Yesterday, Kia revealed to an eager, erotically-charged global community of mainstream crossover buyers their new, completely re-designed 2023 Kia Sportage. Past Sportages haven’t exactly been design standouts, but the current era of Kia-Hyundai design is quite dramatic, and the new Sportage is striking, especially in one area: lighting. I think Kia-Hyundai’s design team is doing something new and interesting with lighting, and I’d like to explore it with you. Because I’m into you.
I’ll admit, in my mind, the name “Kia Sportage” brings up two things: first, the word “sportage” sounds idiotic, like one of those words a ‘90s kid’s show “cool dude” might say to make a noun from a verb that could just be a noun, anyway, like “drinkage” for a beverage or “humpage” for the physical act of love.
Second, there’s the Sportage itself, which I still tend to imagine in its early 2000s form, when it was inoffensive and forgettable:
This new Sportage, though, is not forgettable, I don’t think:
Well, maybe the side view of the Sportage isn’t breaking any new ground, but that front end sure is distinctive and striking. What’s going on here?
There’s a few things happening here; first, we have an overall unification of the key elements of the car’s “face.” If we compare the new Sportage to the outgoing one, this difference in fundamental concept becomes very clear:
That very anthropomorphic “face” of a 2020 Sportage is clearly made of discreet elements: headlamps, foglamps, grilles, badge, and so on. Kia’s new approach is radically different, and integrates all elements into a unified whole, one that does not lend itself to be broken out into discreet elements. We can see this on other Kia-Hyundai vehicles as well, like the new Santa Cruz:
Here, we see efforts were taken to integrate the DRLs into the grille design so they’d cease to be visually discreet objects, at least when off. In the case of the Sportage, the whole grille area defines the main front shape, and the DRLs divide the front shape area into intake areas in the middle and light areas outboard of the DRLs, but all constrained by one unified outer boundary.
Along with the Facial Unification process, there’s another important lighting innovation we see on the new Sportage, specifically the very graphic and stylized DRLs:
What makes these lighting elements unique is that, compared to lighting elements found in most other automotive design, these DRLs break free of the traditional “face” area and become elements that define larger body line elements.
You can see this even more dramatically in the new Hyundai Sonata:
See how the DRLs wrap around the headlamp unit and then flows seamlessly up into that character line on the hood, meeting that chrome strip on the beltline?
A lighting element that breaks this deeply into the rest of the body in a seamless, integrated way like what we’re seeing here is not common on cars at all, which is why I think it’s worth noting what’s happening here.
What Kia-Hyundai is doing is employing DRLs to act as foundational design elements on a car as opposed to just elements stuck on the front of the car or inside existing light units. I don’t think this has really been done before, and the closest earlier examples I can think of only attempt this in very rudimentary ways.
Consider the SsangYong Korando:
Those crazy-wide indicator/marker lamps do define that whole corner and line of the fender, and in some way may be considered an ancestor to what we’re seeing now, but I think the path Kia-Hyundai is blazing pushes things further.
At the same time, it’s clear we’re just at the beginning here. If looser DRL regulations remain, we could see decorative/stylistic DRLs doing more and more, well beyond the illuminated grille bars and other minor design elements we’re seeing today.
There’s certainly potential to overdo things, of course, but I’m very interested to see how this new lighting design trend plays out. Let’s hope it gets at least a little over-the-top, because it may be fun to see cars zooming around at night, outlined in glowing lines like a neon sign.