Former rear guard
Think Stinger is Kia’s first rear-drive vehicle sold in Oz? Wrong! The very first Kia to reach our shores – the Ceres pick-up in 1992 – was rear-drive, but also offered switchable 4WD with high- and low-range. And our first Sportage (1997) was based on a reardrive platform, though ours was 4WD only. Infamously, it scored just one star in ANCAP crash testing and was recalled twice overseas for the rear wheels “dislodging”.
Stingers with adaptive dampers will offer five suspension modes – Eco, Comfort, Smart, Sport, and Custom – though we’d stick mostly to Smart (an ‘auto’ setting) and still-comfortable Sport on twistier roads. At a faster pace, Comfort’s greater vertical motion and lesser body control mean that Smart achieves the finest combination of level bump absorbency, pointy steering, tight control, excellent balance, and keenness to change direction. In that set-up, the Stinger’s a real peach.
Yet no Stinger is particularly attuned to tight corners. In the 2.0T, if you go in quite hot you notice the car’s mass, but as long as you trail some brake into a corner and are aware that it isn’t a light car (at 1693-1780kg tare weight, she’s a porker), the Stinger can throw its weight around quite capably.
The heavier V6 needs to be more consciously trail-braked into tight corners to keep it balanced, but on fast, flowing roads the Stinger range-topper is exceptional, mainly because it has the grip to match its grunt. Adding power throws a lovely, throttle-adjustable weight bias onto its outside rear tyre, working in combination with a mechanical limited-slip diff for plenty of rear-steer antics... until the judicious ESC system decides you’re being a hooligan.
The Aussies have done a terrific job tuning the Stinger’s steering. This is by far the most connected Kia we’ve ever driven, with crisp, uncorrupted feel and none of the kickback over bumps that has plagued Korean cars for generations. There’s a degree of numbness at dead-ahead but the moment you start to add lock, the Stinger is on its game. The V6 GT has just 2.2 turns lock-to-lock (2.5 for the 18-inch-wheeled four), and a meatier feel than its lighter sibling, yet it manages to serve up sharpness without over-reactive nervousness. It feels progressive and natural, as a driver’s car should. And for the first time in a Korean car, all three steering-weight settings work. Comfort isn’t too light, Sport isn’t too heavy, and for all but the most lead-footed of driving, Smart is just right.
Kia’s sexy new-generation steering wheel helps (the production GT’S will be flat-bottomed, by the way), backed by a pair of shift paddles for the eight-speed auto. But without a dedicated manual slot in the neatly formed and intuitive transmission selector, the Stinger will automatically shift itself back into drive after several seconds of holding a gear at a steady pace. You can work around it by pre-empting the point it wants to shift, then tweaking the left downshift paddle to maintain a ratio, but that’s unnecessary work.
And then there’s the common Korean fault of not allowing you to grab a lower gear early enough. Despite both engines being capable of reaching 6500rpm, the most revs you’ll get in a downshifted gear is just over 5000rpm. On hilly, twisty roads where engine braking is key, that left paddle cops plenty of punishment.
The Stinger’s hot seat definitely delivers a gran turismo feel. Its driver seat’s lowest setting is just 180mm above the road – 45mm lower than an Optima’s – which definitely makes you feel part of the car. In the GT, full electric operation (including a driver’s under-thigh extender) and both heating and cooling are part of the deal, as well as sumptuous red Nappa leather if you aren’t petrified of colour, but the seats themselves fall a little short. Literally. There isn’t quite enough
under-thigh support due to inadequate cushion tilt for the driver. And they could use a bit more side bolstering too – especially given the Stinger’s cornering capability.
The dashboard treads a similarly good but not-quite-there path, with a very European aesthetic (including Benz-style ‘eyeball’ air vents that look prettier than their German inspiration) and some great details like the seat-temperature toggles and a pleasant finish to the central brushed-metal strip. But the parts-bin info screen in the Stinger’s instrument pack lowers its aspirational tone and the multimedia screen graphics – while easy to decipher and use – are from another era and design ethos. At least you can substitute them with Apple Carplay to lift the sophistication.
Even with the front passenger’s seat set to its lowest position (via a manual crank-handle adjuster in the base 2.0T), there’s an acceptable amount of toe room for an adult banished to the rear, with leg- and knee-room bordering on generous… for two people.
A sizeable transmission tunnel exposes the rear-drive Stinger’s low-slung form, making the centre position a childonly affair, though the outer spots will comfortably seat adults. There’s minimal ‘theatre effect’ though, with the front headrests looming large in your field of vision, and the seat itself mirrors the front buckets in its rather short cushion length and sparse under-thigh support.
What rear passengers do enjoy is another pair of ‘eyeball’ air vents with their own temperature-control dial, a 12-volt outlet and a USB port. And you can’t discount the flexibility of the Stinger’s liftback bodystyle, blending a sleek ‘fastback’ appearance with fold-flat rear backrests and greater luggage flexibility than a traditional sedan. That said, an Optima clearly eclipses the Stinger for rear seat room (despite its 100mm-shorter wheelbase) as well as boot space (510 litres versus 406).
But the Stinger isn’t meant to make total practical sense. This is an emotional car driven by the passion of Kia’s European design bosses, producing a seductive sedan that just so happens to wear a Kia badge. And we have to applaud the Stinger’s Aussie-tuned chassis, which treads an impressively subtle line between controlled comfort and agile sportiness. Add a value-for-money pricing structure spanning roughly $43,000 to $60,000, give or take a grand or two, and you get plenty of presence for what is essentially chump change compared to what its comparative European rivals cost – the exact cars, in fact, which Kia will be pitching the Stinger against in most other markets.
Be that as it may, the four-pot engine’s lack of acoustic personality doesn’t match the Stinger’s sporting panache, and that’s where the disconnect between the styling team, who’ve done a terrific job in nailing the gran turismo brief, and the engineering decision to insert an off-the-shelf engine like this becomes exposed. The Stinger deserves to have its sporting personality and styling charisma enhanced by suitably seductive powertrains, even the four-cylinder version.
Thankfully, the optional sports exhaust saves the Aussiemarket Stinger V6 from being a worthy but not-quite-there sporting substitute for our former V8 appetite. In terms of pace and price, it’s bang on the zeitgeist, and there’s also stuff like Kia’s seven-year unlimited-mileage warranty to garnish the deal.
The Stinger isn’t perfect, but as an adaptive-damped GT range-topper, or even an entry-level rear-drive alternative to a bunch of far less dynamic front-drivers, Kia’s entertaining flagship brings enough individuality and quality to demand that Euro-focused badge snobs pay serious attention.
OZ WILL BE A KEY STINGER MARKET, SECOND ONLY TO THE US, WITH THE MAJORITY OF LOCAL SALES TIPPED TO BE V6 MODELS