First Drive Review: 2018 Kia Stinger

Forget everything you think you know about Kia. Forget the Sephia and first generation Sportage. The Kia of today is not the Kia of two decades ago in any way, shape, or form.

Kia has risen through the ranks, leading in quality and reliability ratings over the past several years. Kia went from lacking engineering and design finesse to leading, incorporating execs from the major luxury automakers, bringing Kia to the modern age with the latest in design, craftsmanship, engineering, and efficiency. And they continue to do it all, while providing the most bang for the buck.

Kia showed off the GT Concept in 2011 at the Frankfurt Motor Show and boy did we ever love it! We never thought in our wildest dreams that they would green-light this beautiful, performance-oriented car. We’re so glad to be not only proven wrong, but that the majority of the design made it to production.

Peter Schreyer, the father of the Audi TT, has been Kia’s design chief for over a decade and a primary reason Kia’s vehicles have a greater focus on exterior and interior design. He oversaw the concept and final production design of the Stinger, so it’s no surprise that the Stinger’s rolling off the line today are the most magnificent vehicles that Kia has ever produced. In fact, Stinger is in our top 20 list of best-looking vehicles of all time.

When we finally saw the production car in person at the NY Auto Show in the spring of 2017, we knew we had to spend some quality time with it.

The Stinger is all about the journey, and not the destination. The front-end is muscular and confident, with a grand smile and a wide stance that says, “I’m ready.” The honeycomb shaped headlight detailing of the amber turn signals is as sexy as lighting design gets, bringing the texture of the grille into each headlight.

Stinger’s sportback silhouette is enhanced by its long hood and downward sloping roofline, flowing fast into the liftback rear.

The tail is clean, elegant, sporty, and fierce: all at once. The LED taillights are distinguishable from a mile away by car aficionados, while the dual exhaust outlets in the rear valence hint at the kind of capability the Stinger is packing.

Chrome is so 2008. Stinger GTs feature dark chrome mirror caps, side vent ‘gills’, and trim surrounding the tiger-nose grille creating an entirely unique, polished look that we can’t get enough of.

Turbo-four models wear 18-inch rubber while V6 equipped Stingers get unique staggered 19-inch Michelin rubber which the Stinger was tuned with on the Nurburgring.

The turbo-four models are not the ugly ducklings by any means, it’s just that the GT models look so aesthetically perfect with the factory wheels, dark chrome, and red Brembo brake calipers.

Swing open the driver’s door and notice the clean dash along with the contrasting stitching on the aggressively bolstered seats. Power seats, power steering column adjustment, a heated steering wheel, ventilated front seats, standard leather upholstery–it’s hard to believe this level of equipment is available at the Stinger’s price point. Then again, that’s what Kia has been doing for years, surprising us all.

Slip into the driver’s seat and the first thing noticed are the round air vents. They’re gorgeous and feel of the utmost quality when adjusting. The aluminum trim across the dash and into the switchgear is real metal; cool to the touch on a hot day and our ever-favorite volume and tuning knobs flank either side of the infotainment controls.

Aluminum trim continues into the door panels, blending with the textures of plastics and fine leather. The Harman/Kardon door speakers are covered with an aluminum grille cut in an intricate hole pattern. The detailing is incredible.

For GT cars, a thick D-shaped wheel looks the part, but the standard steering wheel feels just as good. All switchgear feels solid and is smartly illuminated. Headroom, even with the low-slung roofline and panoramic roof, is plentiful.

Throwing the Stinger through mountain roads shows not only the platform and powertrain capability, but the superior design of the seats. After several hours of driving, there was no discomfort from sitting in the Stinger.

At night, ambient lighting is everywhere. Kia’s design team wanted to show off the beauty of the Stinger day or night, and the multi-color LED illumination inside makes it a place you will want to be.

Picking up friends, co-workers, or hauling a few kids? The rear seat is perfect for two six-foot passengers, but the drive shaft running down the center means a third adult in the middle has to share foot space. Either way, vents and power outlets in the rear still make it a great place to be, second to the driver’s seat.

For those who don’t know, liftback translates into “massive cargo opening for those who enjoy the art of picking up large items found curb-side.” The design translates into 23.3 cubic feet of cargo space, and with the door up and out of the way, the space is easy to take advantage of.

All that really matters is that Kia made Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard on the Stinger. We love both and find them far better to interact with on a daily basis than most automaker infotainment systems.

That aside, Kia’s system is one of the best ones out there. The icons are large, the voice dictation works well, and the display is a high resolution. Some Stingers get a 7-inch model while others get an 8-inch. We sampled both and found that extra inch of real estate was worth it for better interaction.

Harman/Kardon and Kia also did extensive work on providing the best acoustics in the Stinger, utilizing the body and pillars of the car to improve the acoustics. With 720-watts, subwoofers under each front seat, and 15-speakers, this system is perfect for this car.

USB and 12V ports are aplenty.

On the driver-assist front, we were impressed by the Stinger’s adaptive cruise system. It worked well in stop-and-go afternoon LA traffic. We found the ability to adjust the responsiveness of the system in the vehicle settings to be an intelligent option that allow every Stinger driver to customize how their adaptive cruise functions. We’ll have to spend more time with a Stinger to fully evaluate just how refined the system is, along with the abilities of the lane keep assist system.

Being Kia’s first performance-oriented vehicle, the Stinger team knew this car had to go the extra mile to prove its worth. As we said, forget everything you previously thought you knew about Kia. Think of this as an entirely new car manufacturer.

Albert Biermann, former VP of engineering at BMW, has been with Kia since 2014 and was largely responsible for making this one incredible driver’s car. He refers to the Stinger as the car that nobody expects from Kia, calling Stinger a “whole different animal.”

Stinger’s development took place across the globe, but the Nurburgring’s intense Nordschleife is where the Stinger was refined.  With 73 corners, nearly 1,000 feet of elevation and 17 percent gradients, Kia’s engineers put every development Stinger through a minimum of 480 laps (equivalent to 6,214 miles) of high-stress driving around the track for quality, reliability and durability testing.

The constant combination of hard acceleration, rapid deceleration, heavy cornering, changing surfaces and camber are one of the most intense forms of on-road testing in existence.

How does this translate to taking the Stinger out on California mountain roads? One word: unbelievable.

We started the drive with a fully-equipped GT2 Stinger with AWD. GT1 and GT2 come standard with a continuously damping electronically controlled suspension, called Dynamic Stability Damping Control.  DSDC takes in a number of inputs from various sensors and using an algorithm, predicts what the driver has planned for the Stinger.

The car responds with more agility through the corners by softening the front shocks and firming up the rear. At higher speeds, improved stability is achieved when the system stiffens the front shocks and softens the rear.  Best of all, it takes just a twist of the center console knob behind the mono-stable shifter to turn the Stinger into a beast. Kia suspension engineers created five modes: Custom, Eco, Sport, Comfort, and Smart.

Rocketing through the mountain and country roads, the Stinger feels so incredibly stable and glued to the road. Steering feedback is excellent, throttle inputs feel refined and well-matched to the pedal position, and the exhaust note is phenomenal. If anything, we’d increase it a tad.

When swapped for an identical GT2 but with the RWD layout, the difference is noticeable. Understeer approaches more quickly, requiring an adjustment of how much throttle is given into a corner. It’s still a thrill, but for the ultimate in secure handling and performance driving, the AWD model is the one to get.

Acceleration from the 3.3L twin-turbo V6 is breathtaking. 365 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque make the Stinger feel light as a feather. The perfectly-calibrated eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters helps route all that power perfectly.

With AWD, there’s a whole dissertation on how power is distributed between the front and rear wheels, depending on drive mode selected and various other vehicle inputs. In summary, it works seamlessly and exactly as we hoped.

2.0L turbo models generate a pleasing 255 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, more than plenty. Engineers added a Centrifugal Pendulum Absorber (CPA) torque converter to help reduce torsional vibrations throughout the drivetrain, resulting in a refined feel from the smaller engine.

Braking performance is strong regardless of model chosen. The turbo-four Stingers get smaller rotors front and rear, but they’re also lighter. V6 models receive the massive Brembo brakes which are ventilated in the back.

The EPA rates the Stinger with the turbo-four and RWD at 22/29/25 (city/highway/combined) and AWD at 21/29/24. V6 models are rated 19/25/21 for RWD and AWD.

Kia’s VP of Product Planning refers to the Stinger as a “dream car” and we couldn’t agree more. Stingers are arriving at dealerships right about now.

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