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The all-new Kia Stinger isn’t the type of car you might expect from a manufacturer that’s forged its considerable success by building everyday, affordable cars and SUVs with plenty of kit, attractive designs, and a price and warranty package that more and more buyers are finding too good to refuse.
It’s an entirely different kettle of fish when that same carmaker decides to create a proper performance sedan with enough go and engineering smarts to get the thumbs up from the world’s motoring press.
More importantly, the car needs to sell, and that means impressing enthusiasts enough to first accept the badge, before handing over a reasonable wad of cash.
It’s a massive undertaking, risky even, for a car company on the up-and-up like Kia, but clearly one driven by both passion and desire from the those at the very top of the corporate tree.
You can trace the beginnings of the car back to the Kia GT Concept, unveiled in 2011, at the Frankfurt motor show. It was designed by none other than Peter Schreyer, President and Chief Design Office, Hyundai Motor Group, but more widely known for his work on the iconic Audi TT.
It was Schreyer who pushed hard to bring the GT to life as a production car, which is why Kia has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at it, and then some. It seems no stone was left unturned, not only when it came to the design, but also in the engineering department.
Enter, Albert Biermann, former BMW M Vice President of Engineering, who left the company after 30 years of producing some of the world’s most accomplished driver’s cars, to take up the role as the Korean group’s head of vehicle test and high performance development in 2014.
This guy who wrote the book on vehicle dynamics is the principal reason why the Stinger is like no other production Kia before it – a genuine rear-drive, front-engined, grand tourer, packing a big enough wallop of emotion to stir the soul and create a genuine halo effect over the entire brand. At least, that’s what Kia is betting on.
And with local production of rear-drive, front-engine cars all but dead and buried, Kia's timing is impeccable, though certainly not planned.
Look around, and you won’t find any direct competitors to the Stinger, at least locally. Certainly, none that can match the Kia’s all-round package that includes performance, price and practicality. And that’s before we start talking about seven-year factory warranties and just how good this thing really is.
But Stinger is a global car and one that is counting on much larger markets like the U.S., Europe and the U.K. for more serious sales volumes.
So, it comes as no surprise Kia looked to Europe for benchmarks during the Stinger’s meticulous development process; from an M3 to a C63 AMG and everything in between was scrutinised, with special attention to those models equipped with high-powered, six-cylinder, turbo motors.
And we can thank Biermann for that, because insiders have told us, if you look closely enough underneath the Stinger’s skin, there’s a lot of inspiration from BMW’s 4 Series. That’s something that quickly becomes abundantly clear, soon after you climb aboard the more powerful V6 version.
The engine itself has humble beginnings; serving as the petrol powertrain in the Kia Carnival range, but without turbochargers and a lot less mumbo on tap, as you might expect of an eight-seat people mover.
In fact, Stinger’s powertrain is identical to that found under the bonnet of the upcoming Hyundai-built, Genesis G70 – a rival for performance versions of the BMW 3 Series. It’s a 3.3-litre twin-turbo unit punching out 272kW and 510Nm to the rear wheels through Kia’s in-house eight-speed automatic transmission.
That’s more than enough grunt to put a few high-priced German contenders on notice, and that’s before we get to the ride and handling discussion, let alone, the bang-for-buck equation.
Take the BMW 340i; a 3.0-litre turbo-six brandishing 240kW and 450Nm. Even the much-heralded Mercedes-Benz C43 AMG, another 3.0-litre twin-turbo six, gets less power than the Kia, but compensates with slightly more torque (270kW and 520Nm).
Perhaps a more surprising comparison is with the entry-level Porsche 911 Carrera. Armed with a twin-turbo flat-six, it makes the same power as the Stinger, but is outgunned in the torque department (450Nm).
But Kia is going for a two-pronged attack in Australia, by also offering an entry-level, single turbo, 2.0-litre four-cylinder, though, with a solid 182kW and 353Nm on tap.
The Stinger offering is pretty simple; each of the engines are available in three specifications – S, Si and GT-Line for the 2.0-litre and S, Si and GT for the 3.3-litre.
Pricing starts from $45,990 (plus on roads) for the entry-level 200S, $52,990 for the mid-spec Si and $55,990 for the top-spec GT-Line in the four-cylinder line-up.
The V6 range kicks off at $48,990 for the 330S, $55,990 for the 330Si, while the range-topping GT starts from $59,990.
And in typical Kia fashion, even the base variants are loaded to the hilt with a vast array of features and safety kit, (see detailed specifications and equipment lists here), making the Stinger a certifiable bargain up against those the similarly powered Euro models mentioned earlier, costing tens-of-thousands more; BMW 340i – from $91,200, C43 AMG from $102,611 and the Porsche 911 Carrera from $220,900.
You know Biermann must be pleased with the end result, when the Stinger launch invite specifies an entire day at the racetrack dishing out as much abuse as you can muster without so much as a minute’s rest between each driver. And Kia didn’t discriminate between the four and the six, either, both were fair game at the tricky Wakefield Park circuit, near Goulburn, in southern NSW.
The Stingers on track were full production cars as you can buy them now, but for one change. The standard-fit Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres were replaced by the more track-focused Michelin Pilot Sport rubber for better wear, we were told.
However, don’t let that be cause to question the performance of the Contis – they proved to be simply brilliant road tyres, as we were to confirm the day after during a thoroughly dynamic drive program.
As it happened, we found ourselves in a 2.0-litre Stinger first up, for my sighting laps with former Australian Rally champion Cody Crocker riding shotgun, while giving me the lowdown on a relatively unfamiliar track – at least to me.
You sit low, like other proper performance cars, with the steering wheel and pedals exactly where you want them.
And for those punters thinking the turbo-four doesn’t deliver enough on-circuit excitement – you’d be dead wrong. Forget about the power for a moment – 182kW is warm enough – but it's the 353Nm of peak torque on tap from 1400-4000rpm that’s most noticeable.
Kia claims it’ll scoot from 0-100km/h in just 6.0 seconds, and that feels about right. It certainly doesn’t feel hampered on the track, even down the main straight. What’s more, it’s good to be back in a rear-drive car with this much grip and such a well composed and sound chassis.
It might be 1690kg heavy and over 4.8 metres long, but the lightweight Stinger (it's 87kg less than the V6) likes to turn – be chucked, even. And there’s no real penalty for doing so, as there’s a stiff structure underneath keeping things nice and tidy at both ends.
This is a chassis that’s very much in sync with itself, and despite the lack of a limited slip diff (exclusive to the V6) the handling is wonderfully neutral. It’s very reassuring and very tied down. It comes down to the steering, too. It’s a relatively quick rack and overall the weighting is linear in the turbo four.
There are no real concerns with the eight-speed auto, either, though it’s not always eager to downshift into a corner and, oddly enough, even in Sport, it won’t hold the manual option, instead, reverting back to auto mode a little too soon for our liking.
It could do with more noise, though; there’s not much of exhaust note. It’s an issue that may already have a fix, according to Kia. Development of an optional Australian made bi-modal exhaust system is all but completed on the V6, but there are plans to offer a similar system on the four-cylinder Stinger for between $2000-$2500.
Even the brakes held up over the course of some fairly unsympathetic punishment – retaining a naturally progressive pedal throughout, until it was time to sample the more potent Stinger, at least.
No sooner are we blasting out of pitlane and onto the track proper, and you’re thinking, 'wow, this is a properly fast car', though it takes a little more time to realise you’re in a Kia.
With 272kW under your right foot, and a properly fat torque curve – 510Nm from just 1300-4500rpm, it’s got truckloads of go and seemingly little or no lag, regardless of where you are in the rev range. It’ll hit the ton in just 4.9 seconds (claimed) with launch control. This is clearly a car for genuine enthusiasts, though, forget about the numbers.
It’s more the driving experience that puts a smile on your face. No question, you’re aware of the extra 87 kilos of mass up front, but the steering is quick and very responsive. Push on, and the Stinger feels even more willing and composed. There’s an uncanny level of grip at both ends, even under big loads.
We’ve done quite a few laps already, but it’s still pleasantly surprising just how fast this thing hooks up and gathers pace on corner exit. You keep dialling in more throttle, and still, the rears are stuck fast – so you keep winding it up. That’s the limited slip diff working, as it should.
Stopping isn’t a problem, either. The Stinger gets Brembo brakes all round; 350mm up front, and 340mm down back. Better still, the brake pedal has way more bite than the 2.0-litre model and even more progression in the pedal. Heat had less effect on the stopping power, too.
It’s one of those rare cars (forgetting price points for a moment) that inspires unshakable confidence to keep pushing, yet all the while knowing it won’t snap or bite without warning. And even when you do push the boundaries of adhesion, the rear end breaks ever so gently.
More than satisfied with the go factor and the Stinger’s ability to tear up a race track, the real test centred around ride and handling on some well-worn B-roads with plenty of bumps, potholes and loose gravel.
We ended up bagging a 300Si – one up from the 3.3-litre base model – and frankly, did not expect a whole lot from the fixed springs and damper setup, as opposed to the adaptive dampers in the top-spec GT.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. If we thought Stinger delivered on the track, it hits the ball out of the park when it comes to the ride compliance and body control over any number of different surfaces – most of them bad.
Even from the passenger seat, this car flattens large potholes and busted up roads as if they were billiard table-smooth sections of the M5 Motorway. It’s not just good, it’s bloody extraordinary when you consider it's riding on 19-inch rims shod with low profile tyres.
It’s not just the ride comfort, either, it’s the chassis control at high-speed over mid-corner bumps – it seems to have little or no effect on the car holding its intended line. And, still, it grips the tarmac like a Wilton bench vice.
The same cannot be said of the GT we drove for a relatively short distance. Its standard adaptive suspension (in Comfort mode) was busy from the outset. It simply didn’t settle and was harsh over even smaller bumps.
At this stage, we simply couldn’t recommend the top-spec model over the less expensive Si with fixed suspension. It’s by far the sweet spot in the Stinger range.
With so much fun to be had from behind the wheel, it’s easy to forget the Stinger’s role as a practical family sedan (it’s actually a liftback), and just another area where this thing delivers the goods.
The hatch-style fifth door allows easy access to the boot, which at 406 litres can swallow two full-size suitcases and a couple of soft bags. That space grows to 1114 litres with 60/40 split-fold rear seats.
The cabin is a big step up for Kia, too. Even the Si gets a luxuriously appointed fit out, laced with metallic accents, piano black panels and leather appointed sports seats, while the GT gets super comfy Nappa leather upholstered pews.
There’s also an exhaustive list of features and creature comforts, as well as all latest active safety systems, depending on which variant you choose.
Make no mistake, Stinger is a bona fide game-changer for the Kia brand, as it excels across so many different levels. It has few faults, but these are almost insignificant in the scheme of things.
This is a car that seems too good to be true, and yet, its available in showrooms now, and still with Kia's seven-year, unlimited kilometre factory warranty.
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