is hosting a riotous cocktails-and-canapés party with serious intent. Gregory Guillaume, Kia’s chief European designer, is to unwrap his studio’s Sportspace concept, a sexy all-weather wagon that he describes as thoroughly unlike all the “estate cars, wagons or even shooting brakes” known to humankind. It doubles as a look at the next-generation Kia Optima.

“I always had this picture in my mind of creating a vehicle that I could have used to go for a weekend’s skiing with friends before driving back for it to be displayed at the Geneva Salon,” says Guillaume, who studied design in Switzerland. While the Sportspace is certainly a wagon, he insists that it’s not a “load-lugger” but a “sleek road-eater.”

And yes, designers – all of them from around the world – talk this way. Indeed, Guillaume seems quite sincere as we chat on the sidelines after the unveiling. His boss, Kia and Hyundai global design chief Peter Schreyer, smiles and nods in agreement. They are relishing the moment.

This is a big deal for Kia. Over the years, the Geneva show built a reputation for hosting a long list of spectacular concept and production car unveilings. If you make a big design splash in Geneva, the world notices, and the world notices that you’ve been noticed.

Last year, for instance, Ferrari toyed with the crowd by showcasing the California T, a 552-horsepower, twin-turbo V-8 beast, and Lamborghini showed the Gallardo replacement, the Huracan, all 601 sleek horsepower of it. In Geneva, it’s become customary to see new models from supercar makers like Koenigsegg and McLaren, and ultra-luxury brand such as Bugatti.

And on this night, Kia has gotten the jump on the competition, managing to pull in a crowd of A-listers who not long ago would have sniffed at an invitation to a Kia design event. We’re talking Kia, not Bentley … Ferrari … Aston Martin … nor Lamborghini. Kia – the upstart and upwardly mobile brand that was bankrupt a decade and a half ago and in the early stages of being rescued by Hyundai Motor.

Schreyer argues that Kia belongs, that it has become something “very, very close to premium – almost a premium brand.” Really? So Kia has pulled on its big-boy pants to go toe-to-toe with all the great car designs and concepts at this year’s extravaganza? As a Geneva regular for almost all of the past 25 years, I find the chuzpah both admirable and amusing.

The next day, the auto industry’s design showcase opens in the sprawling Palexpo exhibition centre with its six massive halls.

It is no surprise to see the ultra chi-chi Aston Martin signal its future with the DBX concept, a fully electric, all-wheel-drive, almost-SUV that is fully intended to shock the world, according to CEO Andy Palmer. Geneva is the obvious choice for Aston to lay out the broad strokes of a complete design and engineering overhaul of all its existing models, while announcing it would add three new cars by the end of the decade Pointing to the DBX and the $3-million-plus Vulcan track car as two sides of the same Aston coin, Palmer said: “I am solely focused on making Aston Martin sustainable and relevant for the long term.”

This is classic Geneva, where derring-do designers come out to play. The smallish Lexus LF-SA concept, a striking take on what may rival for BMW’s Mini Cooper, signals where Lexus is going with its designs: big, bold grille included.

While some cited the new Audi R8 supercar as a show-stealer, the car that stands out most as the perfect Geneva show car is Bentley’s EXP 10 Speed 6. Bentley CEO Wolfgang Duerheimer said the car represents the “ultimate expression of our vision for Bentley’s future,” adding, “This is not just a new sports car concept, but the potential Bentley of sports cars.” Well, then.

So why Geneva? What sets the Geneva show apart from other auto shows? Why would Ferrari choose Geneva to flaunt its latest supercar, the 488 GTB, which will replace Ferrari’s bestselling model, the 458 Italia? Why would Infiniti use Geneva to unwrap us the QX30 concept, a thinly disguised production version of the small SUV due in early 2016? Why would Audi use Geneva to tout the Prologue Avant concept, a rakish concept estate wagon intended to prove that Audi wants to reassert itself as a design powerhouse?

The short answer is that Geneva has long been less about the business of auto-making, more about the look – the design – of it. The Geneva show is held on neutral ground in Switzerland. All other major global shows – Frankfurt, Tokyo, Detroit, Shanghai/Beijing – are hosted by countries where auto-making is a key industry. Switzerland is famous for banks and other money-managing businesses, along with watches, chocolate and a host of non-governmental agencies such as the World Health Organization and the International Olympic Committee.

No one has a home-field advantage – or disadvantage – in Geneva.

Here, the designers and the visionaries take the stage, with the messy business side of the industry taking a back seat to old-style automotive glitz and glamour.

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