Kia unwrapped what it contends will be the future of its design language in the form of the Kee Sports Coupe Concept here in Frankfurt, and, depending on your perspective, that could be a good or bad thing. The low-profile two-door seems more of an amalgamation of design philosophies, rather than a coherent whole. Peter Schreyer, the ex-Audi designer and current Chief Design Officer of Kia Europe, pegs the Kee as a significant step towards Kia's sporting potential, and its new, forgettable fascia will be expanded across the Kia lineup.
Under the bonnet, you'll find what the company is calling a "next generation" two-liter V6 that sends 200 HP through a six-speed automatic to the 20-inch front wheels. The LED head- and tail lamps were a nice touch, as is the multi-level hatch. But beyond the Kee's bright yellow hue, we've deemed this concept a Korean-sized speed bump at an otherwise awe-inspiring show.
KEE concept heralds "new look" for the future of KIA
More than any other car-buyer, the sports coupe enthusiast knows instinctively when a car is right, when it is suited to its purpose. Shape, proportion, stance and both tactile and emotional aspects all add up to a car that stirs the blood. At the 2007 IAA in Frankfurt, Kia has revealed just such a car.
The KEE is a combination of all of those elements. It is a harmonious blend of everything that sets the sports coupe apart from the more functional vehicle – the vehicle that has a range of activities to undertake and a palette of needs to take into account for its owner. The sports coupe is single minded. It is about driving, pure and simple. It is about appearance, performance, emotion.
Yet KEE is more than just a svelte, exciting sports coupe concept. It is also the dawn of a new design language for the Kia brand – a language that will speak to motorists across the world about the Korean company's intention to become one of the major automotive names over the coming years.
Chief Design Officer, Peter Schreyer and his Frankfurt design team – headed by Gregory Guillaume – set out to make KEE a landmark car in Kia's history. It is no coincidence that its name plays on the word 'key' because that is how essential KEE is to the future of Kia. KEE also acknowledges the Chinese and Korean word ´Ki`- the cultural concept for life-force or spiritual energy.
KEE embodies Kia's desire to create a family of cars that will be instantly recognisable on the road and will have simple yet sophisticated appeal in the showrooms. Whether wide-eyed admirers of this new generation of vehicles are existing Kia customers – wise to the dramatically improved quality and traditional strong value of the current range – or entirely new audiences they will immediately recognise a range of cars aimed at those who enjoy driving and seek the perfect machinery to deliver that experience.
Schreyer commented:"KEE has to communicate a design language that will be seen on all future Kia products. That language has to be stated in certain elements of the visual representation – lines, shapes, details. But it has to be consistent and easy to understand. It must be visually strong and purposeful but it must be capable of being transferred from this sports coupe concept to a city runabout, a family saloon, a load-lugging MPV or a go-anywhere SUV.
"It was essential Kee should consist of a rhythm of lines – controlled, clean, pure. It had to have good, classic proportions and be well balanced," he added. This is the future for Kia design – it must display the purpose, the function whilst still being capable of delivering an emotional aspiration.
With its broad stance and low profile KEE, a new interpretation of a 2+2 coupe, has a simple yet distinctive outline thanks to its long sweeping bonnet, slightly lengthened cabin with striking graphic treatment, sculpted flanks and strong, yet almost hidden, swage lines.
Beneath the powerful and unique appearance are a host of fine details all hinting at the car's true purpose and harmonising to create a sophisticated design entirety. Whether it is the milled aluminium B-pillar visible through the panoramic grey-tinted glass, the distinctively individual 20 inch wheels and hand-cut Continental tyres or the small touches such as the electronic micro-switch door release set into the side-window glass, the clamshell rear hatch opening on electronic dampers or the unique front windscreen shape that mirror so many other details on the KEE, it is clear that this car has been lovingly created by people who care for design.
Inside – KEE looks and feels like a sports car that the keen driver will instantly feel comfortable and at ease in, with a cabin designed for maximum focus on driving. Clustered straight ahead, the main dials and controls are simple and straightforward utilising Kia's new standard red-orange illumination.
Behind the square-bottomed steering wheel are paddles to shift the six-speed sequential gearbox. Instead of a standard gear stick an ergonomically designed lever sits atop the milled aluminium centre console and requires only a nudge forward or backward to select drive mode. And the top of the computer mouse-like lever flips up to reveal the electronic starter button.
Again, the design team have concentrated on producing a realistic sports coupe – not a flight of fancy. Every element of its design should be clear, easy to understand and to use. All the main controls are fly-by wire, but their feel in operation has been created to deliver a sense of traditional operation. For example, the toggle switches mounted on the dashboard – echoing the DNA of generations of sports cars – let you navigate intuitively through the interface menu of the info-media center.
After pressing the starter button the driver will immediately recognise the throaty roar of a V6. The next generation 2,7 litre MUE-II engine, producing 200 ps, delivers instant response, enormous flexibility and scintillating performance on any kind of road.
KEE uses light-weight aluminium or plastic panels and components wherever possible in order to allow the emphasis to remain on rapid and controlled progress that means simple fun and driving pleasure. This results in a low kerb weight with excellent balance biased towards the front to deliver neutrally safe handling. Yet KEE could be built with rear wheel drive or even all-wheel-drive allowing Kia to add to its growing range as its brand develops its reputation amongst a more exacting audience.
"All the main interior surfaces are covered in a semi-suede-like microfibre material and the body-hugging sports seats use a heard-wearing but distinctive metallic-finish cloth," explained Salome Etienne – one of the KEE's interior design team.
And continuing the real-life functionality of KEE, the rear of the passenger cabin is sufficiently spacious to allow four adults to travel in the vehicle when necessary. KEE is not intended to be a four-seat coupe but Kia knows that real people have real needs and the brand has no intention of moving into the exotic sports car territory that others so amply fill. And there is even space for a useful amount of luggage!
But echoing its concern for the comfort and convenience of its customers the designers have sought to ensure that when the need arises those rear passengers will not be confronted with a problem so common on most 2+2 coupes. "When the rear clamshell hatch is raised the roofliner stays fixed in place to ensure that passengers do not come into contact with the structure of the hatch when it is closed again," said Raphael Le Masson – the other interior designer.
Exterior designer Fabien Coradin said: "This car is about passion and energy. It is not an act of reason. Buying a sports car is not a logical choice and that is what we wanted for this car. It may not have been the normal reason behind most Kia purchases in the past – but the brand is changing and this car shows what Kia can be in the future. But we do recognise that functionality has a part to play."
Uncluttered, pure and timeless in execution yet modern, effective and usable in purpose, KEE represents a new ethos for the Korean firm. With KEE the entire design team is laying open its mind and its heart. This car stands as a clear indication of KIA's design philosophy and how it sincerely wish Kia to be viewed – exciting, appealing, creative, aspirational, beautiful and yet functional, purposeful and realistic.
Gregory Guillaume, Chief Designer Europe, commented: "This is a starting point. It shows how we think and what we want to do – appeal to the emotional side of our audience and bring that balance of purpose and emotion into the Kia design language. With KEE we are irrevocably heading off on our chosen path..."
KEE is the first step towards a new family look for Kia vehicles underscored by a focus on design and although KEE is primarily a concept vehicle it is one that could easily go into production should public demand dictate. KEE lays down very clear indications of how Peter Schreyer and his team intend future Kia vehicles should look and displays elements that its creators will transfer to future products. Presented on the strong frontal design with its distinctive headlamps and eye-catching LED cluster, the new style grille will become the new face of KIA across the product range.
He commented: "Kia have given me – and our design teams – a fantastic opportunity. Seldom is a designer allowed to shape the entire personality of a brand, given a clean sheet of paper and told to create the future. KEE is the first step on the road and I am so excited about the potential this journey can create."
"Although KEE is a sports coupe it could have been anything. We have already seen elements of our design development in Mesa and Kue shown at successive Detroit shows. Cee'd and its concept spin-offs including the ex_cee'd cabriolet have also started the process. But KEE is central to our future.
"It is our keystone to the future family we want to create. There is nothing in KEE's design that cannot easily and readily be transferred to production vehicles. There is nothing in KEE that I would not be prepared to see in future production vehicles. This car stands as a clear indication of our philosophy for vehicle design and as a surest possible signpost to the type of vehicles we shall be bringing to showrooms in the very near future.
"I want motorists to be able to identify Kia cars almost unconsciously. It doesn't matter what type of vehicle they see – right across the Kia range there should be a very obvious style and image that will encourage drivers to identify with the Kia brand and instantly understand the function of the vehicle at the same time as they admire its lines," he added.
KEE ultimately serves the Kia brand on a number of fronts – a design exercise for a sports coupe that currently does not feature in the company's line-up. No plans exist to put the car into immediate production but media and public reaction will be closely monitored.
It also allows Schreyer and the entire design team to present their thinking for a family appearance and design language to both internal and external audiences. In this respect KEE is the first stage in an on-going process that will be refined and re-examined but will stay true to the core elements of design contained in the car.
Perhaps most importantly KEE is a simple corporate statement to the motoring world that Kia is a brand underpinned with quality and reliability and now on top of that comes the emotional element of design. The future for Kia products lies in balance, clarity and purpose, and KEE, our latest show car embodies that philosophy.
KEE Technical specification
Length 4325 mm
Width 1860 mm
Height 1315 mm
Wheelbase 2675 mm
Tyre size 245/40 R 20
Engine V6 2,7 litre MUE-II
Power 200 ps
Transmission six-speed automatic