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  • Kia brought a display of lights and mirrors, but no actual cars, to the Milan Design Fair, where the focus was on design philosophy.
  • We sat down with the brand’s Global Head of Design, Karim Habib, to learn more about the direction he has in mind for Kia design.
  • Habib’s “Opposites United” philosophy, showcased at the fair, is an abstract look at his inspiration for the brand as it revamps its global image.

Kia is in an interesting spot in the United States right now. The Korean manufacturer entered the U.S. in the early 1990s as a somewhat dull but cheap alternative to the bargain-priced Japanese and American cars of the day. Thirty years of focus on that side of the market has burned the “cheap car” reputation into the hippocampus of just about every American. But in the past few years the company has started to look upmarket. What started as a slight shift is becoming a full turn of the tides. At least, that’s Kia’s hope.

Opposites United

With its fully modern EV6 and Telluride already here and the recently revealed EV9 on the way, Kia is trying to warm customers to the idea of spending $40,000 or $50,000 or more for its products. At the Milan Design Fair, Car and Driver talked to Kia’s design chief, Karim Habib, about this revised design philosophy and the effort to build a new brand image. Habib brought the automaker’s “Opposites United” showcase to Milan to show people the inspiration behind new products like the EV6 and EV9. Kia and Habib didn’t bring any actual vehicles or concepts to the design fair, opting instead to focus entirely on design ideas.

kia exhibit at milan design fair 2023

Kia’s “Opposites United” at the Milan Design Fair.

Jack Fitzgerald |Car and Driver

Habib, who previously spent nearly 20 years with BMW including as its design chief, told us that he enjoys the challenges posed by designing vehicles for a brand in the midst of a rebirth. “Different brands have different possibilities,” he said. “If you are a very traditional brand with a strong heritage, that bandwidth can or must be a little narrower, but for us it had to be wide.”

That wide “bandwidth” for design language leads Habib to view his Opposites United model as a challenge to himself and his team that they should make the cars “more futuristic” and “more challenging.” He feels that he has a mandate to push the proverbial design envelope as far as he can. “At Kia, we are pretty fortunate as designers because there is a real desire to push forward and to look ahead.” Habib is confident that he’s taking the brand in the right direction, saying, “There are few moments where people say we are going too far.”

A Stronger Look

The company is no stranger to boxy styling: take the Soul, which has been around since 2008 and has always maintained its reputation for being a funky and fun vehicle.

But looking ahead, Kia is embracing a stronger styling approach for its EVs. Spurred by the success of the Telluride, with its bold departure from the company’s usual look and feel, Habib and his team set to work on the EV5 concept and the EV9 three-row SUV destined for U.S. shores next year.

kia ev5 concept


Talking about what we can expect to see from future design, Habib described the sort of vehicle that many enthusiasts dread. “We’re moving, generally in car design, from a cockpit to a moving living space,” explained Habib, who said team members are working on potential future products. “Can these become temporary dwellings where these vehicles become your living space?”

We’ve heard of that sort of thing before. But we generally just call them RVs.

Back in current reality, Kia’s new vehicles feature taller, squared-off front ends, contrasting against jagged strips of lighting. Thin light bars in and around headlights have become more popular in recent years and are hardly unique to Kia, but the automaker will use this and other small changes to build a recognizable style for the brand. We’re looking forward to it.

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Headshot of Jack Fitzgerald

Associate News Editor

Jack Fitzgerald’s love for cars stems from his as yet unshakable addiction to Formula 1.
After a brief stint as a detailer for a local dealership group in college, he knew he needed a more permanent way to drive all the new cars he couldn’t afford and decided to pursue a career in auto writing. By hounding his college professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he was able to travel Wisconsin seeking out stories in the auto world before landing his dream job at Car and Driver. His new goal is to delay the inevitable demise of his 2010 Volkswagen Golf.

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