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How Kia went from peddling econoboxes to challenging BMW

Even the younger ones among us remember the time when driving a Kia was the automotive equivalent of drinking Shasta soda. We’re talking about the not-too-distant era when Kia’s flagship model, the Amanti, looked like a Mercedes-Benz E-Class viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Few took much notice.

The ones who did explained the purchase with a resigned shrug. “We considered hiding the fact that it’s a Kia.” But then, something unexpected happened; Kia evolved.

Its cars began to feel appreciably nicer inside, to drive much better, and, importantly, to develop a design identity of their own. Not convinced? Check out the Stinger, a world-class rear-wheel drive sports sedan that’s got enthusiasts excited like citizens of a newly-founded republic.

Digital Trends sat down with Orth Hedrick, Kia Motors America’s vice president of product planning, to get insight on the brand’s astounding transformation. Digital Trends: When I was in high school, about 10 years ago, driving a Kia wasn‘t great. No one aspired to own a Sephia.

Now, you‘ve got the Stinger, which by all accounts is a great car. How do you take a car brand this far in such a short amount of time? Orth Hedrick: If you look at some of the great brands, like SB© toyota and Honda and others, they also had humble beginnings.

Do you remember the original Civic? Or, the Corolla and the Corona from the 1960s? You go through this period and it’s a generational thing.

I think for us, one of the key points is the fact that we have the Kia badge loud and proud on the front and back of the Stinger.

Orth Hedrick, Vice President of Product Planning at Kia Motors America We had this massive discussion about “why don’t we hide the Kia badge and just put Stinger on the front?” We considered hiding the fact that it’s a Kia. We’ve noticed a lot of folks pry the badges off of their Optima.

They love the car but they can’t stand the badge or the brand. I think it’s just going to take time. It’s going to take time and experience in the marketplace.

We’re getting there; we almost made car of the year. That’s huge growth from our design-led transformation and from building vehicles that look as good as they drive. Now, think of someone who is in the market for a new car every six to seven years, which is about average.

There are a lot of people who still remember the “old Kia.” The question is, how do you go about making that transition? It’s time and persistence, and I think eventually it happens. What role has design played in this transformation?

It’s been huge. We coined the first chapter our “design-led transformation.” It was driven a lot by bringing [former Audi designer] Peter Schreyer on-board to change the look and design of our cars. Albert Biermann joined us from BMW to help with vehicle dynamics.

He was heavily involved in the Stinger, which was about a third of the way into development when he joined. He went and actually moved suspension touch down points and made changes to the geometry, which kind of delayed the program because then they had to go back and redo everything. It was so important to get this thing right that the changes were made.

And because of him, and because of the work he’s doing on the performance side, we’re developing the engineering competencies to improve the dynamics and handling of other vehicles. Vehicle dynamics were a huge challenge on the Stinger because it’s a five-door. You’ve got a big opening right above where the suspension is doing its thing.

That was a major, major engineering challenge. It took a lot of time and effort to achieve the stiffness we wanted. Audi was able to do it with the A7, Porsche with the Panamera, and it was a great technical challenge, but we were able to deliver on that.

The payoff is the car handles and feels great. Why develop a car like the Stinger? It was really born out of passion.

I don’t know if you remember the GT concept we had on the show circuit. That was a designer’s dream car. They were figuring out what to put on the circuit and the guys in the Frankfurt studio are the ones that put the car together.

“There wasn’t a business case for the Stinger. It was fueled by passion from the studio.” They grew up when the notion of a gran turismo was big in Europe.

Now, a getaway weekend is Southwest Airlines. You fly down to Nashville. Back in the day they didn’t have that.

They had fast, powerful coupes for two couples to take off with all their stuff on the weekend. They’d go to the south of France, in the vineyards, but they needed to get there in a fast car so they created the GT. It wasn’t about ultimate performance or ultimate Gs; it was about fast and comfortable motoring.

That was very influential for some of our designers. These were the aspirational cars for a young 13-year old guy. When it came time to develop a show car, they said “this is what we were drawing when we were 13; let’s make one of these!” That turned into the GT concept.

It went through the show circuit and got huge response and huge accolades. It fell to the engineering department to figure out how to make one of these things. One of the main points was to move to a five-door body style to get that room in the back for stuff.

It was born out of passion. There wasn’t a business case; it wasn’t like we ran market research and figured out “this is the vector we’re going to take.” It was fueled by passion from the studio. So, there wasn‘t already a product behind it?

No. Six or seven years went by between the time the GT concept first went on the circuit and the time the Stinger came out. We started and we brought Albert on board.

He spent 30 years at BMW. He knows that millimeters on a 20-foot long object that weighs 4,000 pounds make a big difference. Small adjustments; that’s what took so long.

Are there lessons from the Stinger you can apply to other cars? Yes, a lot. On the Forte, we redesigned the sub-frames so that there’s more lateral stiffness but still plenty of compliance on vertical travel.

When you’re going through a corner, the sub-frames are able to keep the wheels in a very specific geometry in relation to the body. You don’t see a lot of movement or sloppiness in the corners. That’s because of those details.

The body-in-white is 16-percent stiffer, too. It provides a very solid foundation for the suspension to do its work. It’s already paying off on cars like the brand-new Forte.

We’re getting fantastic reviews on the new Rio. We hear a lot of people say they can’t believe it’s a sub-compact car. The lead market for that was Europe.

The general feel is that, as time goes on, our cars are going to feel a lot better than previews cars. It’s just getting people to come drive them. To your point, perception of the old cars and the experience they had is quite different than the new cars.

Where do you see the Kia brand going in the next 10 years? We refer to the Stinger as an inflection point. As we sort out what we stand for and what we represent, I think we’re centering around this vibrant and young-at-heart idea.

The cars are part of that personality trait; they show us doing things differently.

The Niro, the Soul, and the Stinger are all good examples of us doing things differently.

They don’t fit a normal recipe or category definition.

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The Rocket Lab founder just launched a giant disco ball into orbit

The spaceflight startup Rocket Lab recently launched the second test flight of its Electron rocket, and it marked the first rocket launched from New Zealand. Named “Still Testing,” the 55-foot-tall rocket successfully deployed three commercial satellites. The launch from the Mahia Peninsula made New Zealand the 11th country to deliver a payload into orbit.

The rocket had an extra passenger that it deployed in addition to the satellites, however, as sharp-eyed observers noticed and the company recently revealed. Created by the company CEO Peter Beck, the sculpture called “Humanity Star” is a polygonal carbon-fiber sphere consisting of 65 panels that reflect sunlight as it spins. About the size of a large beach ball, it’s visible from Earth with the naked eye, and the company announced it will be “the brightest thing in the night sky.”

Don’t call it a disco ball, Beck told the Washington Post. He wants it to have a more serious impact. “But in all honesty, yes, it’s a giant mirror ball,” he admitted. The space sculpture will orbit the Earth every 90 minutes travelling at 27 times the speed of sound, spinning as it orbits.

Its orbit will last for about nine months, at which point it will burn up as it reenters the atmosphere. Rocket Lab has set up a website for tracking Humanity Star, so you can see it when it passes overhead. “The goal is make people look up and realize they are on a rock in a giant universe,” Beck said in a statement. “My hope is that everyone looking up at the Humanity Star will look past it to the expanse of the universe, feel a connection to our place in it and think a little differently about their lives, actions and what is important,” he added. “You may just feel a connection to the more than seven billion other people on this planet we share this ride with.”

Not everyone views the space sculpture as such a lofty accomplishment, as Mashable points out. “This is stupid, vandalizes the night sky and corrupts our view of the cosmos,” tweeted astronomer David Kipping. “Looking up at the Moon and the planets in the night sky invokes similar feelings of wonder – why do we need this artificial disco ball in orbit?” echoed planetary scientist Meg Schwamb.

According to Rocket Lab, regulators of space missions in both the U.S. and New Zealand were informed of the payload and approved it prior to launch.

The company also responded to the critics with an emailed statement. “The Humanity Star will briefly flash across the sky for a few seconds, reflecting sunlight back to the Earth’s surface, creating a fleeting glint of light,” said Beck. “It is designed to be a brief moment of just a few seconds.”

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An amateur astronomer just discovered a long-lost NASA zombie satellite

Scott Tilley is an amateur visual and radio astronomer whose hobby is tracking satellites — specifically, classified spy satellites. As detailed at his blog Riddles in the Sky, he recently stumbled across something unusual: a NASA satellite that has been lost in space since 2005, happily chattering away to anyone who would listen. Luckily, Tilley was.

Tilley was on a hunt for Zuma, the secret Air Force spy satellite that was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on January 7, but failed to achieve orbit. No one knew what Zuma was or what its mission was, but initial reports suggest that the Falcon 9 had no part in the mission failure, and it may have been due to the uncoupling procedure designed by Northrop Grumman, which built the satellite. In any case, Zuma supposedly met with a fiery death on reentry.

Or did it? While searching for any evidence of the classified satellite in orbit, Tilley ran across some unusual transmissions. Subsequent observations indicated that they were likely coming from a 17-year-old NASA satellite called IMAGE (Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration), which was launched on a Delta-II rocket in 2000 to map the Earth’s magnetosphere.

IMAGE used a variety of sensors, including neutral atom, ultraviolet, and radio imaging to observe plasma in the upper magnetosphere. After years of successful operation, IMAGE ceased responding in 2005, possibly due to a power failure in the transponder controller. However, there remained the possibility that IMAGE could reboot itself when it passed through the Earth’s shadow.

“Periodically the spacecraft will enter an eclipse and NASA surmised that this may trigger it to restart and apply power back to the communications system. That appears to have happened!” Tilley wrote. “As you will note from the plots below the Sun angles are presently good for IMAGE and it may just stay operational for some time to come.” Word of the discovery quickly reached scientists who had worked on the mission, according to Science. “The odds are extremely good that it’s alive,” said Patricia Reiff, a space plasma physicist. “The team is collectively holding their breath waiting for some real information exchange between IMAGE and the ground.”

America Space reached out to the space agency for comment, and they were cautiously optimistic. “We’re still not sure it really is IMAGE, but we are working to identify people knowledgeable about the mission after all this time and working on getting all the appropriate scripts and software in-place just in case it is IMAGE,” said Jeff Hayes of NASA.

If the spacecraft is indeed operational, it could resume its mission by monitoring Earth’s northern auroral zone. “At the very least it made for an interesting Saturday afternoon in the radio room,” said Tilley.

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