Not since the Toyota 86 has there been a more anticipated car for the Australian market, than the all-new Kia Stinger.
The Korean brand is set to deliver a rear-wheel drive, turbocharged, practical family sedan at a time when all others in the segment have waved the white flag - but is it a case of too little too late, or is Kia about to reinvigorate the segment?
To find out, we flew all the way to the Green Hell, perhaps the most infamous race track in the world, better known as the Nurburgring. The venue needs little in the way of introduction, except to say it’s perhaps the most dangerous track on earth, with zero run-off areas and exceedingly high speeds.
Just another day, then.
Before we get into the drive, here are some facts one needs to know about the 2018 Kia Stinger. It will be offered in two powertrains, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo with 190 kW of power and 353Nm of torque, as well as the 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6 with 272kW of power and 510Nm of torque. Both engines will deliver their might via an eight-speed automatic transmission and be available in three variants each.
For the purpose of launching the car, Kia focused its efforts primarily on the more powerful V6 variant and, even when the first batch of Stingers show up in Australia come September, the smaller-capacity turbo models will be a few weeks behind.
From the outside, the Kia Stinger is undoubtedly the best-looking Kia ever developed. From the rear, especially, it portrays a Germanic super saloon that doesn’t take 'no' for an answer.
It has been brewing for many years, having first debuted as a concept in 2011, and it seems the final product is the combination of the best bits put together. It’s the ultimate visual expression of world-renowned German car designer Peter Schreyer and his team, and he has spoken of its birth numerous times over the course of the last decade.
With the demise of the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, not many saw the fast-growing Korean brand as the one to answer a question that, perhaps, not all that many are still asking. After all, the desire for a practical family vehicle has shifted, long ago, from large Aussie sedans to imported SUVs.
But the Kia Stinger is different.
It’s not similar to a Commodore or a Falcon, in any respect but the obvious. Here you have a car with a modern twin-turbo six-cylinder engine, tuned and engineered by the man who used to do the same for all of BMW’s M cars, Albert Biermann. That's not something to be underestimated. In fact, Biermann told us at the car’s launch in Germany this week that the number one benchmark for this car was the BMW 4 Series, a smaller and nimbler car.
He has hired folks from Porsche and other European automakers and suppliers to help him put the Stinger’s dynamics together. So, while it proudly wears a Kia badge, the Stinger of today has almost no inherent connection with Kia models of a decade ago, for all the right reasons.
What Kia has managed to do is to take European designers and European engineers, and make a rear-wheel-drive sporty sedan that would easily cost fifty percent more if it were to wear a German badge. The same cannot be said of the last Commodore and Falcon.
As for the cost? We are yet to have official confirmation, but we are led to believe it will start in the mid 40s for the smaller capacity four-cylinder and finish off in the mid-50s for the absolute top spec V6 twin-turbo with all the bells and whistles (incidentally priced to compete with the SS Commodore). Although there is nothing official regarding specification, a leaked dealer brochure has given us some details here.
So it looks good, has the power and torque to be taken seriously and the price is sharp enough to be interesting, but why subject your halo car to the Nurburgring when a far less gruelling track would suffice? Firstly, Hyundai (Kia’s sister company) has a rather large R&D centre at the ‘Ring, and a lot of development work for the Stinger took place here (and at Namyang in South Korea). And secondly, because as we found out, it feels right at home.
For our first drive of the Kia Stinger, we were given three laps of the 'Ring; two in the rear-wheel-drive - and one in the AWD models that Australia will unfortunately not get. All our cars were pre-production V6 models, and as such had certain quirks to them (such as the vehicles not painted all the way through etc.) that we took into consideration.
Jumping in, the first thing you’ll notice about the Stinger is that it feels very Mercedes-like inside. From the three central aircon vents to the floating 8.0-inch tablet screen and the availability of a 15-speaker Harman-Kardon sound system (with near identical to Mercedes speaker grills), there is no denying where the interior inspiration came from. It doesn’t quite have the same tactile sensation and sophistication of a Benz, but, to be perfectly frank, it’s actually not that far off a previous-generation E-Class.
Like most modern Kias, it comes packed with heaps of technological features, from Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, to an array of active safety systems. We are yet to have final confirmation of specs, but we suspect it will be hard to beat.
The seats are comfortable and the cabin presents a modern take on a sedan with plenty of storage space and a fair bit of knee room in the second row, though headroom can be a little tight if you measure over 180cm. But, we hadn’t travelled 30 hours to the Nurburgring just to test out the boot space (406L VDA). It was time to fly.
We found it fascinating that the Stinger test cars were coming in after massively hot laps without any attempt at cooling down the brakes or drivetrain, and were then let to sit there - soaking in heat - before being let out again for another gruelling lap.
Really, though, who are we to question such lack of mechanical sympathy? We jumped in the RWD model first and headed out behind a 'Ring driver that, by his own admission, had done over 10,000 laps. That’s about 70 full 24-hour days of real time spent just driving around the 'Ring. So, it would probably be fair to say he had a better idea than us of where the 77 corners were along the 20.8km circuit.
We expected a warm-up of some kind, or some general introduction to the driving dynamics of the 'Ring. Instead, we found ourselves going flat-out from the get-go, following our lead car. Here’s the thing: The rear-wheel-drive V6 Kia Stinger has a kerb weight of around 1750kg (official numbers yet to come), yet they simply don’t feel that heavy. The front-end grips really well (Michelin Pilot Super Sports on 225/40/19 front, 255/35/19 rear - Australian cars set to wear Continentals) and the inherent balance of the car is very much like a new BMW 5 Series than anything Kia has ever made before.
The Stinger proved very stable and dealt with the undulations of the Ring rather well. We throw it hard and fast into dozens and dozens of corners and never once did it scare us or feel nervous. The highlight, though, was coming off the main straight at 267km/h into a sweeping left kink and not having to lift. That led to a few more grey hairs, so don’t try that in your Optima.
The Brembo brake system with its 350/340mm discs had been abused for hours on end and never allowed to cool down, so, realistically, they weren’t going to last more than a lap or two at the speeds we were going. But, despite the abuse, they never truly gave up.
The BMW connection to the Stinger could be felt through the solid steering system, which, although a tad lighter than we probably wanted (especially in Sport mode), provided good communication and feedback from the front wheels even when things got hairy.
The Stinger can automatically adjust the front and rear suspension height on the go and, while it was impossible to tell how much of this was taking place as we race around the 'Ring, the occasional bit of air time was met with solid rebound and no sudden slides or traction loss one would get from a super stiff setup.
That’s not to say it didn’t get loose. Coming out of the carousels, one could force the Korean sedan into a bit of a slide. Nonetheless, we were kindly asked to leave the car’s nanny controls on - a request we were more than happy to obey - because the 'Ring is a scary, scary place. But, in saying that, we were genuinely surprised by how little the ESC intervened and, on the occasions that it did, how unobtrusive it was.
The switch to AWD was disappointing, because it was ultimately a better car. Despite weighing an extra ~50kg and showing more hints of understeer, it took the RWD’s surefootedness one step further, allowing for earlier acceleration out of the fast corners and a general sensation of confidence that its lighter brother couldn’t match.
It’s worth noting that on two of the three cars we drove, the drivetrain at one point decided to get stuck in fourth gear and bounce off the rev-limiter. It’s hard to pinpoint the cause, but it’s likely a mixture of being a pre-production prototype, and overheating from a complete and utter lack of mechanical sympathy.
We did get another and final go in the RWD and, on our final run, we started to really appreciate the Stinger’s character. It’s not a race car. It’s not even a track car. Really, the fact that it can survive the Green Hell is a testament to its engineers. But, what it is, is a very practical yet super-capable sports sedan.
From our limited time behind the wheel, it’s hard to say if the ride comfort of the Stinger is compromised in order to focus on its dynamics, as the 'Ring is rather smooth compared to Australian roads - but it’s important to note that all Australian-delivered vehicles have been retuned with localised suspension that the company claims will give that extra 10 percent edge over the European spec vehicles we drove.
So, what’s wrong with it? Well, it sounds utterly rubbish. You can hear that for yourself here. Thankfully, Kia Australia will have an optional exhaust ready to go from very early on that should improve what is otherwise the dullest sound from a V6 turbo we’ve yet heard.
Somehow, it has lost about 4kW being converted to right-hand drive, due to the repositioning of the two turbos in the engine bay (that was about as technical an explanation as we got). It’s still expected, though, to do 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds.
Other than that, the gearbox and engine coupling is smooth, the great majority of the time, but the eight-speed automatic transmission doesn’t trust you enough to hold gears (unless it’s stuck, as we found), with no real manual mode, and doesn’t have the finesse of a dual-clutch transmission. Then again, we would probably prefer the option chosen for everyday driving than a DCT.
The Kia Stinger may soon inherit a segment all to itself, but for now, it's undoubtedly the most dynamically capable, technologically advanced, feature-packed and modern offering in the mainstream sedan segment.
Considering Kia Australia will offer a seven-year warranty on the Stinger and that we suspect you can get behind the wheel of a V6 variant in the very low 50s, it’s really hard to fault the package as a whole. We look forward to driving the vehicle on local roads with full details when it’s officially launched to the media in late August.
The Kia Stinger's ultimate success as a model will depend on the ability of everyday Australians to fall in love with large sedans again. This time, with a very modern twist that doesn’t inherit the stigma of owning a Falcon or Commodore.
While the Kia Sorento SUV probably makes more practical sense for similar coin, the Stinger is undeniably a more emotionally appealing package to own.
And, if in life you can’t occasionally let the heart make a choice, then what’s the point?