"We had to get back to the basics," says Tae-Hyun "Thomas" Oh, chief operating officer, at Kia headquarters. "We worked hard in pursuing product quality. We knew we couldn't sell our cars without it."
Designing for success
The most visible sign of Kia raising its game has been the new look of its cars and trucks. "We had no distinguishable characteristic. Nothing special. We deliberately set out to emphasize design," Oh says.
When Peter Schreyer, former head of design at Audi and Volkswagen, became available in 2007, Kia pounced. "We needed an outsider, somebody like Peter, to help us see the forest. We were too focused on the trees," Oh says.
Working with designers in Irvine, Calif., and Frankfurt (Kia's U.S. and European headquarters, respectively), Schreyer pursued a look that would say Kia.
"When you see an Audi or BMW in the street, you immediately recognize it," Schreyer says in an interview. "It was quite important for Kia to have that signature look. To make a daring step like they did — hiring a Westerner — shows that Koreans were serious and willing to challenge themselves."
Schreyer and his team created straight-line, streamlined designs and settled on a distinctive "tiger nose" front grille — meant to resemble the animal — that would be a common design element across the lineup.
"I wanted to give Kia a strong identifier that you'll be able to recognize from distance," Schreyer says.