- The hotly anticipated Kia Stinger sports sedan will go up against the best of the best, from BMW, Audi, and Lexus.
- I tested the Kia Stinger in the San Francisco Bay Area for a few days.
- The Stinger blew me away.
South Korean carmaker Kia is better known for slightly offbeat, value-oriented cars than for high-performance wheels, but that changed last year with the introduction of the Stinger.
It was the toast of the auto-show circuit and a clear play on Kia’s part to redefine the brand with a classic “halo” car – in this case, a rear-wheel-drive, go-fast machine with a game-changing exterior design and an inviting price tag, relative to the upmarket competition. We’re talking about at least 10 grand less than a German sports sled.
We were salivating over the Stinger, so when I recently travelled to the West Coast and escaped the miseries of winter in New York, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days behind the wheel. And what days they were! Here’s how it went:
Let’s start with the obvious: This is an absolutely stunning set of wheels. Kia design chief Peter Schreyer intended it to evoke the great European grand-touring cars of the past. Easily my favourite sedan on the road today, looks-wise.
The Stinger is aggressive, elegant, stylish, and sleek. Our test car looked brilliant in “Hichroma Red.”
In keeping with a major trend, the Stinger is a fastback four-door with a smoothly sloping roofline and a hatch. If you haven’t noticed already, the proportions on this car are masterful: balanced and suave, long and low.
The only thing I could find to complain about was this nonfunctional hood vent, a sort of useless piece of decorative plastic. C’mon, give us the real thing! The Stinger deserves it.
But these slashing, ferocious LED headlights more than make up for it.
Snazzy nameplate lettering — and quad exhaust pipes!
We sampled the top-of-the-line GT2, which came with every imaginable option and all-wheel drive. The sticker price was $US52,300. The base four-cylinder trim level starts at $US31,900, however, so you get all this useful beauty for a lot less.
Yes, it’s weird to have a Kia badge on the hood of this car. But I got used to it in a hurry.
The cargo area under the hatch is substantial. I had just one bag for a short jaunt to the San Francisco Bay Area.
How about we take a gander at my new favourite motor?
What we have here is an impeccable 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6 making a tasty 365 horsepower with 376 pound-feet of yummy torque. I did my best to squeeze some turbo-lag out of this sucker and failed.
The power is piped through an eight-speed automatic transmission. Sure, there are paddle shifters so you can go manual, but I found that it was best to just let the auto handle the duty. As an aside, the Stinger has the first joystick-style shifter that I’ve actually liked.
The Stinger provides multiple drive modes: Eco, Comfort, Sport, Smart, Custom. Smart tweaks the dynamics based on your driving style, while Custom lets you do the tweaking yourself.
Sport maximizes all the Stinger has to offer, but in my testing it also clobbered the already marginal fuel economy. That’s the price you pay. Official MPGs are 19 city/25 highway/21 combined. I suspect I was getting more like 20 mpg, given that I was engaging in spirited Sport-mode piloting.
Comfort and Eco should help one to better sip the petrol, and on balance they don’t detract hugely from performance – I stepped on it in both and was rewarded with plenty of pep. But Sport is where the steering is most taut, the braking most responsive, and the suspension trimmest. Some reviews of the Stinger have complained about body roll when the car is pushed, but I didn’t find much of that, although I was driving on public roads rather than a track.
Let’s slip inside the somewhat austere black interior (in my book, that’s a good thing, although fans of German or Japanese luxury marques might be disappointed).
The instrument cluster is actually refreshingly straightforward, and there’s a head-up display providing core info. The leather-wrapped steering feels fantastic — not too thick, not too thin. The plastic at the center isn’t quite up to snuff, but that’s a minor complaint.
The infotainment system — UVO — is responsive and simple to use. It covers all the bases and is managed through this touchscreen in the center of the dash.
Our tester came with a Harman Kardon premium audio system and SiriusXM satellite radio, which sounded superb. Navigation helped me find my way around the Bay, from the city to Silicon Valley and even over to Fremont, and Bluetooth device pairing was a snap.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available.
The remaining controls on the center stack are relatively effortless to get used to. I think Kia and South Korean cousin Hyundai have achieved exactly the right balance with vehicle controls: everything feels as though it’s in exactly the right place.
Lots of charging options, plus AUX/USB ports. Nice touch: the 12V charger on the left accommodates a cigarette-lighter type plug, while the port on the right is a dedicated USB-type charging outlet (it won’t activate your device’s data interface).
So what’s the verdict?
Don’t get me wrong: Kia makes good cars and SUVs and stands behind them with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. It’s no longer a risk to own its vehicles; it’s proved it can satisfy and delight American customers.
But the Stinger takes things to a whole new level. This is easily the best car Kia has ever made, but more than that, it’s among the best cars of its type that I’ve driven. The comparison that jumped immediately to mind was the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, a 505-horsepower beast that was a finalist for Business Insider’s 2017 Car of the Year.
Obviously, the Stinger GT2 that I tested, at 365 horsepower, gives up a lot of ponies to the Giulia Quadrifoglio. But it has a similar light, sporty, vigorous feel, and arguably the horsepower is just right while the Giulia Quadrifoglio’s is excessive. Plus, the Giulia Quad is almost $US80,000, and you have to spend that much to get the twin-turbo V6 because the non-Quads give you only a 280-horsepower four-cylinder, at prices that compare to the Stinger GTs (the Stinger can also be had with a smaller four-banger).
Sticker-wise, you might stack the Stinger GT2 up against the Audi S4, and the specs are similar. But the S4, while a nice ride, lacks the flair and panache of the Stinger. Yes, you could buy the S4 and be happy. But I’d rather buy the Stinger and be thrilled. (We also thought about the Stinger going up against another BI Car of the Year contender, the Acura TLX A-Spec, but the Acura just doesn’t have that juicy Stinger twin-turbo V6 going for it.)
It’s an endlessly fun car, a literal joy to drive. It fires up with a pleasing snarl (OK, an augmented one, but still) and growls cheerfully when pushed. It’s flat-out fast. The 0-60 time is supposed to be 4.7 seconds, but I thought it was notably quicker than that. And you have to watch yourself at cruising velocities, as the Stinger taps out the legal speed limit in a hurry, but do so with such poise and relative quiet that one can easily overlook the speedometer.
As it turned out, the weather in the Bay Area while I was driving varied between lovely and rainy, so I had the chance to vindicate the AWD system. I wouldn’t pay the extra thousands for it myself, but it performed capably. Generally speaking, torque vectoring favours the rear wheels and send grab only to the front if you need it.
Some reviewers have complained that the Stinger suffers from body roll, which is when the car leans while turning. But I didn’t notice much of that. Nor could I wring much turbo lag out of the engine.
I found the paddle-shifters to be a bit ticky-tacky, so I mostly skipped them. As a result, in Sport mode while letting the eight-speed auto shift gears, I got to feel some firm downshifts – that might bother some drivers, but I considered it to be in the spirit of what Sport mode should be all about.
The brakes are nice, beefy Brembos and they keep the Stinger in check. I gave them a workout on the twisting roads around Deer Creek. But where I genuinely enjoyed the Stinger the most was on the highway: It’s supposed to be a gran turismo, a touring car, designed to recall a time when well-heeled European couples saddled up their elegant GTs and set their sights on beachfront enclaves. The Stinger is a car that craves a weekend road trip to someplace nice.
Some reviewers have also complained that the interior isn’t really all that luxurious. It isn’t. So what? Do you want to rub the leather all day or drive the car? I looked forward to both looking at the Stinger and sitting in it. And given Bay Area traffic, I did my share of sitting.
It was lovely. The audio system sounds great. The seats are fine, heated and cooled (so was my steering wheel). I could live without race-car bolstering and open-grain wood trim.
That’s right, I’m in love.
I would buy this car tomorrow without hesitation if I were in the market for a sporty four-door. I’d skip the AWD to get the price down closer to $US40,000 and laugh at all the Audis and BMWs because my car would be just so, so, so much hipper.
I know I already implied that it’s a poor man’s Giulia Quadrifoglio, but that’s unfair – the Stinger is more than that. Much more. It’s been a few weeks since I test drove the Mighty Kia and I still can’t get it out of my head.
A brilliant risk for Kia, and one that should be brilliantly rewarded.
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