OF ALL THE intimidating high-speed sections of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the most unsettling may be the Fuchsröhe—the foxhole. I come into this stretch of the famed German track at 93 mph, cornering at maximum grip and body lean, compressing the suspension as I go right-left-right and steeply uphill, making a conscious effort to lift my head to keep my eyes at horizon level. The sports sedan taking me through it all gracefully handles each twist of the wheel, each jab at the brake and accelerator, acting as though the Nürburgring is home territory. But this car is no native. It’s the twin-turbo, 365-horsepower 2018 Kia Stinger GT, Korea’s bid to challenge the Germans and everyone else for sports car dominance.
Now, I’ve driven the Stinger a grand total of 38.7 miles. Enough for a full report on its every detail? No. But every foot was driven on the Nürburgring, the 154-turn torture chamber that petrol heads consider the ultimate proving ground, and the place where automakers go to prove their latest sports car is the sports car to have. So don’t ask me how the Stinger GT is on the open road, or about trifles like its stereo system. But ask me about its behavior at shriek-inducing handling limits while bounding around this circuit’s blind corners, over hills and down dales, riding the world’s most difficult blacktop dragon, and I can tell you: This Kia copes with all the looniness, and even does it with some elegance.
This performance from the Stinger, the unexpected grand touring car Kia made to rival sporty sedans from the likes of Mercedes and BMW, is all the more impressive when you learn it weighs nearly 4,000 pounds and is longer than the 3-Series, both handicaps in the “driving machine” stakes.
Standard operating procedure for driving any car on a track as gnarly as the Nürburgring—also known as the Green Hell—is to follow a test engineer or pro driver around the track for a casual lap or two, slowly getting a feel for everything. Kia doesn’t bother with such niceties, instead sending me bombing around what many consider the world’s toughest circuit without hesitation.
The Stinger is an unusual sort of Korean car, conceived and tasked by key players of decidedly European upbringing and lineage. The Kia brand may be known for value above performance, but it’s still young, just more than 20 years old in the US market. It’s hankering to expand, making a recent bid for luxury buyers with the K900 and now, with the GT, taking aim at the sports car segment, a crowded space long dominated by seasoned giants like BMW, Audi, and Mercedes.
That confidence reveals a commitment to competing and maybe even winning, especially from people like Albert Biermann, who left his job running BMW’s M division to plant seeds at Kia that might flourish long after he’s gone—and that are already sprouting nicely.
Looking the Part
The Stinger GT is the latest in a string of lookers from Kia. Designer Gregory Guillaume says he took inspiration from the generously funded grand GTs he marveled at as a boy in the South of France, especially the Maserati Ghibli coupe. It’s a loose connection, but the Stinger comes with a distinct European flavor, and it’s no accident. Through my eyes, I see Alfa Romeo at the Stinger’s rear and perhaps even a glint of Maserati GT Coupe from the mid 2000s up front.
Styling aside, the car’s overall form factor is quite conventional in this modern era. The front seats are very low in the cockpit, keeping the center of gravity low, a boon for stability. That extra length may not be great for performance, providing a long, if not deep, cargo floor, plus enough space for normal-length legs in the rear seats. (Toes need to write a terse letter, though; mine couldn’t fit under the front seats at all.)
Being the Part
To build the Stinger, Kia fit its own suspension onto the bones of its corporate brother Hyundai’s excellent Genesis platform, along with adjustable shocks to cater to more aggressive drivers. The Stinger will offer three engine options: a base 252-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder; the optional 365-horsepower, 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 we tested; and, for Korean and European markets only, a 197-horsepower, 2.2-liter turbo diesel four-cylinder.
Kia claims the V6 engines will send the Stinger to 60 mph in just under five seconds and up to a top speed of 167 mph, and we extracted almost every bit of that at the Nürburgring. The track’s longest straight section had us at between 135 and 140 mph, partly because our lead driver wanted it that way (passing ist verboten) and partly because we wanted to assure ourselves we’d have working brakes when we needed them and not lose them due to overheating. (As proven by the many disaster videos on YouTube, the Nürburgring can be a vindictive amphetamine.)
But the nutrition within the Ring’s bratwurst sandwich is not the long straight where your right foot digs into the synthetic carpet fibers. It’s the corners, in the communication of the steering, in braking effectiveness and how the car accelerates and grips off of corners. And when dishing out these morsels, the rear-drive Stinger GT provides some spicy flavor, while the all-wheel-drive version shaves off some spice due to extra weight and the more elaborate power-delivery system working overtime to generate traction, creating a midsize helping of brake fade. The brakes continued to work hard, though, even at the far end of pedal travel.
The only transmission offered is Hyundai’s own eight-speed automatic which also shifts manually, though it doesn’t match the best dual-clutch units or ZF’s eight-speed automatic gaining favor in European cars like Audi’s S4 sedan. Paddle-operated shifts in the Stinger GT deliver, but not with the crispness of others in the field.
The Stinger’s structural stiffness is undeniable, and not once did it shudder over the many bumps and curbs we visited from time to time. According to Biermann, it offers the same stiffness as the best competition like BMW’s 3- and 4-Series and the Mercedes C-Class, yet in a larger footprint. Here is where Kia shines, providing truly stellar rigidity in the most strenuous circumstances.
The sporty automotive circus is stuffed to its tent tops with self-congratulatory language and attitude, much of it well-deserved. So for Kia—a value-driven brand that has played in the US for a mere 23 years—elbowing its way inside to challenge giants like BMW, Audi, and others is a bold move.
Even if the Stinger GT is an utter failure when it comes to sales—and it shouldn’t be—Kia merits props for boldness. Hitting the US market in October at about $30,000 to start (with the top end around $50,000), this latest Kia will assuredly ruffle a few luxury feathers, or at least shake some leaves in the Green Hell.