The Continental: Kia’s Strong Growth and Opel Aims High
Each week, our German correspondent slices and dices the latest rumblings, news, and quick-hit driving impressions from the other side of the pond. His byline may say Jens Meiners, but we simply call him . . . the Continental.
This week’s visit to Kia’s production site in the Slovakian town of Zilina turned out to be more informative than I thought it would be. At a predicted 290,000 units for 2012, the squeaky-clean plant is operating at capacity; it produces the compact-minivan Venga, the compact Cee’d as a five-door hatch and a station wagon, and the European-market Sportage. Around the turn of the year the three-door Pro_cee’d will be added, and it will be available with a 1.6-liter turbo four that makes around 200 hp—the same engine that powers the Hyundai Veloster Turbo. The coupe-like, contemporary styling of the Pro_cee’d is supposed to enhance the brand’s youthful appeal.
But there’s more coming from Kia, and it has nothing to do with the brand’s European plant. As early as two years from now, both the Sorento and the Optima will be launched with all-new styling. The recently updated Sorento previews the next generation’s under-the-skin technology. The Optima could be offered not only as a sedan, but also as a station wagon—similar to the European-market Hyundai i40.
The rear-wheel-drive sports sedan previewed by the Kia GT concept is not dead. The darling of last year’s Frankfurt auto show was designed with series production in mind, and there is a strong possibility that it will come to market using the Genesis sedan’s rear-wheel-drive platform. A coupe and a convertible are further options to enhance Kia’s image, and it’s not a decision of either-or. Another variant up for discussion is a two-door version of the next-generation Soul, as previewed by this year’s Track’ster concept.
Chassis and engine technology are still weaknesses, however, and the brand is working on them—together with Hyundai. I hear that 12 new engines are currently under development, and Hyundai also is developing dual-clutch transmissions for both brands.
Two things that caught my attention: Korean suppliers, including Hyundai Mobis, dominated what I could see of the parts shelves. Hyundai clearly is on a mission to promote its own network. And it was great to see chief designer Peter Schreyer being revered by Kia executives. They recognize the role of design in the redefinition and ultimate success of the company. You have to back a long way to come up with a designer who had similar clout in a car company: Patrick Le Quément of Renault comes to mind, and GM’s legendary Bill Mitchell. Congratulations to Kia for awarding design its legitimate position in the corporate hierarchy.
Opel’s Astra-Based 3-series Fighter
Opel has released further images and information on its “glamorous” Cascada convertible. In its press release, Opel tries to rewrite history by stating: “After several generations of compact Kadett and Astra cabriolets, Opel returns to an older tradition of prestigious and rare mid-size, four-seat soft-top convertibles from the fifties and sixties—like the Kapitän and the Rekord.” But the Kapitän and Rekord convertibles were aftermarket conversions—it’s not as if Opel themselves ever competed in this segment. As a matter of fact, the Cascada is an Astra convertible, and pretending it is “heading to the top of Opel’s lineup” won’t make it so unless the Insignia is dropped. All this rhetoric suggests that Opel is trying to position the new convertible as a viable alternative to the open-top versions of the Audi A5, the BMW 3-series, and the Mercedes-Benz E-class. For reference, a derivative of the last-generation Kadett was sold in the U.S. as the Pontiac Le Mans, while an upgraded, four-door Astra currently is marketed as the Buick Verano.
Tech-wise, the Astra-based Cascada is an early adopter of the SIDI Ecotec engine. This turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder unit makes 168 hp and 207 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic will be offered. There also will be GM’s 1.4-liter turbo four in strengths of 118 hp or 138—the 138-hp version powers the Chevy Sonic Turbo we get here—and a 162-hp 2.0-liter turbo-diesel that delivers 280 lb-ft of torque.
The Cascada is significant to the U.S. market as it could be sold as a Buick down the road—it would make an interesting addition to the lineup. Some GM executives would like it to happen, especially as it would fill the gap left if a convertible version of the Cadillac ATS doesn’t materialize, for which evidence is mounting.
The Back Seat at VW
Meanwhile, I got further confirmation from the higher-ups at Volkswagen that both the Bulli compact-minivan concept and the mid-engined Concept BlueSport still are on hold. They’re not dead, but they are clearly taking a back seat to a lot of other, higher-volume projects.
Toyota Can Do It, Too
Everybody had a laugh at the expense of the <link13>Mercedes-Benz Citan</link>—merely a rebadged Renault Kangoo—proudly displaying its three-pointed star. But Toyota can do it, too. Meet the ProAce, a commercial van that will hit European markets next year. It’s exactly the same as the Citroën Jumpy, the Fiat Scudo, and the Peugeot Expert, but it proudly wears a Toyota badge. The original design of these vans was launched 17 years ago and the last extensive face lift happened five years ago. It’s the first product of Toyota’s partnership with PSA that is supposed to be expanded down the road. The tie-up of GM and PSA Peugeot Citroën adds an element of uncertainty to the mix—Opel currently offers rebadged Renault commercial vehicles.