When KIA poached highly-rated Audi designer Peter Schreyer it raised some eyebrows – but Schreyer’s new Californian design studio has already delivered its first concept car – the Kia Kue.

The concept crossover – launched this week at the Detroit show – has innovative gull-wing split doors, and its looks point to the way future Kias will look.

Schreyer said it was “a symbol of Kia’s future design” that “takes crossover design in a new direction”.

A less radical crossover is certainly one of the projects under investigation, and Kia is prepared to put its concept cars into production – the automaker’s US CEO Len Hunt announced at Detroit that the Kia Soul concept shown 12 months ago would be built next year as a 2008 model.

Former Audi UK boss Hunt poked gentle fun at Schreyer by appearing on stage wearing a pair of glasses similar to the designer’s trademark specs.

Schreyer and Hunt are both Audi veterans – Schreyer’s most famous design is the original TT.

“Now he’s bringing his magic to Kia,” said Hunt.

Kia’s US sales are outperforming the market – growth of 6.4% outstripped the average growth of 3.8% last year. Kia sold 294,302 cars in the US last year, and December was the company’s best sales month on record, with sales topping 30,000 in the month.

However, he feels Kia buyers are still not connecting fully with the brand, as it’s still perceived as a value brand – albeit one with consistently high scores in the JD Power quality surveys.

“To be honest, our owners don’t feel an emotional attachment to Kia – we need to get to the pride and the passion.”

The way to do this was “with breakthrough design” – hence the arrival at Kia of Schreyer.

His new North American design centre in Irvine, California will open fully later this year, part of a new $US17m headquarters ‘campus’ for the company.

Kia is also building a US plant in Georgia, and this is scheduled to open in 2009.