Posted on October 19, 2023
A funny thing happened on the way back from the Mojave Desert the other day. Someone tossed me the keys to a Kia, and I decided to take the long way home, seeking out some of the great driver’s roads that snake through the San Gabriel Mountains before heading down the Angeles Crest Highway into the hustling bustle of the City of Angels. Kia and driver’s roads … it sounds an unlikely combination. But the 2018 Kia Stinger is a car that will shatter your perceptions about Korea’s value brand.
Here the thing: My ride was the base Stinger, the one powered by the 255-hp turbocharged four-banger, rolling on 18-inch alloys shod with modest section 225/45 Bridgestone Potenza tires, not the loaded, top-of-the-range, $49,500 GT, with the punchy 365-hp twin-turbo 3.0-liter V-6 under the hood and bigger wheels and tires all round. The only option fitted was the $2,000 Advanced Driver Assistance Systems package, which bundles together active safety technologies such as forward collision warning, lane keeping assistance, and rear cross-traffic alerts. Total price? $33,900.
It’s a steal. There isn’t a better sporty, rear-drive, four-door coupe for the money in the business. Actually, there simply isn’t any other sporty, rear-drive, four-door coupe for the money, period. This Kia is in a class all its own.
The Stinger looks the part, with a sweeping roofline, a broad shouldered stance, and strong graphics. From some angles there are distant echoes of the Maserati 3200 GT designed by Giugiaro in the late 1990s; it’s a trick of the eye, of course, because the two cars are completely different, but it speaks to the effort Kia—and now also Hyundai—design supremo Peter Schreyer put into a car that in many ways has been a personal passion project. I recall Schreyer showing me a sketch of a car that would become the Kia GT concept unveiled at the 2011 Frankfurt Show—harbinger of the Stinger—and insisting he was going to get it made.
Apart from the smaller wheels and less aggressively styled front and rear fascias, there are few visual differences between the Stinger and the more powerful GT. The GT gets also some extra badging, smoked chrome trim, and red-painted brake calipers, but that’s about it. Both cars rock quad exhausts and vents on the hood and bodyside. The Stinger might be the entry-level model, but it doesn’t look it.
There are a few more tells inside, however. The base Stinger is the only model in the lineup (the others are the $37,000 Stinger Premium, the $39,000 Stinger GT, the $43,500 Stinger GT1, and aforementioned $49,500 Stinger GT2) with an old school foot operated e-brake and a simple 3.5-inch LCD display on the instrument panel. All others get a state-of-the-moment electronic e-brake switch and a 7.0-inch TFT screen between the tach and the speedo. The V-6-powered GTs also all come with a flat-bottom steering wheel, aluminum trim instead of gloss black plastic on the center console, and GT logos embossed into the headrests. That’s not to say the base Stinger is a penalty box. Standard equipment includes a leather-bound heated steering wheel, leather seats—which are power adjustable and heated up front—and a 7.0-inch audio display touchscreen that can run Kia’s UVO infotainment system along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
he Stinger is built on the Hyundai/Kia rear-drive architecture, which will also underpin the forthcoming Genesis G70. As we’ve noted before, it’s a surprisingly large vehicle, 7.5-inches longer overall than a BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, with a 3.8-inch longer wheelbase. The longer wheelbase helps not only deliver a roomy interior and generously proportioned load space, but it also delivers decent rolling ride quality, especially on L.A.’s notoriously choppy freeways.
At 3,649 pounds, the base Stinger weighs the same as a 2.0-liter Audi A5 coupe, despite having two extra doors and a hatchback, and is 356 pounds lighter than a fully loaded, V-6 powered Stinger GT. Developing its 255 hp at 6,200 rpm and 260lb-ft of torque at 1,400-4,500 rpm, the turbocharged 2.0-liter four-banger under the hood boasts better power density than similar engines from Audi and BMW. That doesn’t translate to a performance advantage on the track, however.
The Stinger runs 0-60 mph in 6.6 seconds, 1.4 seconds slower than the 2.0-liter A5 coupe, and 1.1 seconds slower than the BMW 330i sedan we tested earlier this year. The quarter mile takes 15 seconds even, the Kia sailing through the top end at 95.2 mph. The Audi nails it in 13.8 seconds at 100.5 mph, and the BMW nails it in 14.3 seconds at 98.5 mph. Things are a little closer on the figure eight—the Stinger’s 26.8-second time is just five-tenths of a second off the A5 coupe and seven-tenths behind the BMW sedan.
A lot of the performance advantage enjoyed by the Audi is down to its smooth, efficient, and lightning fast DSG transmission; the Stinger’s Hyundai/Kia engineered eight-speed shifts slower, and its torque converter chews more power. The BMW’s advantage is mass—the smaller 3 Series sedan weighs 112 pounds less—and the fact the guys in Munich still know a thing or two about making a car go around corners. But part of the issue is the Stinger’s engine; although relatively quiet and refined, and with good mid-range punch, it doesn’t quite have the crisp throttle response of the Germans, especially below 2,000 rpm.
Think about those last couple of paragraphs for a second, though: We’ve just been comparing a Kia with an Audi and a BMW. Of course anyone can play the numbers game on the track, and any comparison with Germany’s elite would be meaningless if the Kia Stinger drove like a cheap and cheerful bucket of bolts on the road. The point is, it doesn’t. That sound you hear is sharp intakes of breath in Ingolstadt and Munich.
The Stinger drives more like a European car than anything from Korea so far and most things from Japan. There’s a measured, almost Germanic, weighting to all the controls and to the body motions. It doesn’t have the grunt to indulge in smoky powerslides with all the nannies switched off—as you can in the rear-drive V-6s—but the chassis feels lively and entertaining, nonetheless. A little more initial bite from the brakes would be helpful to smoothly settle the car on corner entry, and a touch more front-end grip would complement the accurate steering, but otherwise the Stinger feels impressively consistent and composed through the twisty bits.
As dusk settled on the run back to L.A., it became obvious the standard headlights were better suited for cruising the bright lights of Seoul than the dark canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains, the Stinger easily outrunning even high beam. However, the $37,000 Stinger Premium is available with brighter LED headlights (and the extra money also buys you a sunroof, a power adjustable steering column, the 7.0-inch TFT screen in the instrument panel, the electronic e-brake, memory for the seat adjustment, sat-nav, and a 15-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, which makes it a solid value). And we prefer the snickety-snick action of the electronic PRNDL shifter on the top-level GT to the slightly clunky feel of the old school T-bar item on the rest of the lineup.
Yep, we’re down to picking nits. For a first effort at a car like this, the four-cylinder Kia Stinger is genuinely impressive. And the more we drive it, the more it reminds us of a proto-BMW 3 Series. It’s not yet fully formed and not yet fully mature, but it’s a car that, should it follow a logical evolutionary path, could eventually occupy the same hallowed ground as the 3 Series once did among enthusiasts who wanted an affordable, sporty, rear-drive car they could drive every day.
And the chances of that happening? Well, as former BMW M engineering veep Albert Biermann is now Hyundai/Kia’s head of high performance vehicle development, you’d be foolish to bet against it, especially given the Korean automaker’s lavish R&D spending and the dizzying speed with which it brings new vehicles to market. Be afraid, BMW. Be very afraid.
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