David Wilkins takes a close look at Kia's concept sportster and meets its chief designer, Peter Schreyer

The Panton chair is a remarkable piece of furniture. In fact, it challenges the very notion of what constitutes a chair; its Danish designer, Verner Panton, dispensed completely with traditional elements such as upholstery and legs in favour of a single piece of cleverly moulded plastic, S-shaped in profile, which does the lot.

But even the most ardent fans of Sixties Scandinavian furniture would have to admit that it's the concept, rather than the comfort that's the thing when it comes to the Panton. That's why you're much more likely to see one in a design museum than in an office.

A few weeks ago, though, I found myself in Germany, in the sort of rarefied setting in which the Panton chair is in daily use; through a glass wall I could see about half a dozen of the things arranged around a large table in a meeting room. All around me were examples of achingly restrained good taste; the subtle bamboo flooring, the uncluttered work surfaces and lots of other funky furniture. In short, this place looked like what it was the hub of a leading motor manufacturer's design operations.

But I wasn't at Audi, BMW, Mercedes or Porsche; rather, I was in Frankfurt to meet ex-Audi man Peter Schreyer, the chief design officer of Kia Motor Company, who oversees the work of the company's network of three design studios from his German base, which takes up about half of the Kia's impressive new European headquarters. And in particular, I was there to find out more about Schreyer's latest piece of work, the striking Kee concept car, which the company is using at this crucial stage in its development to explore possible design directions. He describes the work that has been done on the Kee as the beginning of a new era, which "shows what Kia can be and where we can go in design".

The plan was to produce a study for a coup, but it was felt that this would be too close to the new pro_cee'd, the two-door version of the cee'd hatchback, so Schreyer decided to go for something "quite a bit more provocative" in Kia terms, a full-on sports car. Kia's previous designs have been rather neutral, and unlike, say, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes or BMW the Korean marque has never had a distinctive "face". That's given Schreyer an unusually free hand compared with the designers at more established manufacturers, but he has nevertheless faced certain constraints. Although Kia is increasingly being positioned as a sporty, youthful brand, its cars, with their keen pricing and generous warranties, still appeal to budget-conscious customers; it was therefore important for any new design direction to convey a certain substance and timelessness factors that would help, for example, future Kias' resale values. Schreyer was also keen for the Kee to be a full four-seater. All these factors ruled out the more extreme flights of fancy sometimes seen on show cars. In addition, he felt that the car should have clean, clear, somewhat muscular lines. The "face" headlamps, grille and other elements of the car's frontal treatment was finalised comparatively late in the process and could form the basis of future designs, although it could be developed further.

To my eyes, the Kee is a success, conveying precisely the sort of sporty practicality its designer intended. At the front, it bears a slight resemblance to the Audi R8, while the rest of the car is fresh and original. At the rear, there is, perhaps, just a faint echo of the rounded tail and shallow rear window of the original, pre-hatchback Toyota Celica, one of the first Japanese cars to sell on looks rather than price and reliability a happy precedent for Kia, I'd have thought.

My favourable impressions of the car were reinforced when I had the opportunity to drive it on the empty roads within the vast exhibition complex that hosts the biennial Frankfurt motor show, which is overlooked by Kia's European base. Unlike most show cars, the Kee has been fitted with rudimentary running gear. The engine, a V6, sounds a lot fruitier than anything fitted to any of Kia's production models, but the speed at which the car can be driven is limited. There is no suspension to speak of and the brakes feel wooden. As Schreyer warns me, the turning circle is enormous. Forget three-point turns 10-point turns are more like it.

So this is far from production-ready. The effort required to turn the Kee into something that could be used on public roads would probably take a couple of years and cost many millions. The experience of driving the Kee in its present form does not, therefore, provide a precise indication of what a fully fledged production Kee would be like. Yet the chance to see it in motion tells you a lot more about the design than just looking at a static model in a studio or at a motor show does. And the fact that the Kee has been conceived as a "runner" means that its basic form can at least accommodate the main components of a production car, such as the engine and transmission. Practicalities such as the driving position and the extent of the visibility from the driver's seat already appear to be well sorted, and I was especially taken with the unusually rich, matt "micro-velvet" material of the interior trim.

Can a Kia be cool? On the basis of the Kee, yes. Apparently, if enough people say they like it, there's a chance the company will make it. For what it's worth, I'd like to cast my vote in favour.

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