How Kia Quietly Designs Some of the Best-Looking Cars on the Road

Kia's new head of design, Karim Habib, is turning the brand into a stylistic powerhouse.

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The Duomo di Milano cathedral in Italy took six centuries to erect. Six. Hundred. Years. Now it stands tall as the third-largest church on the planet and one of the prettiest buildings to grace God's green Earth. It better be for that much work.

Designing a car isn't the same as sculpting a religious landmark, but it's still a time-consuming process. Senior Vice President and Head of Kia Design, Karim Habib, knows that all too well. Habib has had a long career in car design. He spent years with BMW and Mercedes-Benz and had a small stint at Infiniti before heading Kia.

He's the man partly responsible for Kia's controversial new logo. Soon, his unique eye for design will have shaped every car that rolls off Kia's factory floor. You know his previous works like the Carnival, K5, and the facelifted Sorento. But Kia's embrace of electrification excites Habib the most from a design standpoint.

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"To me, as a designer, the wonderful thing about EVs for design is you have to have big wheels because the cars are heavier," he tells me. "You have to have a long wheelbase because you need as much battery as possible between the wheels. And you have short overhangs because you don’t have an engine in front of the front axle. So when you start with that, those are the basic ingredients that only premium manufacturers could afford in the past."

Karim and I are sitting and chatting on a couch just a few miles from the heart of Milan, Italy near the Duomo. It's Design Week, an event that Kia—and Karim—deem hugely important for Kia design. With an event so focused on style, it’s the best way to get savvy shoppers in front of the newest product.

It's here where Kia offers us a closer look at the upcoming EV3—a tiny subcompact EV no bigger than the current Seltos. We saw the first EV3 concept in October, but this one is nearly production-ready; Kia says it's about as close as you can get to production while still being able to call it a prototype. The interior still isn't finished. Visually it looks similar to the updated EV6, and closer still to the newest EV9. Only tinier.

Best of all, the EV3 is coming to the US.

The EV3 offers a unique take on Kia’s "Opposites United" design language, which Karim helped pen nearly five years ago. While other automakers—like their corporate cousins at Hyundai—shy away from familial designs spanning multiple models, Karim believes that brand recognition is hugely important for Kia moving forward. He wants you to be able to point out his cars in a crowded parking lot and recognize them as Kias.

"Continuity is important. We’re a smaller brand than Hyundai, so it’s important for us to be recognized for a certain set of values and experiences they get when they come to Kia," he explains. "So the product palette will change that perception, but we still want to have a common denominator that is the foundation. And obviously, the design is there to illustrate the values of the brand—you represent the brand as an object. So that’s why that consistency is important to us."

The EV3 is the freshest take on Kia’s design language yet. Slim, upright LED lighting elements afford the SUV a clean, modern look while the boxy shape (becoming all too common in car design) arguably works even better on the smaller SUV than it does on, say, the three-row EV9.

The same can be said of the cabin. Clean, simple lines surround two 12.3-inch displays and a few hard buttons (like a volume dial, bless), flanked by eco-friendly materials like wool and faux leather. Kia has done away with leather in all of its EVs, in fact, and the company is looking into other eco-friendly materials. Mushroom leather, for example.

"Continuity is important... It’s important for us to be recognized for a certain set of values and experiences they get when they come to Kia."

Karim uses terms like "strictness" and "authenticity" when describing the EV3. And while the pint-sized EV isn’t rugged at all, he does reference ionic off-roaders like Land Cruisers, Land Rovers, and Jeeps as inspiration. The idea, Karim says, is to make sure Kia’s EV designs remain as relevant as those historic SUVs still do today.

SUVs are a huge focus for Kia, obviously. The company sells a ton of them. The EV6 was the first toe dipped into electrification, and the EV9—even in its infancy—is proving to be a huge success. Soon the EV3 will stand alone as one of the only affordable electric SUVs in America as Kia aims for a starting price of around $30,000.

But Kia still cares about performance.

Remember the EV4 sedan concept from October? That too is heading to production (potentially alongside the EV3) and Karim wants to keep the brand’s "Opposites United" design language consistent there, too. But with more of an emphasis on performance.

"With the EV4 concept, we also have [those design elements]. When you have horizontal headlamps at the corner, it automatically makes the car feel wider," he explains. "So having these vertical headlamps is a bit of a challenge, we weren’t sure if it would make the car feel narrower or higher. But we managed to place them pretty low so that you still get a nice dynamic quality to it. It has some challenges that come with it, but I think we can find ways to make it work."

The Kia EV4 could become the next Stinger—or a slightly smaller sports sedan akin to the Polestar 2 and Tesla Model 3 Performance. Either way, it will bear a version of Kia’s edgy design language found on the EV3 and EV9. Though, it certainly won’t be a cut-and-paste job, either.

"The [design] principle, I hope, is based on the same idea, but the execution should be different," says Karim.

As with anything, good design takes time. Karim and Kia both believe that. And amidst a design renaissance that could propel the company into the next decade and hopefully well beyond, Kia has no plans of rushing its future.

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