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Kia seeking tap into premium compact boom

Small beer: The diminutive Kia CUB four-door coupe is the latest example of the South Korean company’s exploration into the premium light segment.

Recent Kia concepts hint at design-led desire to enter premium compact race

28 Mar 2013

By HAITHAM RAZAGUI in NEW YORK

SMALL, desirable, attractive feature-packed cars that can command premium prices are becoming increasingly popular among car-makers and buyers alike – and Kia wants a slice of the action.

The company’s two most recent concept cars, the two-door Provo shown at Geneva earlier this month and the CUB four-door coupe just revealed at Kia’s home show in Seoul, both point to a move in this direction.

Kia Motors America chief designer Tom Kearns, who oversaw the styling of the Soul and Cerato Koup unveiled overnight at the New York motor show, told GoAuto the company was studying the downsizing trend.

“People have been downsizing in the past few years so it is something we are always exploring how can we make a small car that is efficient but for someone who doesn’t want a cheap car necessarily,” he said.

Mr Kearns agreed that buyers want small cars to be desirable, describing the phenomenon as “something to explore”.

“Those two concepts (Provo and CUB) are like that – how can you make a small car desirable without having to be cheap and basic with plastic everywhere.”

A design revolution led by ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer and kicked off with the original Soul – a funky jacked-up small car – has helped significantly lift Kia’s brand image over the past five years.

But while he agreed Kia was better placed than ever to go the premium compact route, Mr Kearns suggested there was still some way to go before the Kia brand becomes as desirable as some of the stylish cars it is now producing.

“It is a challenge for us because it takes some time to get over that changing perception, we can do it step by step,” he said.

“Hopefully the perception has already changed in the past five years and hopefully in the next five years it will continue to evolve and change so we are not looked at like a cheap Korean brand.”

Perhaps a part of that is a new design direction apparently already underway judging by the Provo and CUB – both of which almost do away with Kia’s signature tabbed grille that dominated its current model line-up.

Mr Kearns agreed that while the tabbed grille is “in there but very subtle” on the Provo, it is a shape that is “played up on some cars and toned down (on others) – but it is always there”.

At the time of our interview Mr Kearns had not seen the finished CUB that appears to do away with the tabbed grille altogether as it was not designed in his studio, so he was unable to comment.

The second-generation Soul shown at New York maintains the tabbed grille but it is more of a decorative emblem as it does not serve as an air intake due to the radiator’s low-down location.

“We felt like we can do what we want with that (grille) area it is not a real engineering requirement,” said Mr Kearns.

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