Love At First Sting
“Rock You Like A Hurricane” is the song that got me into rock ’n’ roll, the first song I learned on the cheap Squire Stratocaster copy I begged my mom to buy me, and the reason every Motor Trend test car has SiriusXM’s Hair Nation stored in its radio presets. 1984’s Love At First Sting album cemented the Scorpions’ place in pop culture history, led by the band’s second-highest-charting single ever, from which it borrowed its name. I was thinking about all of this just before setting out on the Nürburgring Nordscheife in the 2018 Kia Stinger GT, less than four hours’ drive from the Scorpions hometown in Hanover, wondering if this wildly out of character Kia would inspire any feelings similar to the first time I heard that song.
I had very little time to think after that.
In all my years in this job, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to drive the ’Ring. In all the coverage we’ve given the new Stinger, this is the first time I’ve sat behind the wheel, period. None of this was communicated to the driver of the car we were instructed to follow, a Belgian pro racer hired by Kia to help with durability testing on the ’Ring, nor was he apparently informed the first lap was to be a warm-up. Within five seconds of entering the track, he had the throttle pinned, and it was up to me to keep up with him. I’m not entirely convinced he was aware he was leading journalists at all and not just doing hot laps. We never spoke, before, during, or after. Our cars were equipped with radios. They stayed silent.
This story illustrates beautifully how easy it is to drive the Stinger GT quickly. I got behind the wheel of a car I’d never driven on a track I’d never been to (the freaking Nürburgring, no less) and kept up with the hired gun not because I’m the world’s best driver but because the Stinger GT is just that confident and composed on a racetrack.
The first indication is the solidity. It doesn’t quite have that carved-from-granite feel of a Mercedes-Benz, but it’s close. The Stinger GT feels purposefully heavy, pressed into the ground by an unseen hand and making the best use of the grip it affords. At roughly 3,800 pounds (1,724 kg) in rear-wheel-drive form, it could actually stand to lose a little weight, but it manages the weight it has well. (Note: Our test cars were fully loaded with sunroofs, 15-speaker stereos, heated and cooled front seats, and more.) The adjustable dampers (standard on the GT model), used exclusively in their Sport setting, do a commendable job of controlling body motions and allowing the car to lean on its outside tires rather than flop onto them. (Another note: Our test cars were equipped with slightly stiffer European-spec dampers.) For track duty, I’d prefer a bit less roll before the weight is transferred, but I suspect I wouldn’t mind it on the road.
That transitional stability is what really sells the Stinger GT’s handling credentials. Larger and heavier than most cars Kia benchmarked, such as the 3 Series, A4, and C-Class, the Stinger GT is incredibly neutral on track. Weight transfers smoothly while mid-corner bumps are absorbed skillfully and without upsetting the chassis. The handling limit default behavior is, predictably for a street car, mild to moderate understeer, provoked by trying to carry too much speed into a corner far more often than trying to exit too quickly.
The steering itself, though not the greatest electric power steering on the market, is very good and the best Kia’s ever produced. The rack-mounted motor never lets the steering get too heavy, as many automakers tend to do when attempting to convey a sporty feeling, nor does it confiscate feedback from the road. Information from the front tires is muted, but it’s there, and it tells you what’s coming with enough detail to respond quickly. The ratio is variable, but it’s done mechanically in the gearing, so it never changes. Steering just off center is a bit slow, good for high-speed stability, and more aggressive as you turn farther. To really attack a racetrack, I’d make it a little more aggressive, but it’s just what you’d want in a GT car.
At the other end, the Stinger GT’s rear wheels stay planted seemingly no matter what you throw at them. A sharp crest could cause the rear to get light, and when it was located in a turn the rear would make small lateral movements as if it might come loose, but it never did. Trail braking, a heavy right foot, and the vagaries of the Green Hell couldn’t get it to come loose. Some credit goes to the suspension geometry but also to the mechanical limited-slip differential (an electronically controlled model is under development but wasn’t ready in time). From prior reporting, we know that when it does step out, the result is linear and easily controlled oversteer, which is good for drifting. That’s by design, intended to make the car predictable and manageable at the limit.
A great deal of credit also goes to the Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tires designed specifically for this car. They displayed an impressive level of grip, especially in the rear, and were quick to recover from understeer when you backed off the steering. They made little noise at their limits, and after a day of lapping behind “instructors” apparently looking to beat personal records, barely showed any wear. It’s a testament to how well the chassis is using its tires.
I must similarly compliment the Brembo brakes (also standard on the GT). They took five all-out laps with almost no cooldown period between them, each lap including a haul down from nearly 155 mph (249 km/h) right at the end, and never faded. I especially enjoyed the ease of modulating the brakes and the feel they returned, though for track work I would prefer slightly less pedal travel and a bit more bite. Here, again, I imagine it wouldn’t bother me on a back road at lower speeds. I am slightly concerned I’ll like the slightly less aggressive U.S.-spec brake pads, which are quieter and produce less dust, less than the European-spec pads on our test cars.
Not wanting to become the star of the latest Nürburgring crash compilation on YouTube, I elected to keep the traction and stability control on and in their Sport mode (which is tied to the Sport driving mode). I felt very few interventions, and those I did notice employed a very light touch, modulating the brakes and throttle only enough to keep the tires planted and pointed the right way. It’s another testament to the chassis the ESC has little work to do, though the mere fact this is the first Kia to allow you to fully defeat the ESC makes you want to do it just on principle.
If performance is your principle, you’ll want to stick with the rear-wheel-drive model. The Stinger GT is also offered with an all-wheel-drive system developed by a Hyundai Motor Group–owned supplier and utilizes an electronically controlled center clutch, open differentials, and brake-actuated torque vectoring. Kia claims the all-wheel-drive car will have a performance advantage in poor weather, but on a perfect summer’s day it saps some of the car’s character. Adding roughly 155 pounds (70 kg) to the nose doesn’t help the car’s heavy feeling, nor does it help with the understeer on corner entry. What’s more, it erases the steering feel. The brake torque vectoring does feel like it’s helping point the car out of a corner, but the nose doesn’t pull you out like a GT-R even when it’s sending the maximum 50 percent of engine torque to the front axle. If you live in an area with chronically poor weather, it’s worth considering, but otherwise, the rear-drive car is more fun all around.
Also putting a small damper on the fun factor is the turbo lag and throttle response, which is especially evident on the heavier all-wheel-drive car. Although the 365-hp, 376 lb-ft twin-turbocharged V-6 has just the right amount of muscle for the car, it’s slow to respond at corner exit. The turbos seem to be at fault, judging by how slowly the boost gauge comes up. The lag is noticeable enough a work-around is needed, the best of which is to simply floor the gas pedal as soon as you clip the apex. By the time the boost comes on, momentum will have carried you out to the exit of the corner when you want the power.
The engine, a reworked version of Kia’s existing 3.3-liter V-6, is otherwise strong. When the boost is on, the Stinger GT is appropriately quick for its size and pretensions, hitting 60 mph in a claimed 4.9 seconds. It even makes a surprisingly pleasing growl in the cabin, no easy feat for a V-6, much less a turbocharged one. What’s more, Kia’s American representatives tell us they’ve ordered up a louder exhaust system for our market to give it a bit more presence because it’s rather quiet outside the car.
The final piece of the puzzle is an in-house-designed and built eight-speed automatic transmission, the only option. It’s an excellent gearbox, performing as well on the track as the industry standard ZF eight-speed found in many European sport sedans. It changes gears quickly and smoothly, and the Sport mode programming is almost good enough not to need the paddles on track. I’d make it a little more aggressive myself, but it’s close. As for the paddles, their response is a bit slow and inconsistent, and the gearbox will automatically upshift at redline, which always seems to arrive more quickly than anticipated.
Elsewhere behind the wheel, the Stinger GT presents an excellent driver’s seat with adjustable side bolsters. It offers great lateral support and keeps you firmly planted in the seat no matter how hard you drive. Unfortunately, the front passenger’s seat is wider with fixed, less aggressive bolsters, allowing occupants to be tossed around more than they ought to. The steering wheel itself is appropriately thick without overdoing it like a BMW M car. The rear window is quite small, rather like a BMW 6 Series, but the outward visibility is otherwise good.
Although Kia conducted our first real driving opportunity on the Nürburgring, it’s pitching the Stinger and Stinger GT as high-performance grand touring cars, not track specials. Some aspects of the car are deliberately softened to make it more pleasant in real-world driving, though not so much as to hurt its sporty character on a back road. Rather than take on an M4 or C63, the Stinger GT hopes to muscle in on the 440i M Sport and C43 AMG. After my experience, I would also suggest anyone interested in over-priced and under-styled Chevrolet SS give this car serious consideration, as well. It might not have the V-8 rumble and stick shift, but it’s otherwise a solid alternative. Anyone wishing their Dodge Charger or Chrysler 300 could go around a corner with authority while still offering good interior space and a big trunk should also take a look.
Being Kia’s first-ever rear-drive sedan, it’s first-ever sport sedan, and the quickest car the company has ever sold, placing the Stinger and Stinger GT in the automotive world can be difficult. With the turbocharged four-cylinder Stinger expected to start around $30,000 USD and the twin-turbo V-6 Stinger GT hoping to come in just under $40,000 USD and top out around $50,000 USD, it’s playing right in the heart of the market with competitors of all types. It is at once a European-type grand tourer and also a big, powerful, roomy, rear-drive sedan Americans used to adore. It’s nice enough to impress a luxury car buyer in the same price range but affordable enough to be attainable to the average buyer. It’s sporty enough to make the established luxury sport sedan builders take notice and comfortable and stylish enough to get midsize sedan buyers to upgrade.
However Kia decides to pitch it and wherever the market chooses to place it, the Stinger GT is already a success. Kia has proved it can step outside of its comfort zone and build unfamiliar cars as well as its stalwarts. Moreover, Kia has proved it can build a sports car good enough to take on the world, on its first try, no less. Regardless of its place in history, the Stinger GT is simply a great sport sedan, and that’s something we can always get behind.