“Hey Phill,” said the nice man from Kia in the Middle East, “how do you fancy trying the new Kia Rio saloon?”
“Sounds interesting,” I replied. Kia’s a company I’m becoming increasingly interested in of late, thanks to a radical turnaround in the company image. Cars that five years ago were little more than a laughing stock now have some serious visuals on them and as the Korean firm overhauls its range, they’re proving increasingly popular.
“Great,” said the PR man. “It’s in South Korea. Next week.”
“I’m in,” I replied, trying hard not to sound too excited. I’ve been to Korea before and loved it. To the point where I wanted to go back. Even if to drive a value-for-money saloon, and even if it meant spending a 20-hour round trip in economy class. Which it did.
And so, ridiculously early on a Tuesday morning, I arrived bleary-eyed at Dubai International Airport. Being a frequent flyer got me access to the Emirates Business Lounge, which as you can see from the image above is where all the great and glamorous hang out.
I hadn’t checked the details of my flight very closely, so it was a pleasant surprise to be flying on the monster Airbus A380 superjumbo; the first time I’d done so. It’s a gargantuan behemoth of a plane, and much quieter than your common-or-garden Boeings. All the better then to relax with a cup of tea, car shows on the iPad and a view from the tailfin as we scoot across Asian skies.
Lots of tea and quite a long time later, we began the descent into Incheon airport, just outside the South Korean capital city of Seoul.
After a bus trip, I was checked in to the InterContinental COEX hotel, slap-bang in the middle of Seoul. Being a few timezones ahead of the Middle East, it was already late in the day. Time for a quick long-exposure shot out of the window (check out the erratic plane), and then bed in an effort to fend off jet lag.
The following morning saw the assembled journalists from across Asia and the Middle East herded onto buses and head towards the Namyang Research & Development Centre, about 90 minutes from Seoul. This is the global nerve centre of Kia and Hyundai’s design, so I was looking forward to some scoops and interesting images. But then Stephanie, our guide and translator, informed us that cameras were not allowed. I’m therefore forced to relay the events of the day by way of an incredibly detailed and accurate illustration on the C&P whiteboard.
As you’ve no doubt already deduced from the mural above, the day consisted of a lot of chat about Kia and its history, the highlight of which was a tour of the facility’s museum. Here sat a huge amount of Kias and Hyundais from day one, including an original Pony with 36 miles on the clock, a T600 mini-truck and a Brisa (a rebadged Mazda Familia) that several journalists thought would look rather suave with a slam job and some modern rims.
There’s no hiding the fact that Kias of old were not particularly impressive. Built at a low budget for export, they were bargain basement motoring for the non-discerning masses. But a tour of the firm’s state-of-the-art facilities shows that things have changed considerably. The Namyang site hosts a full test track, design studios for both Kia and Hyundai, wind tunnel and prototype facilities – in other words, everything needed for Hyundai Kia to become the world’s fourth largest automobile manufacturer.
There followed lunch at the firm’s own hotel, called Rolling Hills. I’d been here before, when it was used solely for visitors to the Namyang facility. But now they’ve opened it up to any old Joe Public. Pff. So it was back onto the buses for the journey back to Seoul.
Oh, and they gave us our cameras back. Just in time for me to take a picture of some nails on a building.
That evening, a gala dinner was thrown at the hotel ballroom in our honour. And of course, no gala dinner is complete without ice sculptures. I’m guessing that a hotel that throws a lot of such events must have an in-house ice sculptor, right? Hmmm.
The following morning saw me rise bright and early to a lovely sunny day. But don’t be fooled by the blue sky, it was insanely cold. For someone that shivers when the Dubai air dips below 20 degrees, winter in South Korea and the accompanying zero-degree temperatures are enough to stop me in my tracks. This is a pretty accurate depiction of the situation.
A briefing was held after breakfast, where the test route and schedule for the day is explained. Drive, lunch, drive, coffee, drive, back. Easy.
So organised are the Kia staff that they have marshals all along the route. With big pink sticks. Maybe to beat us if we misbehave.
Sadly, we weren’t trusted to drive the cars on our own. No, we had to travel into a series of convoys. And just in case we didn’t know what a convoy was, they kindly showed us a graphic explaining the concept.
And here are the Rios at last. Let’s be honest, for a car costing less than $15,000, it’s a pretty good-looking machine. If it took on a Yaris in a Miss World-style battle of beauty, I know which I’d
try and seduce vote for.
COMING IN PART 2! I drive the Kia Rio saloon across a bridge, spend a night in a university town, see some amusingly-named shops and some massive guns. Stay tuned.