First drive: Kia Stinger image

In a world where Hyundai and Kia have been the South Korean automakers known for delivering affordable, desirable, honest and technologically sane models, there’s certainly room to elaborate – and the group knows all too well, hence the arrival of the Genesis premium brand or the new Stinger.

You might call Hyundai the bold one, given the choice to establish an all-new, separate subsidiary, in the form of a glorious premium brand – Genesis. But the reality is they’re taking baby steps – they’re present at home and in America, and only have three models to show for, with no crossover in sight yet. Meanwhile, Kia has decided to grow its own brand, and the Stinger is a global proposition – now also available in Europe. Time will tell which strategy finds success, but for now we can tell you the decision to go sporty with the Stinger sounds like a homerun. It won’t be necessarily a major one on the Old Continent – homeruns are of course something that only happen in America – but it’s obvious there’s space for Kia to grow beyond the former top of the line, the sensible but usually dull (save for the SW GT with the 2.0 T-GDI engine) Optima. And they had it coming for a long while – remember the Kia GT Concept from the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show or the GT4 Stinger prototype seen at the 2014 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS)? It’s now a real, palpable product – and it’s also easily the most adventurous model in the company’s history. Just imagine the Stinger next to a standard Venga… Yes, it’s that big of a difference. And now imagine the Stinger is intended to play in the same league with the Audi A5 Sportback, BMW 3 Series GT – though we imagine most of the clients will be snatched from the mainstream brands, such as the Ford Mondeo, Opel Insignia, Skoda Superb or even the VW Arteon.

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It’s only natural thus to balance the presence – Kia’s offering is more affordable than the former, but usually more expensive than the latter. It will certainly be interesting to see how the Stinger is going to fare in Europe, where customers are deeply rooted in tradition – and have high brand fidelity. We’re going to take the Stinger along for a longer ride than the one we’re dealing now – the launch experience was mostly centered around the two traits that are usually not associated with a Kia – sportiness and rear-wheel drive. Yes, we’re dealing here with a sporty Kia (remember, there’s no N division here involved as is the case with Hyundai) and also one that has rear wheel drive, along with all-wheel drive. Now the latter isn’t a novelty for the company – after all it’s been churning out crossovers and SUVs for a while now. But bundle it with a sporty chassis setup… here’s something that warranted the group investment into the Nurburgring development center. There’s certainly a slight paradox involved here – the Green Hell is becoming adamant to dynamic testing for global models, even though we imagine the Stinger has set its sights squarely on the American market. And the region is certainly not void of legendary and demanding tracks – just think of the Laguna Seca. Yet, the core development for ride and handling for the Hyundai and Kia brands is centered around the Nurburgring development center. Talk about a track that was on the brink of collapse not long ago…

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Because the Stinger experience involved just track outings, we’re not going to focus right now on the classic test drive credentials – Kia putting an emphasis on the handling specifics on this occasion. But a few considerations are still in order – starting off with the design. You might say this is the first major revelation – take away the badge up front and regular folks will have trouble identifying the design to a certain brand. It’s not bad – at first brand recognition is going to be a problem, but I’m actually certain that’s what Kia intended in the first place: people will see it and will come closer to check out the badge because they’re startled and intrigued. And when they find out it’s a Kia they’ll be even more surprised – this certainly is the first marketing hook for the brand’s plan. Just look at the spectacular Proceed concept and notice there are certain similarities – Kia is simply opening up a new design direction, starting from the all-new Stinger passenger car flagship. As far as the design is concerned, there’s a conundrum – one that might deal with Kia’s desire to make the Stinger desirable around the world. The sporty, muscular and high-tech stance overall is certainly something that will bode well with the US customers – the flashy allure is not really the cornucopia for Old Continent buyers. But mentalities are changing – and already we’re seeing flashes of rebellion – as classic German machine have fallen down the evolutionary path there are those who decline the uniform. The Stinger is a good example, and most recently we also noticed the Aston Martin Vantage – with the British automaker taking a direct jab at the conformism of its competitors. So, for those willing to stand out, the Stinger is among the few options when it comes to buying a fastback sedan. The latter is also one of the other elements that might attract European buyers – given the steady success registered by other hatchbacks dressed up as sedans, such as the Opel Insignia. Yes, from a design standpoint it’s crystal clear the Stinger is directed towards the North American audience, but for Europeans there are reasons to liken it to the winning underdog.

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After the first impressions, if there’s something there’s not up to snuff with the European competition it’s got to be the interior – it’s not going to break a sweat in America, but easily fall short of the German contenders when it comes to the nitpicking European buyers. The cockpit especially – the rest of the cabin is going to be our object of review later when we test drive it on public roads – feels fresh, but the overall quality feels lacking. It’s decidedly different from other Kia models – I especially like the round central air vents – but it retains the overall Kia feel that’s so absent when it comes to the exterior design. While quality certainly looks a notch above other models, there are common elements that show Kia’s old line of thought of sharing components for increased savings – noticeably the HVAC control area. On the other hand, the Stinger is certainly using the GT traits it boasts about – a dropped windshield with deeply angled A pillars and a low seating position for enhanced sporty feeling. It also boasts a rather comfortable ride, devoid of the hard-edged sports car regimen that would see you engulfed in the front seats with a suffocating stance after the first dozen kilometers – the Stinger was more relaxed in this department, while maintain an adequate level of support for the driver. At the launch event we came across two engine options – there’s a total of three, with the only one absent being the 2.0 T-GDI with 255 hp. On the other hand, we were allowed to sample the RWD 2.2 CRDI diesel option along with the top of the line Stinger GT, packing the group’s newly developed 3.3 T-GDI V6 engine. It’s exactly the same one as seen in the Genesis models, delivering a sound 375 hp to all four wheels. The composition – with the Stinger also using a Drive Mode Selector is quite clear for both versions. Of note is also Kia’s first use of a Dynamic Stability Damping Control, ride-damping and vehicle handling-influencing system, along with the variable-ratio enhancement for the rack-mounted Motor Driven Power Steering (R-MDPS). Also, the top trim, the Stinger GT equipped with the 3.3-litre T-GDi V6 is equipped with Brembo brakes for added safety.

Go for the Sport or Sport+ settings – the latter deactivating the electronic aids that are kept “dormant” only by the former – and you’ll be able to sample the outcome of those 480 laps (10,000 kilometers) each development prototype had to endure on the grueling Nordschleife. Not surprising, the RWD diesel Stinger – is the naughtier of the two on the track. It was quite easy to get the better of its tail-happy stance during the track sessions – not because it’s not composed, but due to the wet asphalt / high torque combination. Playfulness is entirely possible inside a diesel sedan with the Stinger, the CRDI weighing heavy on the front axle – so the rear is even more prone to slides. No worries, because the electronic aids will come to life in the Sport mode – we recommend the Sport+ setting to remain the choice for the track sessions. The dynamic choices of the driver also need to take into account the weight – close to 1.8 tons for the diesel. Meanwhile, the V6 is alluring with its noble grunt that’s easily becoming present when the sporty modes are selected – while providing a composed NVH level when choosing the long-haul Normal mode. The equation is slightly different with the petrol engine and the fitting of the AWD – if you’re looking for play time in the mountains you can safely choose the CRDI (and get there with family and luggage, as well as a “sensible” fuel economy). Track enthusiast that’s also using the car on a daily basis – then the V6 is for you, given the electronic damping system and the all-wheel drive system it has a lap-time focused stance at any time. The ride is even more composed and the accuracy of the trace is something you may never have thought possible… in a Kia. It’s certainly far from perfect, but the Stinger is a proud first effort into a segment the automaker has never activated – nor any of its group mates for that matter, so they couldn’t have shared from the wisdom of experience…