By Marc Lachapelle
Revised to correct power and torque figures for the V-6 engine.
LOS ANGELES, CA – At first glance, the new Kia Stinger is a world-beater and a giant-killer, all at once. It certainly stunned the savvy, jaded crowd and stole the show when it was unveiled in Detroit, last January.
With its long, flowing lines and wide, hunkered-down stance, it clearly looks the part of the gran turismo sport-luxury sedan it is claimed to be. Impressive technical specs and serious credentials further support the lofty aims of its creator, Korea’s second-ranked carmaker, the rambunctious and ambitious Kia Motors.
From the show circuit to the road
Two seasons later, the time had come for our first drive of this interloper on some of the best roads in southern California and at the Hyundai Group’s proving ground, in the Mojave Desert. We were handed the keys to pre-production versions of the top-line Stinger GT, powered by a twin-turbocharged, 3.3-litre V-6 engine that develops 365 hp at 6,000 rpm and 376 lb-ft of torque from 1,300 to 4,500 rpm. It’s said to be good for a 0-100 km/h sprint in a claimed 4.9 seconds. The Stinger will also be available, later, with a turbocharged, 2.0-litre, four-cylinder with peak outputs of 255 hp at 6,200 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque, also from 1,400 to 4,000 rpm. A bright yellow Stinger, thus equipped, was on display in California but we didn’t get to drive it. Another time!
Both engines are exclusively paired with a second-generation, eight-speed automatic gearbox and rear-biased all-wheel drive with ‘dynamic torque vectoring’ for the Canadian market. A system that will send up to 80% of driving torque to the rear wheels, for better handling balance in Sport mode, and up to 50% to the front wheels on slippery surfaces for more balanced traction.
Rear-wheel drive versions of the Stinger, available to American and British buyers, provided interesting contrasts in handling and driving feel on the roads and various driving courses.
Confident or simply brash?
Largely inspired by the low, wide and striking profile of the GT Concept, created in Kia’s studio in Frankfurt and unveiled at that city’s grandiose auto show, in 2011, the production version of the Stinger has remarkable presence and elegance. It too was shaped in Frankfurt, under the direction of Grégory Guillaume, Kia’s chief designer in Europe.
With a unit-body structure that is 55% high-strength steel, the Stinger is longer than a host of competitors such as the Audi A5 Sportback, BMW 4 Gran Coupe, Infiniti Q50, Lexus GS and Mercedes-Benz CLS. It also rides on a longer wheelbase which clearly benefits rear-seat room, in proper gran turismo tradition.
In fact, Kia has such confidence in its new halo car that it compared the Stinger to higher-ranked and even more prestigious cars such as the Audi A7 and Porsche Panamera 4, in the technical and marketing presentation. The Korean upstart was very close or superior to these German aristocrats in just about all respects. More about its price, shortly.
We were also provided with prime specimens of several of these competitors for direct comparison on a long autocross course at the Mojave Desert proving ground.
Simple and effective
Slipping inside the Stinger, one finds an instrument panel that combines modern amenities like the ubiquitous, tablet-like tactile screen, planted dead centre, and traditional European design cues such as the three large and round vents right underneath. The fit, finish and quality of materials are beyond reproach, if not as opulent as the much ritzier and costlier rivals mentioned earlier.
Although not as flashy and trendy as others, the Stinger’s ergonomics are unquestionably superior. Large and clear gauges, logically-arranged menus for the tactile screen and a collection of simple, precise and well-crafted buttons, knobs and switches let you monitor, control and adjust all systems easily, quickly and safely too. These include secondary controls placed on the horizontal branches of a sport steering wheel with a nicely shaped, flat-bottom, leather-draped rim.
The driving position is just fine for me, with easy adjustments and a wide, flat footrest unrestricted in height. All seats are wrapped in smooth and supple leather. The front buckets are comfortable and carry well-sized bolsters but could provide stronger lateral support as we later realized while booting around the test tracks. Kia offers air bladders in the seatback and adjustable bolsters only on the top-line GT.
Two adults can travel comfortably in the rear, although headroom is somewhat limited by the Stinger’s sloping ‘fastback’ roofline. The middle spot is good for small persons and short jaunts, at best, given the tall driveshaft tunnel and protruding centre console. Cargo volume goes from a claimed 660 litres to 1,158 litres, with the 60/40 seatbacks folded, under a hatch that provides easy access, as one would expect.
The aces up the Stinger GT’s sleeve are its dynamics and performance, shaped and refined under the guidance of engineer Albert Biermann who came to the Hyundai group in 2014, after leading the development of the vaunted M models at BMW.
Development work was conducted in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas, North and South, but most crucially, every development unit of the Stinger had to cover 10,000 km around the famed Nürburgring’s ruthless northern loop, the Nordschleife.
With such advance billing and commensurate expectations, our first kilometres at the wheel were rather underwhelming. The blue Stinger GT was commendably smooth, quiet, comfortable and composed. Nice to drive, just not what we expected, given the hype. Then, something happened.
Whisking along the sinewy Angeles Forest Highway, headed for the Mojave Desert, we came up on three vehicles. At first, from a distance, I thought the black and red cars closest to us were part of our group. Which says something about the low, wide stance and full haunches of the Stinger GT, because I soon recognized a pair of Porsche 911 coupés, held back by a slow service truck and a double yellow line.
They most likely were proper GT3s, judging by the loud, synchronous wail that erupted when a passing lane finally materialized. Game on!
The Stinger’s twin-turbo V-6 slapped us into our seatbacks with a wondrous growl as it bolted ahead, with s pair of 911s in its crosshairs. The following minutes were spent closely tracking the iconic sports cars on this fast and open asphalt serpent, in remarkably effortless manner.
Pushed hard, the Stinger just came alive, tackling corners with impeccable poise and balance, showing just a trace of well-damped body roll and the slightest pinch of understeer, its all-wheel drive system never a hindrance.
The rear-drive version of the GT would later feel slightly livelier and more agile on both the autocross course and the fast ‘winding road’, at the proving ground. But on Angeles Forest Highway, our blue GT was a master, with its sharp, variable-ratio steering, continuously-variable dampers and strong Brembo disc brakes working in unison, seamlessly.
On the first straight section with multiple lanes, both 911s moved right to let us by. Yes, we do have witnesses. And the Stinger did it with effortless grace while I was careful not to upset my driving partner’s internal organs. It was, indeed, an absolute blast and a clear validation of the Korean sedan’s mettle as a true gran turismo. A car worthy of these famously overused initials.
An amazing price tag
Pricing has not been finalized or announced yet, but we do know that a Stinger GT with all available options will sell for less than $52,000 in Canada, which makes it an outstanding value, if not a proper steal. By comparison, the same car will be priced around $50,000 south of the border.
Badge appeal, prestige, resale value, residuals? Who will even care, with the Stinger GT’s looks, performance, handling and luxury, at such a price. Not to mention a solid warranty and Kia’s impressive record for initial quality and reliability, in recent years.
OK, car snobs might. But it will be their loss.
Only 200 copies of the Stinger will be available in Canada for model-year 2018, all of them GT versions that will most likely vanish quickly from dealer showrooms, if they even make it that far. Numbers and selection will increase thereafter.
With an exceptional all-wheel drive platform now in their back pocket, we should also expect a zinger of a luxury sport-utility from Kia in the near future. And probably much more because, mark my words, these guys are just warming up. And a Stinger GT S would be an excellent start, Mr. Biermann.