GHOSTS. Somewhere out here in the grey pre-dawn light are ghosts.
An unbroken line of ’em, stretching back nearly four decades who’ve stood at a bowser before, refuelling Australian-built Commodores, jotting down records, meticulously checking tyre pressures and fluid levels before subjecting the car to the rigours of a Wheels road test. And I’ll be the last of them.
Booking a Holden Commodore SS-V Redline on the week that local production wrapped up was always going to be loaded with poignancy but, truth be told, we’re probably not going to tell you a whole lot that you didn’t know about this car already. Its role this time round would be largely contextual, here to provide a counterpoint to two Young Turks that deliver a decisively different skill set.
The Kia Stinger could well be 2017’s most anticipated new car here in Oz, offering rear-wheel drive, serious firepower and, in this instance, a price tag within $200 of the Commodore. We’re excited about the car largely because we tend to pigeonhole it as a Commodore rival. Truth is, Kia hasn’t given the big ol’ Holden a moment’s thought in the ground-up development of this car. Think of it as a cut-price alternative to an Audi S5 Sportback or a BMW 440i Gran Coupe and you’ll be closer to Kia’s aspiration.
While the range-topping Stinger GT has attracted the lion’s share of press coverage, the mid-spec 330Si could well be the sweet spot in the range. Priced at $55,990, it gets the same 272kW twin-turbo V6, driving through an eight-speed automatic and limited slip diff’ to a set of 19-inch rear wheels, but does without the complex adaptive suspension system.
There was always a danger that the Volkswagen Arteon 206 TSI R-Line would play third wheel here. How could it not, given that it’s almost 100kW down on outright power to the SS-V and about as likely to appeal to the Commodore’s core market as front row seats for La Bohème? It does, however, provide a cerebral and extremely talented rival to the Stinger which, at $65,490, would need to provide a convincing case study in doing more with less in order to justify the price tag.
With on-demand all-wheel drive, an adaptive suspension system of stupefying bandwidth, and a mildly detuned version of the Golf R’s four-pot firecracker under the bonnet, the Arteon looks and feels like a business-class upgrade from the other two and, despite the Stinger being finished in retina-cremating Sunset Yellow, the lantern-jawed Volkswagen turned the most heads.
There’s not a bad angle on it and some of the detailing, such as the way the LED headlamps morph into the grille, the visual effect of power in the haunches, the shape and tension in the flanks, and the sculpted front wheelarches softly busting through the clamshell bonnet line are deftly and confidently executed.
The Stinger’s nothing like as elegantly resolved. It’s at its best when viewed from front or rear, where it’s purposefully hunkered, but move to the side and the lugubrious rear end looks overly weighty. Some of the detailing grates, too, such as the conspicuously non-functional bonnet vents and the way the rear door line extends across the top of the hatch rail, as if Kia has plugged the rear end of an entirely different car onto the back like a giant Lego Technic kit.
The Stinger’s not an ungainly thing per se, but it lacks the front-to-rear cohesion of some of Kia’s better designs such as the Optima and the Sorento. Even the latest Carnival expresses a more lucid aesthetic. It’s not lacking in visual punch, though.
To a certain extent, the aggro styling and the well-publicised performance figures taint your expectations of how the Stinger will drive. Thumb the starter button and you expect something tightly wound, leaching testosterone from every orifice but it’s puzzlingly mannered. The engine note is librarian meek, the steering a thing of extravagantly lubed slickness and the ride about as lumpy as a drizzle of extra-virgin.
Looking back at my drive notes, there’s a hastily scribbled but perplexed question. “What is this car?”
Viscerally quick, that’s what it is. On a give-and-take road, it’s the only one of the trio that has our testers getting out, eyebrows raised, blowing out their cheeks and shaking their heads. It’s worth underlining that this is a Kia that is virtually as quick out of the blocks as a Porsche 996 GT3. Launch control makes that repeatable too, 100km/h flashing by in 4.9s.
It’s eerily effective in the way that it smashes down the strip, ladling on great gobs of twin-turbocharged torque, the eight-speed transmission best left in fire-and-forget Sport mode. At 2000rpm, it’s making around 50Nm more than the Commodore, giving it an initial advantage the Holden can never claw back.
The Arteon always grabs the holeshot, though. Its combo of launch control and all-wheel-drive traction give it a clear nose up until around 70km/h or so. Beyond that, the Stinger’s sheer grunt tells but the Arteon is far from disgraced at the strip, our 5.4-second sprint to 100km/h bettering the manufacturer numbers by a couple of tenths and exactly matching the sprinting performance – on the day – of the Commodore. Still think the Arteon is out of place in this company?
The German car also impressed on our test route, a combination of flowing, variably surfaced country roads and a fiendishly nadgery hill route that was designed to boot each of these long-wheelbase dreadnoughts unceremoniously out of their respective comfort zones. With gravity on its side, it had the talent to neuter the two rear-drive power forwards.
A combination of a mighty front end and a singular traction advantage out of hairpins meant that nothing could pull away from the Arteon. Up the hill, it was a different matter of course, but in terms of outright chassis effectiveness, the Volkswagen had laid down a clear marker.
Choosing how to set up the Arteon isn’t the work of a moment. The DCC adaptive suspension system has no fewer than 14 settings to choose from, the extremes bookending the steel-sprung Stinger and Commodore. Set into Sport, it’s undeniably taut, with larger imperfections folding you at the solar plexus. Body control is imperious and you tend to drive the Arteon like a hatch, leaning cab-forward on that front contact patch and letting the rear end figure things out for itself.
The dual-clutch transmission bangs through shifts with none of the blurriness of the torque converter autos, giving the Volkswagen a welcome bit of bristle and edge. The driving mode switch is evidence of a half-baked right-hand-drive conversion, being inconveniently located on the far side of the gear lever, this range-topping R-Line car also carrying a dead-eyed array of switch blanks on the driver’s side.
The four-cylinder lump growls gamely, the sound symposer injecting a subtle contrabass undertone into the cabin. Sport mode adds a bit of heft to the wheel, but it remains taciturn. The fun is in covering ground quickly and with smart munition precision. The neutrality and aloofness built into the chassis will appeal to those who don’t care to actively manage dynamic outputs. The Arteon rarely dictates an action to the driver so there’s little in the way of receive channel; you just keep the transmit button pinned.
Try to drive the Stinger in that fashion and you’re rapidly disabused of such an intention. Its body control isn’t as implacable, requiring a more sympathetic ebb and flow of inputs as the car breathes along the road. It’s more rewarding to feel the squat, sproing and roll of the Stinger’s chassis, the gentle clench/declench of its limited slip diff’, and modulate that almighty torrent of torque accordingly, but it’s rarely the quickest way along a scabby snake of bitumen.
It nevertheless feels agile and although it’s within a few kilos of the Commodore’s kerb weight, you’d swear it was 250kg lighter. The Stinger gets up on its toes easily and brings the rear into play early, the Sport setting on the stability control softly blending power in and out. Wax on, wax off.
The variable-rate steering, so glib and superficially impressive at city speeds, can take a moment of acclimatisation when really frogmarched through a bend. Driver reassurance isn’t helped by the fact that the Stinger refuses to hold a gear, the transmission software being overly keen to put its cape on and leap to your rescue when it’s often not required. Switch out all the driver aids and you can then ping a flabby feeling cutout. The stability control system hoodwinks you into thinking it’s off, but lurks constantly, waiting for a moment to indulge some suppressed superhero affectation if it thinks you’ve really stuffed up.
Like the Arteon, the Stinger can cycle through engine sound settings although Minimised, Neutral and Enhanced all sound much the same. The driving mode knob also alters settings for the steering weighting and engine/transmission settings. The Smart mode does a reasonable job of figuring out what you’re trying to achieve, but we left it in Sport most of the time which, as an aside, renders the digital speedometer in italic font. Nope, us neither.
The sheer ferocity at which the Stinger accumulates big numbers, helped by that malleable ride, puts a big premium on braking performance. Initial pedal feel is enormously reassuring and while it can’t match the Arteon or the Commodore’s outright stopping punch, Kia’s engineers have done a great job in teasing real subtlety of response out of it. That said, it was the first brake pedal to go long, and better brakes and a considerably more vocal exhaust would be among the first items on our to-do list were we drawing up improvements for the mid-life revision. The compound of the ContiSport Contact 5P tyres is also possibly too soft for a car with this much weight and with such a propensity to wag its tail. Budget accordingly.
Both the Arteon and the Stinger feature liftbacks, the former’s item being a powered tailgate with a slick proximity feature that allows you to haul gear out and walk away before it closes itself. The 563-litre capacity of the Arteon aces the Stinger’s 406 litres, eclipsing the Commodore’s 496-litre boot in the process. The Volkswagen also delivers easily the most polished ride when set into its softest mode. It has other tricks too, offering the smartest suite of driver-assist functions, including an ability to pull the car to the hard shoulder and stop should it sense the driver is asleep, incapacitated or an inquisitive Wheels road tester .
With an additional 46mm in the wheelbase compared to its Passat sibling, the Arteon rides better and affords acres of space in the back. The R-Line seats are supportive and rear occupants get heated pews as well as a 12v socket, USB and even a 230V Euro socket inverter, but the door windows out back lack the double-glazing of the front glass. The Audi-style virtual cockpit up front can be configured to show performance monitors and laptimers but these feel a little out of character. The Arteon does a fairly half-baked Nissan GT-R impression.
Travelling in the back of the Stinger isn’t a chore either. Like the Arteon, taller passengers might feel the pinch due to the arcing roofline, but while the Volkswagen has an airy pale headliner and a low window line, the Stinger’s upticked windows and unremittingly black interior make it feel a little claustrophobic.
Up front, it’s largely well styled, with faux carbonfibre on the centre console and a trio of vents dominating the centre of the dash. Upon investigation, the passenger gets the left hand one, the driver the other two. The cheap plastic horn push plastic is a rare bum note, as are the mean, narrow door bins. You’ll also need to watch yourself getting in and out as the door cant rail is set very low. I’m still nursing a skinned shoulder. The 330Si gets no blind-spot monitoring and over-shoulder visibility is hideous. You could be blindsided by a Zeppelin hiding behind those B-pillars.
Neither can match the Commodore for sheer manspreading capacity inside. While the back of the SS-V might be lacking in features, you’ll forgive it that for the head, shoulder and legroom it affords. We love the Holden for the way it rides, even on 20-inch rubber. And for its evocative bent-eight fusillade. And its steering feel. And throttle response. And the way it’s the only car of the bunch that loves to be driven on the shift paddles. And, to be frank, a whole bunch of other things that still really matter to keen Aussie drivers.
And therein lies the rub. The Stinger arrives staggering under a cloying weight of expectation. Quite illogically, we secretly want Kia to build a better Commodore, despite Holden’s 40 years of experience. Name me one tribute act that’s better than the real thing? There’s an irreplaceable authenticity that courses through the Commodore but, for better or for worse, the game has changed. The Stinger and Arteon plot divergent routes.
Those looking for big-hearted thud and blunder will probably be disappointed by the mute Stinger and the slightly self-conscious Arteon. The VFII Commodore vacates that particular division as undefeated champ and as much as it’s a wrench to hand back the keys, dwelling on what might have been isn’t going to get us far. So which of the other two get the nod? For sheer capability and involvement, it has to be the Stinger.
It’s not perfect but, if anything, it exceeded our expectations, Kia having no right to get so much so right at its first stab at this class.
The Arteon 206 TSI R-Line emerges far from assaulted, however. In fact, it’s the surprise package of this comparison, dealing both rivals bloody noses in several key head-to-heads. As we brim the cars, record the final fuel figures and point the nose of the Commodore back towards Port Melbourne, it feels as if we’ve finally exorcised a few ghosts.
This farewell has lasted long enough. It’s a new game with new rules and a new cast, and the Kia Stinger plays it best.