The Interview: Kia

How Kia's head of European powertrain development Dr Michael Winkler is balancing efficiency and performance

4y ago


"I think we are in a phase of change and it’s very difficult to say what will happen"

Dr Michael Winkler

The tired stereotypes and clichés about Kia’s vehicles have now faded away. The company no longer has to spend huge amounts of money on advertising to change opinions, customers know that buying a Kia is no different to buying a Honda, a Ford or any other brand in the market.

That means the firm can focus on introducing technologies that will help its cars to become more efficient, more connected and perform better, whether it’s a small city car or a large SUV.

And for Dr Michael Winkler, Kia’s head of powertrain development in Europe, that means daily meetings to discuss the future of the combustion engine, the impact of electrification and how best to balance the competing requirements for lower emissions and better fuel efficiency against higher performance levels.

And, as you might expect, it’s electrification that is often top of the agenda, although the future is still difficult to assess even for engineers.

“I think we are in a phase of change and it’s very difficult to say what will happen in several years time because the situation changes rapidly, but I think at Kia we are well prepared for electrification. We already offer a variety of products that offer electrified or fully electric powertrains,” says Winkler.

The Niro crossover is one of those vehicles that Winkler hoists up as a perfect example of the direction of the company. It was designed specifically for electrified powertrains and it won’t ever have a variant that only has an internal combustion engine. That will help Kia reduce emissions. The full hybrid Niro brings down CO2 levels to 88g/km and the plug-in hybrid will offer another big step in CO2 reduction.

“If we take a look at other plug-ins in our portfolio with the Optima we have CO2 values of 37g/km or 1.6 litres/100km so electrification is one step towards CO2 reduction,” says Winkler.

And the steps Kia is taking with the development of its combustion engines should help it to improve the efficiency in the hybrid vehicles it develops, especially as hybrid technology shifts to plug-in hybrid systems.

“In both cases we have the internal combustion engine. On the Niro we have the 1.6 litre [petrol] engine which was specially designed for the powertrain, because you can’t simply take a standard 1.6 litre engine and then attach it to a plug-in hybrid. It makes sense to have a close look at how you develop the engine for an electrified powertrain,” says Winkler. “The 1.6 litre engine in the Niro has a thermal efficiency of 40%, it’s a naturally-aspirated engine with a compression ratio of 13:1, it has cooled EGR, it’s an Atkinson-cycle, so I think you design the engine to fit to the electrified powertrain.”

When the Niro moves to a plug-in hybrid format it’ll also use the 1.6 litre engine, it will also integrate a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and it will have a different e-motor and a different battery capacity.

“That’s why you have to think about the vehicle platform itself and that is why we have a specially designed the platform for electrified vehicles to really cover the different ranges of battery capacity. If we look at the Hyundai Ioniq, the vehicle modelled on the Niro, slightly different category in terms of vehicle size, but it’s the same platform and is also available as a full EV,” says Winkler.

But it isn’t just about petrol engines, for as maligned as diesel might be at the moment, it remains an incredibly important technology for car companies as they look to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency. And it could also help introduce different approaches to electrification.

“We have technologies that are more related to gasoline engines, we have technologies that are more related to diesel engines and we still see some improvements for efficiency in diesel engines and we are closely working on that but one is the 48V architecture which we demonstrated with the Kia Optima T-Hybrid,” says Winkler.

The T-Hybrid managed a CO2 reduction of around 14% while increasing maximum power too. But Winkler is honest when he says that he thinks the industry is at the very beginning of the introduction 48V systems to the market. Audi and Bentley have used 48V systems, but they’ve been used as performance boosters powering electric turbochargers or helping to improve ride and handling with active chassis technologies.

But what about other technologies that could help us see greater leaps in combustion engine efficiency such as homogeneous charge compression ignition (HCCI) and variable compression ratios?

“HCCI for gasoline engines is an item that’s been under development for quite a long time and of course Kia [and Hyundai, Kia’s sister brand] is looking at these technologies, whether it will come to market or not is very difficult to say. Of course it offers some benefits not only on fuel economy but also emissions, but at the moment I think it is at the very early stages of development,” says Winkler.

Variable compression ratio systems are something that you often see at conferences for both diesel and gasoline, and the technology has now been adopted by Infiniti for the first time in a production engine. But the system isn’t something that Kia is going to be introducing anytime soon.

“Of course my company is looking at these different technologies but whether or not we introduce it to large volumes I don’t think it’s the right time,” says Winkler.

But for all the talk about efficiency and emissions, there is still a thirst for high-performance. You only have to look at the practical arms race in the hot-hatch sector to see that people like high output engines in fast cars. So will Kia follow this route?

“We see the demand from customer for high-performance vehicles and that’s why we introduced the high-performance development centre in Korea, we’ve also introduced a group in our European development centre dedicated to high-performance vehicle development,” says Winkler.

"Of course my company is looking at different technologies but whether or not we introduce them to large volumes I don’t think it’s the right time"

Dr Michael Winkler

Kia’s sister brand Hyundai is further ahead in the development of a high-performance compact car with its M brand. Last year at the Paris motor show the firm introduced its RN30 Concept car. That car took performance to extremes, using a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine that produced 279.5kW/451Nm. To manage the additional power, the engine block uses forged parts, instead of casted.

The road going version of the RN30 won’t be quite as angry though according to Winkler: “The mass production version will be much more reasonable, but of course it will be the balance between fuel efficiency and power.”

Kia might be a step or two behind Hyundai in this respect. At the moment it has its GT line with vehicles such as the Optima GT that uses 2-litre turbocharged engine, which isn’t a high-performance vehicle but forms the sporty variant.

There’s a great deal of development work going on in the industry, integrating more efficient technologies into vehicles, and Kia is at the forefront of these activities. For Winkler and his colleagues the challenge is balancing efficiency against maintaining, or even increasing performance.

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