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BT EXCLUSIVE

The Kia inspired by a Maserati

The Kia Stinger was created in Europe to fulfill a European tradition, as BT learns from its creator.

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"I hope that it changes how people perceive Kia. Our challenge is to get people to realise how good our cars are." - Gregory Guillaume (above), vice-president of design at Kia Motors Europe

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Kia Stinger GT.

Frankfurt

THE Kia Stinger GT may have been launched in Singapore only this year, but in some ways the striking fastback was born five decades ago.

The man who created it, Gregory Guillaume, grew up in the 1970s and remembers family road trips between Paris and St Tropez. One car caught his eye more than all the others bombing down the famed "freeway to the sun": the Maserati Ghibli.

The fast, shark-nosed Italian coupe sparked off what would become not just a visual template for Guillaume's own creation, but would help to define the purpose of the Stinger: to convey its occupants in style, speed and comfort.

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Such cars, known as grand tourers, are more about an attitude than style, says Guillaume. And attitude is something the Stinger has in buckets.

The basic 2.0-litre version accelerates to 100km/h in 6 seconds flat - easily outpacing the powerful Maserati that originally inspired it - while the 3.3-litre twin-turbo version cracks the same barrier in a sportscar-rivaling 4.9 seconds.

It has a roomy cabin, but also a large boot for holiday luggage. Everything about it was designed to fulfill the European tradition of crossing the continent at high speed and in comfort.

Guillaume, the vice-president of design at Kia Motors Europe, says the chance to create the Stinger came when senior management at the Korean company posed a simple question in 2010. The brand had a new platform with the engine in front, driving the rear wheels, the layout most favoured by the likes of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. With such an architecture as a starting point, they asked him, what would Kia do?

The most obvious answer would be to try and create a BMW rival. "Everyone benchmarks the 3 Series," says Guillaume. "We didn't want to go that way."

Instead, he saw his chance to create a modern day grand tourer. "It was an opportunity for us to do something special," he tells The Business Times.

It's worth remembering that Kia at the time was a manufacturer best known for cranking out cars with some pizzazz but a budget-friendly approach to motoring. Building a large, plush and powerful grand tourer would have meant stepping into unknown territory for the brand.

By September 2011, Guillaume and his team had come up with the GT Concept, a styling exercise it unveiled at that year's Frankfurt motor show. The show car got a great response from the public, says Guillaume, but management needed convincing. So he took another risk.

Every month, Kia's styling centre in Frankfurt sends full-size clay models of upcoming cars to Korea for board members to scrutinise. "It sounds crazy to send 2 tonnes of mud across the world, but it's easier than getting (the bosses) to Europe," says Guillaume.

The clay cars are always presented in white, but Guillaume decided to colour the Stinger model red. The move raised eyebrows among the conversative bosses, he recalls. "I needed to wake them up. They were all shocked," says Guillaume. "But the CEO started to have the biggest grin."

Management were not the only ones impressed by the car. Albert Biermann, the engineering guru that Kia parent Hyundai Motor had just poached from BMW's high performance M division, was also there. Although recruited to develop a range of fast cars for Hyundai, Biermann volunteered to work on the Stinger project on the spot.

"We'll have to make sure this one drives as good as it looks," he told Guillaume. It's a moment the designer says he will never forget.

In a sense, the Stinger's ability to shake up Kia's management is something its designer hopes will apply to the wider public.

Asked what his hopes are for the Stinger, Guillaume immediately says, "To sell loads of them!" But he has a more serious answer, too, and it's one that puts enormous weight on the Stinger's bulging, muscular shoulders.

"I hope that it changes how people perceive Kia," he tells BT. "Our challenge is to get people to realise how good our cars are."