Stylish. Practical. Affordable.
These are just some of the keywords that we would normally associate with Kia. But there's a new kid on the block, a rebel within the ranks that seeks to upend that order.
And it's called the Stinger GT.
What business, if any, does a Korean automaker that is still known for cheap and cheerful cars doing with a 5-door liftback, rear-wheel-drive grand tourer that costs 3.2 million Philippine pesos, or about USD 64,000 in their showroom? More importantly, why -after driving if for a few days- do we absolutely love it?
The story of the Stinger really started in 2011 when the Korean company first debuted a concept called the GT. The place where it was launched was important: it's the motor show at Frankfurt, the home turf and mother event of Germany's auto industry. And the car is rear-wheel-drive, just like a typical BMW or Mercedes.
That was really a shot across the bow by Kia, and then they followed it up by launching the production model at Detroit, the home turf of the American auto industry. That's like being a guest at a Filipino birthday party and suddenly grabbing the mic for the karaoke machine. There will be blood.
The Stinger is nothing like any production Kia we've ever seen before. The company was aiming to challenge Europe's elite grand tourers, and it's only fitting that Europeans really led the charge for the design. The familiar name is Peter Schreyer; yeah, the designer that was the driving force behind the transformation of the Kia brand into a design powerhouse. The other is Gregory Guillaume, and he's been doing a lot of work for Kia since jumping ship from VW. He's worked on the exteriors and/or interiors of the 2010 Optima, 2010 Sportage, 2011 Picanto, 2011 Rio, 2012 Carens, 2013 Optima, 2013 Soul, 2013 Sorento, so on and so forth.
They didn't go too nuts with the look, but what Kia came up with was a sharp-looking, low slung grand tourer. The cuts on the front bumper are very aggressive, as are the vents on the hood and just aft of those huge 19-inch wheels; this looks like a tuner car in a way. If anything, it somewhat reminds me of the Mercedes AMG GT, but with two more doors and the now-signature Kia tiger nose.
The side profile of the Stinger is that of a very speedy fastback, which we like very much. The unusual bit is the chrome trim that serves as accents for the side windows; the trim runs on the top edge of the glass, not the bottom. Oddly enough our version doesn't come with the power sunroof. The rear is also strange because it seems they weren't content with the LED taillights, so much so that they are connected by a strip and even a bit more into the rear quarter panel. Given that the car is red, it's a little difficult to see, but if this was in white or any other color, we think it'd look even more striking.
The cabin looks German, which is good. The dash and controls, while conventional in layout, does appear to be of very high quality and very well put together. We like Kia's use of round A/C vents and metallic surfaces; very Mercedes-like, especially with that strip on the dash that morphs to become the control panel for the audio system. Clearly they were aiming very high, and by conventional definitions, we think they hit the mark.
We do like the D cut steering wheel, the short shifter for the automatic, and the pedals, specifically the floor-hinged accelerator; very sporty and proper. The front seats are huggy but not overly so; these should be great for cornering but also for long-distance comfort. The rear seats are likewise comfortable, and there are two additional round vents for the A/C in the rear. It is, however, best to treat this Stinger as a 4 seater rather than a 5 seater; the center rear seat won't be great for long drives, and there's a big bulge on the floor for the drive system.
Yes, the center rear passenger will have to spread the legs a bit further apart because, like (most) BMWs and Mercs, this one is rear-wheel-drive, meaning there's a driveshaft under there for the rear wheels. If you don't want to get on your knees and look underneath the car itself, you can just look at the engine bay. While your eyes are immediately drawn to that 3.3-liter V6 that has two turbos, 370 PS of power, and 510 Nm of torque with an 8-speed auto, the important thing to look at is the way the engine is mounted onto the monocoque. It's not transverse like a typical front-wheel or all-wheel drive car; it's longitudinal.
That's an interesting bit of information because Kia doesn't build too many cars like this. In the current Kia lineup, only the Stinger and the K900 luxury saloon (which we don't get) are rear-wheel drive. Yeah, they've had RWD cars before, but they're mostly rebadged Mazdas. So to gain more expertise for rear-wheel drive, particularly performance RWD applications, Kia (and Hyundai) turned to BMW... and got one of their key guys. Like how they got Schreyer to start their design revolution, they got Albert Biermann, the then VP of BMW's M Division, to head up Hyundai's performance car division. Kia, being a part of the Hyundai group, brought him in for the Stinger.
Having a name like his attached to a Kia says a lot, and needless to say, we are expecting a lot. But we need to get the everyday stuff out of the way first.
We half expected the Stinger GT to be too gruff for our city streets with its 370 horsepower, and be too impractical to maneuver around town for everyday tasks like getting groceries. But this high-performance Kia proved it can do the daily grind.
With the drive mode selector set to comfort, this Stinger GT really can be a viable everyday car with light power steering, and more conservative settings for engine response and gearbox shifting. We particularly liked the liftback arrangement which made access to the boot so much easier; it's not as big at 406 liters as similar models like the 4 Series Gran Coupe, but there's plenty of space for a week's groceries or bags for 4 on a weekend away.
While there is a grumble at low revs from that V6, it's not too noisy inside unless you happen to drive beside a motorcycle with no muffler, at which point you'll realize this isn't a Lexus. There is a touch of bounciness from the suspension, and you do feel how wide the tires are when you have to do a 3-point turn, or even when you just make a tight 90-degree turn. Visibility from the driver's POV isn't too compromised for a fairly low car, but if you adjust the seating position for a little more height for urban driving then it's not too bad. You do have sensors and a rearview camera to serve as backup.
Fuel economy in the city is a decent 6.2 km/l (22 km/h average speed), but in heavier traffic that goes down to 5.7 km/l (17 km/h average speed). On a longer cruise with minimal traffic on the expressway, expect 11 km/l (86 km/h average) if you're being smooth. One thing we did notice on the highway is a bit more road noise permeating into the cabin; it's not at unpleasant levels, but it's noticeable.
So, back to the fun stuff then. On a wide-open mountain road, and with sport activated to tighten up the steering and sharpen up the engine and gearbox, the Stinger will gladly oblige your eagerness for speed. Max power is reached at 6000 rpm, but what got us is the way it gets there; despite being turbocharged, it almost feels linear.
If you're looking for speed runs and outright thrust, the Stinger will deliver. Zero to 100 in about 5 seconds is fairly quick in something this premium in feel with 5 doors. We still would wish for a proper 3-pedal, six-speed manual rather than a 2-pedal, eight-speed auto, but given that this was geared to be a GT, Kia's choice really was a no brainer.
The brakes are of note with the Stinger GT. They fitted it with Brembos; and they do work, especially when you decide to dive on the anchors from speeds we don't really want to mention here. The handling is sharp, and during turn in it's very pointy; you'll love this on a really nice bit of open road or even on a race track when you're driving for 8 out of 10 of what this car can do.
The Stinger GT feels like a raw driving experience, meaning you do feel connected to the car as you drive hard, but it'll be better if you remember at all times that it's a grand tourer and not a full-on high-performance car. There are some things that you would feel when you're skirting too close to the limit. The back has a tendency to be twitchy at high speed on bumpy roads; you won't feel it as much with the stability control off, but it's there.
The weight of the Stinger becomes apparent a bit earlier than expected, and you'll feel the understeer come in as it takes you wider out of the corner than you would have wanted. There are other things like the body roll and the fairly strong pitching when you step on the brakes or the accelerator, but those are fairly minor.
Do those things dampen the Stinger GT experience? In our opinion, not really. While this is a fast and very capable car, it's really meant to be driven casually fast, not seriously fast. If you drive it like the former, you'll really enjoy this Kia. They did aim very high to try and challenge the Germans with the Stinger GT, and in many ways, they hit what they were aiming at. There will be brand snobs out there, and that's perfectly fine; to each his (or her) own. But car for car, Kia has something special here, and hopefully, it's a step for the Korean marque to even more exciting cars rather than cheap and cheerful hatchbacks and practical SUVs.
There is one more point we wish to make: We think Kia missed out on an opportunity with the Stinger, and that's with the lack of character inside. It's too conventional, too logical, too German. This is a car that's supposed to be an emotional purchase, not a value purchase. The Stinger GT is supposed to wow you with its fast look and its equally fast performance, but the cabin -the part of the car you're going to be looking at whenever you're actually driving- isn't as evocative as we think it should have been.