Lucie Loves… Lifestyle // A whistle-stop tour of South Korea and a Kia Stinger test-drive
Kia’s got Seoul. Fact.
It’s not everyday that you get the chance to hop on plane and travel 5,500 miles, across the globe, to visiT the beating heart of a brand you’re working with. But that’s what I did and, Oh man, was it fun!
My relationship with Kia began back in January 2017. I was invited to travel to Milan for the launch of a new car – the Kia Stinger GT. I must say, there was as much amusement as there was fanfare about the car being unveiled – at me being invited to this sort of car event… Pretty novel, but I guess an interesting move for a car brand that's looking to appeal to new audiences.
I mean, it’s hardly a girly looking vehicle is it? It screams Top Gear-fuelled testosterone.
Ok, so it was vivacious and cherry red, but it didn’t scream “woman driver” at me… A fact which, I guess on looking back, made me even more determined to test drive it. It is 2017 after all, equal car driving rights for all, I say!
So why did we have to go half way around the world to test drive it? Well, as the car buffs out there will know, the Kia Stinger only arrived in the UK in November 2017. So, in order for us to get our mitts on its 3.3 litre V6 twin-turbo engine in October, we had to put in a bit of leg-work.
We arrived in Seoul, after flying Prestige Class with Korean Air from London Heathrow. It was the first time I’d ever flown Business Class and It. Was. Bliss! A roomy chair, my own massive TV, linen tablecloth and napkins, exceptional customer service and attention to detail – something that I noted features heavily in Korean culture. (Take a peek at the vlog below!)
The journey takes around 12 hours in total (we took off on a Tuesday evening and landed Wednesday afternoon) but thankfully we had a night flight, and I was able to grab a few hours kip – after trying some traditional Korean food and binge-watching many a film. With a belly-full of Bulgogi – and a mind full of Charlie Hunnam as King Arthur (PHWOAR!) – you could say I drifted off to sleep pretty easily.
On arrival at South Korea’s Incheon Airport we took the airport bus into Seoul, which is not only a great way of saving money on taxis (a ticket for the shuttle costs around £10) but also allows you to see some of the sights and get delivered directly to the door of your hotel too.
We were staying at the 5-star Westin Chosen Hotel. The hotel is just a 5-minute walk from the popular Myeongdong shopping district (great for those who want to stock up on Korean beauty and skincare products) and 400 yards from the City Hall Subway Station.
On Wednesday evening, to combat jet lag, we were given a walking tour of Insadong. It’s a pretty little neighbourhood, home to many traditional Korean teashops and artisan stores, handicrafts, temple food, antiques, calligraphy paraphernalia and many other intrinsically Korean wares. It’s just 700m long, but this little street is alive with activity! From there we were shown around Jogyesa Temple, which looked lantern-like – all glowing and majestic! We continued our tour, past the Avenue of Youth, picking tongue-scaldingly delicious Korean donuts en route, before arriving at our final stop of the evening and also the ultimate jet lag cure.
Korean BBQ chicken and beers – 7 types in varying degrees of spiciness from fingerlickingly garlicky to oh-my-god my face is sweating hot. It did just the trick! By 9pm Korean time we were all feeling the time difference and so wound our way down past the moonlit banks of the famous Cheonggyecheon stream. Stopping off to make a wish and marvel at the musicians and rainbow-lit architecture. After a swift night cap at Westin Chosun’s Lounge & Bar, we headed our separate ways and prepared ourselves for an early start the next day.
SHIT! SHIT! SHIT! Hello? What? Where am I?
The jet lag had hit me like a wall. After a broken night’s sleep, waking up almost on the hour from 1am to 5:30am, I did something I never do... I slept through my bloody 6:am alarm! It was 7:17am. We were supposed to be dressed, breakfasted and downstairs ready for the bus to leave 2 minutes ago. Oh god!
I threw on my clothes, grabbed my camera, shoved my makeup bag into my rucksack and sheepishly made my way downstairs to apologise for keeping everyone waiting. *GULP* Apologies delivered, we piled on the bus and drove to the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group Namyang R&D Center – Kia’s primary design centre in Hwaseong.
Labelled up with name tags, our motley crew of tech and auto journos were given an introductory talk about the Hyundai-Kia Motor Group, followed by a rather futuristic presentation on autonomous vehicle design.
The first driverless cars came into existence in the 80s, but there’s still a long way to go before we’re at a level that allows them to be completely self-sufficient. I chatted to a couple of the other guys about how driverless cars could really change the way we live. One of the most profound, yet relatable, things we discussed was – IF they do become the norm, there will no longer be any need for a designated driver – should both of you wish to have a drink at that little country pub out in the sticks and still get home safely.
Imagine the conversation now: “What you still have a car with a steering wheel?” “Oh my god! They actually allow you to drive?!”
I was amazed by the level of detail that goes into designing and developing Kia’s various sensors, cameras and radar technology. It blew my mind! In May 2017, when we drove the Kia Sorento 1,000+ miles around the Deep South, countless times did we get saved by their lane drifting technology, alerting us when we were potentially about to stray into the path of another vehicle. I think it’s pretty incredible the amount of engineering and technical solutions that we’re privy to everyday that we take for granted.
One of my favourite bits of new tech was the drowsy driver sensor. If you’ve ever been a passenger on a long journey and had to constantly keep glancing at your driver, you’ll appreciate the fact that innovative safeguarding solutions like this are what the future of mobility can come to expect.
Next up was a behind-the-scenes look at Hyundai-Kia’s toy collection. By that, I mean the crash test dummy site and their family of dummies. Ever wondered how much a crash test dummy costs? Well, it can be anything from $100K to $700K a piece, and there's 100 goes in each of them before they get sent back to the manufacturer to be repaired and returned for future testing. Each dummy is designed to resemble a human’s internal organs, so it’s pretty vital that the tech is spot on when looking at how car manufacturers can limit the amount of damage that is done to the driver and the car during a road traffic accident.
Then it was time for the Kia Idea Festival, according to Kia’s Steve Kitson, the purpose of the Idea Festival is to hothouse all of Kia’s young engineering talent, and get them thinking about mobility solutions in more creative ways. We saw team after team present their ideas, before being awarded a series of prizes for the most innovative. My favourite of the day was the Sym:Pony – a car specially adapted for deaf drivers, which incorporates the ability for the driver to sign at a sensor and have it translate their signing into a message. Alternatively, the microphone would also pick up what’s being said and translate that into a message too.
As the afternoon rumbled on, we took a trip around the proving ground. Nope, it’s nothing to do with baking – this is where Kia test out all of their vehicles on various surfaces and road conditions around the world. I half-expected our mini bus to be subjected to centrifugal forces, as we whizzed at full pelt along the speedway. But alas! we took the next turning off and made our way to the Rolling Hills Hotel for a quick bite to eat.
Kia Stinger test drive time!
Three cars, a gaggle of intrepid (and a couple of slightly nervous press) were tasked with getting back to the centre of Seoul safely, at rush hour in brand new Kia Stingers… Let it be noted that the only other car that I’ve driven that’s anywhere near this beastly, is the Ford Mustang, on my California road trip… how on earth was I going to handle the Kia Stinger? Thankfully, the Kia team had kindly pre-inputted our destination, given us enough dollar (Korean Won) for the tolls – yep, there's few – and forewarned us that the navigation system would warn us about speed cameras… and, as it turns out, speed bumps too!
The Memo’s Alex took to the wheel first – after admitting that he too doesn’t drive that much in the UK either… Fortunately, we had Steve from Kia in the back, to help us negotiate the foreign roads and get us to our switchover point safely.
I was feeling nervous. Butterflies in my belly kind of nervous.
I sat in the driver's seat and took three times to start the car. At long last we were off and I was zipping along the motorway, back towards Seoul. As luck would have it, I couldn't really put my foot down much as our changeover time had meant that we hit rush hour traffic and three different tolls… Probably a blessing really!
Exhilarated at getting back us all back in one piece, we quickly changed for our evening meal; dinner at The Ninth Gate Grille, with Kia’s VP of Global PR and VP of Sales in Western Europe. I wore my new mustard yellow ASOS Long Sleeve Wrap Maxi Dress in Bold Floral . I spotted this dress on a girl on the tube and then spent ages trying to google where it was from!
Dinner was some of the best steak I've ever had the pleasure of eating. It was literally like cutting a knife through butter – it was that soft! After a some great chats with Kia's Korea team, we got changed again into more casual clothes, and headed for drinks at LP Bar – classed by Time Out (and now us lot) as 'One of the Best Bars in Seoul'. It's certainly a must visit. Check out my vlog for a sneak peek of what it's like to request your favourite songs from the seemingly endless vinyl collection, drink beers from the fridge and sing to your heart's content!
We were up early the next day and taken to Kia's BEAT360 experience in the trendy shopping district of Gangnam. It's a bit like what I expect the car showrooms of the future to look like.
Described as "full of immersive content and cultural events – the BEAT360 space is split into different zones. The Surround Media Zone saw us step foot inside a Kia Stinger and zip off into space. The Digital Docent Zone is 'the world’s first mediated reality vehicle experience, featuring a plethora of futuristic looking augmented reality and virtual reality toys. But first coffee (or should I say tea..) BEAT360 is also home to very cool Smith Teamaker Cafe tasting room and flagship store.
Stepping outside into the wraparound garden space, there's a chance to get your putt on with crazy golf, before checking art out in The Atelier, or lounging in The Salon Zone. The Salon Zone was like a scene out of Tom Ford's 'A Single Man' – all dark wood and sumptuous designs. Very classy!
By the time we'd spent a few hours in Gangnam, we were ready for some food. To continue our immersive whistle-stop tour of Seoul, we were treated to a tour of Noryangjin Fish Market, followed by a fresh and filling sushi lunch. I learnt that, in South Korea, no meal has ever truly started until there's been a dish with rice served! Let's just say none of us went hungry that day! The food was sublime!
A few of the crew headed off to pick up some treats in Seoul's vast shopping malls, whilst the rest of us went back to the hotel. I went out for a few hours and picked up a mixture of Korean skincare sheet masks and beauty treats from the likes of Tony Moly, etc. If you're coming to South Korea, be sure to leave room in your suitcase – you'll want to buy everything!
A pack of 10 sheet masks (which are, basically, saturated face masks in the form of a wet wipe, with holes cut out for your eyes and mouth – TK Maxx also sell them, but for around £2.50 a piece!) can be picked up for just a few pounds at any of Seoul's beauty stores. Expect to pay a little more for the Snail Mucus ones or those that have gold leaf on them. These are the premium ones!
After a quick outfit change, I met the rest of the guys in reception and jumped in a taxi to go for Korean BBQ at a place called Two Plus in Itaewon. If you're looking for a lovely night out with beer pong, great food, bars, clubs and K-Pop karaoke, Itaewon is the neighbourhood for you! We had a raucous last night in Seoul and ended up getting back to our hotel around 3am and cursing the early alarm the next morning, for our flight back to London Heathrow.
Our trip to South Korea was an amazing opportunity to learn more about the brand that I've been getting to know over this last year. It gave me a unique opportunity to witness the intelligence and craftsmanship that goes into making these vehicles such a pleasure to drive. I can't wait to see how Kia continue to push the boundaries of tech and engineering – particularly with autonomous vehicles!
Photography © Lucie Kerley