Regional areas have been hard-hit in recent times. First came the bushfires over the 2019-2020 holiday period, which devastated our landscape and our wildlife. From Batemans Bay to Nowra, then over the river and up the hill as far as Bundanoon, the Currowan and Morton fires were horrific.
As the ashy haze began to clear, on came the pandemic.
It's become a double-edged sword in ways. As international tourists have been barred from entering and spending money, it's become equally as hard to leave the country. Getting out amongst our beautiful land has become a new pastime for many – and an excellent one at that.
You don't have to go far, nor off-road, to feel the aftermath of the fires and support the recovery. In our case, we were planning to head no more than two hours out of metro Sydney, to the Southern Highlands district of New South Wales.
Picking an ideal vehicular partner was challenging. The departure of local Holden and Ford products left a hole for such escapades. The ideal choice in well mannered, classic rear-wheel drive options appears to be hard to find, as buyers shift their preference to high-riding SUVs.
Those black-cladded weekend sport warriors have their time and place. High hip points, excellent visibility and usable cargo areas are all reasons to believe. To back this sentiment with data; while large SUV sales are up 5.1 per cent, large cars (mainly sedans) are down 15.8 per cent over the same period.
There are areas where the humble sedan still holds true, however. Driving dynamics are a big factor that modern, mainstream SUVs can't seem to match. Another is performance, something you get way more of when shopping traditionally.
Where both merits culminate is in the art form of grand touring, which given our destination – would be on the menu.
Kia jumped on-board and provided us with a twin-turbo, rear-wheel drive Stinger 330S. It's the entry into the high-performance range and is priced from $53,830 before on roads. It's also a big, burly sedan, with more than enough guts to traverse fast-paced roads, between good food and good company, enjoyably.
|2021 Kia Stinger 330S|
|Engine||3.3-litre six-cylinder turbocharged petrol|
|Power and torque||274kW at 6000rpm, 510Nm at 1300–4500rpm|
|Fuel claim urban (ADR)||7.5L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||8.5L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||5-star rating from 2017|
|Warranty||7 years/unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Peugeot 508, Skoda Superb|
|Price as tested (excluding on-road costs)||From $53,830|
We departed from North Sydney and grabbed the various motorways required to access the Hume Highway. The suspension compliance is great, and the general levels of noise, vibration, and harshness low. Conducting right-lane overtakes are simple, as the 274kW/510Nm engine and eighty-speed automatic have zero issue piling on speed north of 100km/h.
As far as highway cruisers go, Kia's Stinger has already proven to be a fantastic partner. During the initial freeway drive, the on-board trip computer was returning a figure of 8.0L/100km.
Once we approached the Old Hume Highway, we veered left, and headed into Bowral for a morning pick-me-up. We stopped at a small communal hub called The Mill, where true local artisans make everything from delicious Gelato to wholesome Vietnamese cuisine and vegan-friendly dishes.
After fuelling up on good food, we headed further south. The roads through the Highlands are simply stunning. Many of the tourist drives are fun and allow for plenty of great photo opportunities with whoever is in tow. Alongside good views, there are good roads too – which helped bring the Stinger to life.
Its highway manners had impressed, but its country road antics delighted. As a big, hefty sedan, it still felt energetic when powering out of corners. A limited-slip differential comes as standard on the entry-level V6 version, which allows the car to distribute its big torque figure more equally across the rear axle.
Coupled with its sports suspension, it's simply fun. Out here the roads are not perfect either. Kia's Australian ride and handling team recognised that point and spent many hours fine-tuning its chassis to suit our conditions. Roads like these formed part of the localisation programs they've run for the car over the years it's been on sale, and updated for our market.
Their efforts can be felt, as the Stinger rode over bumps and poorer conditions at pace, trouble-free. Alongside being a laugh it's also confidence inspiring too, feeling secure and planted when not provoked.
Our next destination is Kangaroo Valley, which is less than an hour from Bowral. With a population of just 879, the small community relies heavily on tourism. The view heading down is worth the look alone, given the sharp and narrow descent. A tight set of hairpins also make it an enjoyable one to steer.
Despite being a tight and technical, the Stinger didn't come across as aloof. Instead, its planted front end dusted off quick direction changes, and its accurate steering helped finesse the narrowest sections of road.
Before arriving in town, you must cross Australia's oldest suspension bridge. Construction of Hampden Bridge began in 1896 and took two years to complete, opening on May 16, 1898. It cost taxpayers A£8,382. It represents another great photo opportunity and is worth taking the time to park up and walk over. Colonial-era engineering is uncommon, let alone a piece that's still functioning some 120 years later.
If you do stop, check out the Pioneer village museum to learn more about the surrounding area and its history. A cute township is located just after the bridge. Here, we decided to put an intermission on play and grab a bite to eat.
The Friendly Inn is a fantastic gastro-pub complete with an equally stunning beer garden. The beverages on tap are high quality, and the food delicious. It's located on the main drag which features a handful of stores full of local produce.
The Kangaroo Valley Fudge House offers a delectable section of hand-made treats including caramels and brittles. Lovers of Australian honey will be delighted too, as you'll also find Wattle-Bee honey here – winner of local awards, and a favourite of mine.
After mingling around town, CA's photographer and I came to understand that the devastating fires nearly engulfed the area, with a last-minute wind change sending the blaze up and over the hill instead. A quick, 15-minute drive out of town brought us to Tallowa dam, where the effects of the fire could still be seen.
Locals told us that decent rainfall has seen their dams re-filled and regrowth excel, but it's impossible to hide what happened. From a high vantage point, you can see how much bush – and habitats – were lost. You can't possibly understand the scale of the fire until you plonk yourself in front of sections that are tarnished as far your eyes allow you to see.
After the sobering experience we turned around, headed back into town, spent a few more dollars, then made tracks back to Sydney. After adding enthusiastic driving as well as some slower-paced traffic into the mix, the Stinger's fuel consumption figure was now sitting at 8.5L/100km.
Once out of the highlands, it was back to the freeway. With adaptive cruise control switched on, and lane keeping assist offering a watchful eye, the drive back was more sedate. The Kia Stinger does offer genuine duality in character, being able to strip the nonsense away from the everyday commute but still offer joy and pleasure when time permits.
It reminded us of why the big, rear-drive sedan was so popular in Australia. Back when local travel was more common, and the old three hour spin out of town frequent, they made for the most ideal chaperone. While consumer tastes have changed, our rural conditioning remain faithful.
SUV fad aside, there's still stacks to love about the original sedan recipe. Given the current situation we're in, there's also no better reason to get back to exploring our own backyard, whether that be on a day trip, or a week-long getaway.