Exclusive 2018 Kia Stinger GT First Test: Well Stung

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The concept of “grand touring” has been around for centuries, and the moniker has been applied to cars since the 1940s, but it’s a term we tend to associate with exotic sports cars. The formula, though, is pretty simple: stylish, comfortable on a long drive, and plenty of power. But there’s no rule that says it has to cost a fortune, and the Kia Stinger GT is absolutely taking advantage of this exception.

We’ve driven prototypes at an overseas R & D complex, on a frozen Swedish lake, and on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. Now, finally, we’ve driven a production-spec 2018 Kia Stinger GT on real roads and to our own Auto Club Speedway test track. How does it fare against the German luxury sedans against which it will undoubtedly be compared?

Korean-branded cars usually aren’t synonymous with performance, but the rear-drive Stinger GT launches from 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds and clocks the standing quarter mile in 13.3 seconds at 106.9 mph. An emergency stop from 60 mph requires 113 feet, and it’ll pull 0.85 average lateral g on a skidpad. On our exclusive figure-eight test track, the Stinger GT recorded a lap of 26.2 seconds at 0.71 average lateral g. Impressive numbers.

It’s pretty good to drive away from the test track, too. Out in the mountains, the Stinger GT exhibits a surprising but intriguing combination of vertical compliance and lateral stiffness. Over bumps, the suspension was soft and the ride of luxury-car quality. In the corners, though, it was stiff with excellent body control. Even when pushing hard, the Stinger GT rode well but dug into corners with little body roll.

The power is well-matched to the vehicle and only feels inadequate if you let the revs drop too low. You want those turbochargers working for you, and the best way to do it is to take advantage of the paddle shifters because the transmission isn’t quite aggressive enough for the really twisty roads.

“The engine has a fat torque curve, strong in midrange with noticeable lag at the bottom end,” our staff professional racer, Randy Pobst, said during filming for an episode of Ignition—which you can watch right now at Motor Trend OnDemand and YouTube.com/motortrend. “Low revs mean calling ahead and waiting for the power to be delivered. The Stinger is quite powerful, and one must constantly remind oneself that this is a Kia that is tearing up this winding road or on-ramp.”

Randy’s critique continued: “The transmission is just not sport-smart enough in automatic, especially on the track. It shifts up, so I just let it. There’s no reason for me to pull that paddle. I just have to remember to downshift on the way in, or else it won’t. The shifting is reasonable. It matches revs. It’s quick.”

It’s hard to say whether the transmission programming has changed since I drove a prototype on the Nürburgring or if our mountain roads and the Streets of Willow Springs racetrack are so much tighter that it amplifies the transmission’s inadequacy, but my initial impressions were more positive.

As well as we know the Stinger GT can drift in the right conditions, it doesn’t actually want to get wild out in the real world. The suspension tuning is conservative, the default behavior at the limit understeer. It makes the car very stable, never trying to swap ends no matter how hard you drive it. Thankfully, there’s a lot of grip in the front end, so you have to push it very hard to get it to plow. Just driving fast, it feels neutral. You need to be pushing your braking points to the last second and carrying as much speed as possible into a corner to make it cry uncle.

Here again, I wonder if the American-market tuning increases understeer versus the European-spec car I drove. Or maybe Randy just carries that much more speed in the corners. It’s probably the latter. The upshot: You’ll never feel a stability control intervention.

“What they’ve done is create stability control by tuning the car for a lot of understeer in the middle of a corner,” Randy said.

That’s not to say it won’t drift. Turn the computer off, give it a Scandinavian flick and too much throttle, and it’ll do a nice power oversteer or two. It’s just not a hoon by nature.

“It seems that the stability control is always learning and adapting,” Randy said. “Even with it turned off, it became more and more invasive as the day wore on, and the wheelspin and sliding woke up the nannies that watch over us hooligans. After a few nice drifts, the car began to resolutely resist power oversteer—a darned shame and frustrating.”

In other words, this is a grand touring sedan that actually takes its GT badge seriously. Out on the highway, it’s everything you want on a road trip. It floats over bad pavement while remaining taut and responsive on long, sweeping corners. In a world of Demons and Hellcats, 365 hp might not seem like a lot, but it’s plenty when applied correctly. The in-house eight-speed auto is programmed smartly for real-world conditions, delivering downshifts with little prodding. With the revs up and the turbos spinning, the engine delivers a pleasant surge of power that whisks you past trucks and loafers. It’s a very easy and comfortable car to cover distance in.

“The springs and shocks that control vertical motion are quite soft,” Randy said. “But transitional responses are quite well-controlled, likely by relatively strong anti-roll bars, and the ride is still quite compliant. Think ‘older Buick’ ride quality. Surprising for a sport sedan like this.”

It’s not just comfortable from the driver’s seat, either. The Kia has 2 to 4 inches of wheelbase over the Germans, and it puts them to good use. There’s ample rear-seat legroom and, despite the sloping roof, headroom for tall people. The front seats, meanwhile, are aggressively bolstered so you can concentrate on those mountain roads when you cross their path.

Capable though it may be from seat to steering, and despite testing it on the Nürburgring, Kia insists the Stinger GT isn’t a track car. We took it to a track anyway, and things got complicated. Kia’s press cars at the moment are all preproduction prototypes, and the first car they gave us suffered a power steering failure and had to be replaced. The second car, as it turns out, hadn’t yet had its U.S.-spec springs and dampers installed, and it exhibited considerably more body roll and understeer on the track than the first car. As a result, Randy posted a lap time—1:28.90—that he felt wasn’t representative of what the car could do. With a properly equipped car, Randy believes he could subtract a full second.

Things that didn’t change on track: the car’s weight and its braking performance—113 feet isn’t anywhere near a record in our 60–0-mph braking test, but it only tells part of the story. Randy was continually impressed at the durability of the brakes. Throughout a very hot day, the pedal remained consistent, and the steel brakes refused to fade.

“The brakes are impressively strong, with a consistent and firm pedal feel that inspires confidence,” he said. “The braking does not upset the chassis, and the pad compound can take the heat.”

There will be heat, and not just from the brakes. The Stinger GT is taking on a wildly competitive segment ruled by a small in-crowd. Whether it’s staring down the German triumvirate or the American holdouts, the sport sedan from the value brand has a lot to prove.

“For a first effort at a genuine sport sedan, the Stinger is quite an accomplishment,” Randy said. “It clearly is set up for a comfortable ride as a priority over race car dynamics, but in the real world, this makes sense. Even more so among buyers of a big, powerful GT car.”

Like no Korean car before it, the Stinger GT speaks the language of the enthusiast. Will they listen?

2018 Kia Stinger GT
BASE PRICE $40,000 (est)
PRICE AS TESTED $50,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, RWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan
ENGINE 3.3L/365-hp/376-lb-ft twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,005 lb (52/48%)
WHEELBASE 114.1 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 190.2 x 73.6 x 55.1 in
0-60 MPH 4.8 sec
QUARTER MILE 13.3 sec @ 106.9 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 113 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.85 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 26.2 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON Not Tested

How does the Stinger stack up?

How good are the Kia’s performance numbers for a 365-hp 3.3-liter twin-turbo V-6 with 376 lb-ft of torque and a roughly $40,000 starting price? They seem all right when you consider the Stinger GT falls between a midsize and full-size sedan in dimension and weighs 4,005 pounds. Making a direct comparison is trickier because it’s hard to say exactly what the Stinger competes with.

The Chevrolet SS was the most obvious spoiler, but it’s out of production. It started at about $48,000, hit 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, ran a quarter mile in 13.2 seconds at 108.9 mph, stopped from 60 in 108 feet, pulled 0.94 g average on the skidpad, and posted a 24.7-second figure-eight lap at 0.78 g average.

You could match it up with the Dodge Charger even though that car is 10 inches longer with a wheelbase nearly 6 inches longer, and it’s 300 pounds heavier. An R/T with the 370-hp 5.7-liter V-8 is cheaper by five grand, but the Kia will dust it everywhere but the skidpad and figure eight—and even then, it’s close. You need the $41,000 R/T Scat Pack with the 485-hp 6.4-liter V-8 if you want to win. And the Kia has a far nicer interior.

No, Kia wants a piece of the Germans. After all, the Stinger GT has a hatchback like the smaller Audi A5 Sportback or BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe. (The more appropriately sized Audi A7 is $69,000, in case you were wondering.)

The Audi A5 is $43,000 to start, and your only option is the 252-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four. Based on results of the lighter A4, it’s slower, but like the Charger, it just pips the Kia on the skidpad and figure eight. But it’s substantially smaller.

The BMW is also smaller but can be had with a turbo I-6 with 320 hp for about $50,000. Based on our test of the lighter 340i sedan, the 440i Gran Coupe is slower than the Kia, full stop.

Mercedes-Benz doesn’t make a hatchback sedan (yet), but to smoke the Kia, you’d need to spring for the $54,000 C43 AMG, which clips the Kia in every test but is, again, a smaller package.

In other words, the Kia can hang with the big dogs and might have carved out a pretty sharp niche.

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