PITCHING a handsome, eminently worthy value-branded offering in with the pack of wolves that is the premium European set is going to leave someone bloodied. Kia just hopes it’s the opposition, not its dramatic new Stinger.
On paper, this perception-altering rear-drive liftback sedan has all its ducks in a row – strikingly muscular styling, purist drivetrain layout with an all-turbo engine line-up, a dedicated sporting focus and enough packaging proficiency to carry some credibility – yet the gamble of entering a declining global sedan market dominated by German brands with a Korean badge glued to your snout and tail can’t be overstated enough.
In Europe and the US, Stinger faces an uphill battle overcoming entrenched brand snobbery, but somehow I don’t think that really applies to Australia.
If there was a car market born for the Stinger to play in, it’s ours. The uncanny timing of Kia’s rear-drive flagship to Australian showrooms just moments after Holden will call it quits on 69 years of domestic rear-drive production is orchestrated perfection. When stocks of the current VFII Commodore/Calais run dry – unlikely before 2018 – the most affordable rear-drive sedan available in this country will be… Kia Stinger.
And let’s not discount the Stinger’s X-factor, an (affordable) gran-turismo presence that may well attract some fairly atypical buyers into a Kia showroom.
With the Stinger’s original launch date of “late August” pushed out by a month due to delayed supply, the two Stingers you see here are pre-production ‘P1’ cars (see sidebar, right), with all the key engineering pieces in place but lacking full-production cabin plastics, as well as fully sorted electronics (check out the video).
The Stinger line-up will consist of six model variants – three four-potters and three V6s. The Stinger 200S, 200Si, and GT-Line feature the Optima GT’s 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four mounted lengthways, while the Stinger 330S, 330Si, and GT turf the four-cylinder for a full-blooded twin-turbo 3.3-litre V6, with each engine mated exclusively to an HMC-developed eight-speed automatic.
Our test Stingers aren’t quite to production trim spec but they’re bloody close. Due to a last-minute juggle of suspension componentry, our test V6 is essentially the flagship GT running the fixed-rate dampers from the 330S and 330Si (and non-perforated brake rotors, unlike production V6s) while the Stinger GT-Line four boasts the premium adaptive suspension it will share with the production V6 GT, teamed with the slightly daggy 18-inch wheels and lesser-spec 225/45R18 Continentals worn by the 200S and 200Si. The 330Si and GT V6s wear striking 19s with top-shelf rubber – Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres measuring 225/40R19 front and 255/35R19 at the rear.
As it turns out, the 272kW/510Nm V6 needs every fragment of traction it can get because it’s quick. Seriously quick. Issues with the ESC meant our
‘pre-pro’ version refused to be properly primed off the start line (building revs with your right foot while holding it on the brake with your left), yet it still managed a deeply impressive 5.1sec to 100km/h (bang on Kia’s claim). That’s two tenths shy of the Commodore SS-V Redline automatic we tested in August 2016; a margin the Stinger loses in the first 0-20km/h dash.
It’s all down to that launch.
Only beyond 140km/h does the Stinger V6 begin to lose more ground to the Redline. By 150, two tenths behind becomes four, and there’s nearly a full second difference to 200km/h. Highway Patrol coppers might notice but the rest of us shouldn’t worry – the twin-turbo V6 Stinger has proper bite. And there’s always its 2.8sec 80-120km/h time as compensation – two tenths faster than an auto SS, though 0.3sec adrift of the searing time we recorded in Ford’s last Falcon Sprints.
For those of us who prefer some aural entertainment to accompany a meaty feast, Kia Australia has gone it alone in exclusively offering an optional sports exhaust on the V6. A bi-modal system that opens its flaps once throttle input exceeds 50 percent, it’s the work of Melbourne company Lumex (who also developed the two-stage systems on LSA-engined HSVs) and will command around $2000 more on all three V6 trim grades. In our opinion, it’s a mandatory choice.
Without the barky rasp the sports exhaust brings – especially under load from 2500rpm onwards, all the way to the six-five upshift point – Kia’s twin-turbo V6 lacks any discernible character. It serves up less whistle and wastegate commotion than the 2.0-litre four-pot, which is no bad thing, but in unfettled form the Stinger’s boosted V6 gives off major Carnival and Sorento vibes, exposing its working-class gene pool.
The 182kW/353Nm four-cylinder (slightly less than it produces in the Optima GT due to a different exhaust system) is a bit of a dark horse too, despite suffering from turbo lag on step-off and, like our GT, zero opportunity to enhance its dragstrip launch ability by winding it up on the brake. Still, 7.2sec to 100km/h and a 15.1sec quarter are solid numbers for the base Stinger’s mid-40-ish starting price. And with the production car’s electronics sorted to ensure a swifter launch, there’s absolutely no reason why the 2.0-litre four won’t approach Kia’s 6.0sec claim.
We tested the red Stinger 2.0T fitted with both fixed-rate and adaptive dampers at different stages – each working with the same 18-inch wheels – and given its expected price point, the Stinger four is a sporting bargain. It’s just a shame that the engine doesn’t have even a hint of induction richness to complement the chassis’ obvious talent. Instead, aside from some turbo whoosh, the 2.0-litre is acoustic-free in terms of tuning, though one person’s parts-bin engine transplant is another person’s blank canvas. It’s certainly fit enough to deserve some aftermarket attitude...
Where the 2.0T really comes into its own is dynamically. Even the base car is a pretty sweet package, tuned to deliver firm control with enough suspension suppleness to remain composed on rough surfaces. But it can’t match the finesse and sophistication of the adaptive-damped version.
Both the 2.0T and V6 have been tuned to produce a near-identical driving experience, but you can tell there’s less weight over the Stinger four’s nose. It feels more on its toes than the V6, with sharper turn-in, more nuanced balance and crisper steering feel than our 19-inch-wheeled V6 on fixed-rate dampers. But on narrower 18-inch tyres, spirited cornering sees the superbly balanced four arc its tail out earlier, demonstrating its lack of mid-corner grip and corner-exit power down. The top-spec four-pot GT-Line, which gains stickier 19s, will be noticeably superior – 255/35R19 rear Contis do that to a car – but the 200S and 200Si will continue to offer more power than cornering purchase.
Stingers with adaptive dampers will offer five suspension modes – Eco, Comfort, Smart, Sport, and Custom – though we’d stick mostly to Smart (an ‘auto’ setting) and still-comfortable Sport on twistier roads. At a faster pace, Comfort’s greater vertical motion and lesser body control mean that Smart achieves the finest combination of level bump absorbency, pointy steering, tight control, excellent balance, and keenness to change direction. In that set-up, the Stinger’s a real peach.
Yet no Stinger is particularly attuned to tight corners. In the 2.0T, if you go in quite hot you notice the car’s mass, but as long as you trail some brake into a corner and are aware that it isn’t a light car (at 1693-1780kg tare weight, she’s a porker), the Stinger can throw its weight around quite capably.
The heavier V6 needs to be more consciously trail-braked into tight corners to keep it balanced, but on fast, flowing roads the Stinger range-topper is exceptional, mainly because it has the grip to match its grunt. Adding power throws a lovely, throttle-adjustable weight bias onto its outside rear tyre, working in combination with a mechanical limited-slip diff for plenty of rear-steer antics... until the judicious ESC system decides you’re being a hooligan.
The Aussies have done a terrific job tuning the Stinger’s steering. This is by far the most connected Kia we’ve ever driven, with crisp, uncorrupted feel and none of the kickback over bumps that has plagued Korean cars for generations. There’s a degree of numbness at dead-ahead but the moment you start to add lock, the Stinger is on its game. The V6 GT has just 2.2 turns lock-to-lock (2.5 for the 18-inch-wheeled four), and a meatier feel than its lighter sibling, yet it manages to serve up sharpness without over-reactive nervousness.
It feels progressive and natural, as a driver’s car should. And for the first time in a Korean car, all three steering-weight settings work. Comfort isn’t too light, Sport isn’t too heavy, and for all but the most lead-footed of driving, Smart is just right.
Kia’s sexy new-generation steering wheel helps (the production GT’s will be flat-bottomed, by the way), backed by a pair of shift paddles for the eight-speed auto. But without a dedicated manual slot in the neatly formed and intuitive transmission selector, the Stinger will automatically shift itself back into drive after several seconds of holding a gear at a steady pace.
You can work around it by pre-empting the point it wants to shift, then tweaking the left downshift paddle to maintain a ratio, but that’s unnecessary work.
And then there’s the common Korean fault of not allowing you to grab a lower gear early enough. Despite both engines being capable of reaching 6500rpm, the most revs you’ll get in a downshifted gear is just over 5000rpm. On hilly, twisty roads where engine braking is key, that left paddle cops plenty of punishment.
The Stinger’s hot seat definitely delivers a gran turismo feel. Its driver seat’s lowest setting is just 180mm above the road – 45mm lower than an Optima’s – which definitely makes you feel part of the car. In the GT, full electric operation (including a driver’s under-thigh extender) and both heating and cooling are part of the deal, as well as sumptuous red Nappa leather if you aren’t petrified of colour, but the seats themselves fall a little short. Literally. There isn’t quite enough under-thigh support due to inadequate cushion tilt for the driver. And they could use a bit more side bolstering too – especially given the Stinger’s cornering capability.
The dashboard treads a similarly good but not-quite-there path, with a very European aesthetic (including Benz-style ‘eyeball’ air vents that look prettier than their German inspiration) and some great details like the seat-temperature toggles and a pleasant finish to the central brushed-metal strip. But the parts-bin info screen in the Stinger’s instrument pack lowers its aspirational tone and the multimedia screen graphics – while easy to decipher and use – are from another era and design ethos.
At least you can substitute them with Apple CarPlay to lift the sophistication.
Even with the front passenger’s seat set to its lowest position (via a manual crank-handle adjuster in the base 2.0T), there’s an acceptable amount of toe room for an adult banished to the rear, with leg- and knee-room bordering on generous… for two people.
A sizeable transmission tunnel exposes the rear-drive Stinger’s low-slung form, making the centre position a child-only affair, though the outer spots will comfortably seat adults. There’s minimal ‘theatre effect’ though, with the front headrests looming large in your field of vision, and the seat itself mirrors the front buckets in its rather short cushion length and sparse under-thigh support.
What rear passengers do enjoy is another pair of ‘eyeball’ air vents with their own temperature-control dial, a 12-volt outlet and a USB port. And you can’t discount the flexibility of the Stinger’s liftback bodystyle, blending a sleek ‘fastback’ appearance with fold-flat rear backrests and greater luggage flexibility than a traditional sedan. That said, an Optima clearly eclipses the Stinger for rear seat room (despite its 100mm-shorter wheelbase) as well as boot space (510 litres versus 406).
But the Stinger isn’t meant to make total practical sense. This is an emotional car driven by the passion of Kia’s European design bosses, producing a seductive sedan that just so happens to wear a Kia badge. And we have to applaud the Stinger’s Aussie-tuned chassis, which treads an impressively subtle line between controlled comfort and agile sportiness. Add a value-for-money pricing structure spanning roughly $43,000 to $60,000, give or take a grand or two, and you get plenty of presence for what is essentially chump change compared to what its comparative European rivals cost – the exact cars, in fact, which Kia will be pitching the Stinger against in most other markets.
Be that as it may, the four-pot engine’s lack of acoustic personality doesn’t match the Stinger’s sporting panache, and that’s where the disconnect between the styling team, who’ve done a terrific job in nailing the gran turismo brief, and the engineering decision to insert an off-the-shelf engine like this becomes exposed. The Stinger deserves to have its sporting personality and styling charisma enhanced by suitably seductive powertrains, even the four-cylinder version.
Thankfully, the optional sports exhaust saves the Aussie-market Stinger V6 from being a worthy but not-quite-there sporting substitute for our former V8 appetite. In terms of pace and price, it’s bang on the zeitgeist, and there’s also stuff like Kia’s seven-year unlimited-mileage warranty to garnish the deal.
The Stinger isn’t perfect, but as an adaptive-damped GT range-topper, or even an entry-level rear-drive alternative to a bunch of far less dynamic front-drivers, Kia’s entertaining flagship brings enough individuality and quality to demand that Euro-focused badge snobs pay serious attention.
Ones they really did build earlier
The two Kias you see here are ‘P1s’ of a different kind – pre-production ‘CK’ Stingers with almost-finished interiors (the lower plastics lacked production materials and textures), non-production paint quality, and their fair share of creaks and rattles.
The V6’s slightly breathless braking ability can be put down to its lack of perforated discs, while the unswitchable ESC, over-cautious collision alert and other maladies (only one working windscreen washer in the 2.0T and just one folding mirror in the V6) can’t be judged until we chuck the production version into a comparo.
As for the GT’s adaptive dampers that fixed themselves to their firmest setting on video day, well, blame the police. Apparently they disconnected the power supply during their testing and completely wiped the P1 GT’s electronic memory. Hence why our test GT had fixed dampers, not the adaptive dampers of the production car.