2018 Kia Stinger Review - A Good Recipe in Need of Some Seasoning

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey
2018 kia stinger review a good recipe in need of some seasoning

Anyone who likes to cook knows it’s rare to get a new dish right on the first try. It usually takes a few tweaks to reach perfection, no matter how good the base recipe is.

That’s the case with the much-hyped Kia Stinger. Kia has never built a grand-touring sports sedan before, so the brand was essentially starting from scratch. Which could explain why the Stinger, which we’ve been hearing about for what seems like an eternity now, is very good, but not as great as I’d hoped.

Full disclosure: Kia flew media out to North Hollywood, California and fed us several excellent meals while lodging us in a retro-themed luxury hotel. They gave us designer sunglasses, provided dinner entertainment, screenings of classic movies in a private theater, and hosted us in a room full of arcade video games, pinball machines, a pool table, and a skee-ball machine.

The Stinger is offered with two engines — a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder making 255 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque and a 3.3-liter twin-turbocharged V6 making 365 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque. Cars equipped with the latter engine are dubbed Stinger GTs. Both engines pair with a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission. Rear-wheel drive is standard, with all-wheel drive available.

It all makes for an interesting vehicle, one that was anticipated to satisfy sky-high expectations.

Let’s start with the good. Acceleration from the V6 is stout, providing grins whenever you goose the gas. The exhaust has a lovely baritone (yes, it is artificially augmented) that burbles forth and lets you know you aren’t driving an Optima. Passing punch is plentiful and the Stinger may be the first-ever Kia to become a law-enforcement magnet.

Ride quality is firm yet pleasant, even in Sport mode, which is the only mode you should use (I’ll get to that). Whether on the freeway or the back roads, the Stinger felt comfortable and composed.

This carries over to handling. The car feels planted and the steering properly weighted. Mid-corner corrections are easy, thanks to precise steering.

Handling is also where the bad news begins, however. The positive attributes are nearly cancelled out by copious body roll — too much for a car of this type and intent. Kia types tried to defend this trait by saying some version of “well, it’s a grand tourer,” but these are the same folks who suggested it might compete with some sporty German and Japanese iron, such as the Audi A5/S5 and BMW’s grand tourers.

This defense doesn’t totally ring hollow, at least not based on some competing cars on hand for comparison duty. But Kia didn’t once utter the words “Alfa Romeo” during the press brief, and almost every car mentioned either offers a sportier version that went unremarked upon or will not be cross-shopped against the Stinger. The Porsche Panamera, especially, is not a model shoppers will compare to the new Kia — the price gap alone is enough to drive a Ford Fusion through.

Regardless of comps, being a “grand tourer” doesn’t excuse the amount of body roll displayed by a car with sporting intent. The Stinger is supposed to be more than an attractive road-tripper, meaning Kia has some work to do here.

Kia has less work to do with the design — it’s a looker. The exterior shape is sleek and cleanly drawn, and the aviation-themed interior is pretty, too. Some of the aero bits aren’t just tacked on for looks, either – for example, the vents on the front fenders do send cooling air towards the brakes.

Well, mostly pretty. The cabin is marred by another one of those tacked-on infotainment screens (please, automakers, stop this) and there are a lot of buttons clustered together in various spaces. As far as materials go, most are class-appropriate, but cheaper plastic appears in some locales.

Kia took pains to point out that the Stinger has a longer wheelbase than the Audi A5 Sportback, Infiniti Q50, Lexus IS and GS, and BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, which leads to a larger interior. There’s plenty of room up front and in the back – Kia got the part about grand tourers needing to haul four adults correct. The cargo area is also spacious, at 23.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 40.9 with the seats down.

Part of our day with the car included an untimed autocross. We were supposed to use this part of the afternoon to compare Stinger GTs with both drivetrains against an Audi A5 S Line, an Audi A7, a BMW 440i, a BMW 650i, an Infiniti Q50, a Lexus GS F Sport, and a Porsche Panamera.

Astute readers will note that the deck was slightly stacked in Kia’s favor – no Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrofoligo (or even Ti) in sight, no Audi S5, no M4 or M6 – you get the idea. Of course, most of those cars are pure performance vehicles while the versions on hand are meant as a balance between performance and daily driving – which goes to show that Kia probably sees the Stinger GT, at least as presently constructed, as something more than a pure performance vehicle.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I provide most of this for context, since Kia is likely to play up performance in its Stinger marketing.

Since the autocross was untimed, I set about driving like a jackass to get each vehicle to slide around a bit. Using terms like “at the limit” is a bit silly when referring to an autocross, but I nevertheless wanted to get a sense of how each car behaved when pushed a little too hard. The A5 and the Lexus were my favorites of the day, with the Stinger (and both drivetrains) finishing third in my mental rankings.

The rear-drive Stinger had a tendency to plow in corners before snapping around into a tail-happy slide, while the AWD car proved more stable under hard acceleration. I could distantly feel the torque-vectoring system working to bring the AWD car around – a feeling I was able to sort of detect even on public roads.

Kia bragged about the Stinger’s brakes, and with good reason – they’re fantastic. The automaker has introduced a system that is supposed to mitigate brake fade, but I can’t say for sure if either autocrossing or driving through the mountains produced enough hard braking to require the system’s intervention.

On the road, perhaps the biggest flaw is something that’s also a strength – it often seemed too well-behaved to have an engaging personality. At times, I felt I was driving too slow, only to look down and see I was traveling or cornering at the appropriate speed – the Stinger’s quietness and mostly behaved (sans body roll) suspension sapped the drama, and perhaps some of the fun, out of the proceedings.

Kia gives you five drive modes to choose from (Comfort, Eco, Sport, Smart, and Custom), and I found Sport to be the best for all situations, not just hard driving. Even on city streets and the freeway, it offers better steering and throttle responses than the slightly sloppy Comfort and Eco modes.

I did get a brief spin in the four-cylinder Stinger but, as my time was limited and I was navigating urban traffic, my stint wasn’t terribly instructive. I can say that the four has some guts, but how much I am not sure – the mix of traffic and pedestrians milling about kept me from misbehaving.

Based on an extremely small sample size, I suspect Kia will sell more four-cylinders than it planned. That’s because the car seems to have enough punch for around-town duty, and some buyers will simply not care about the V6’s power – they’ll want the looks at a cheaper price. This is how a Kia dealer will walk an Optima intender into a four-banger Stinger.

Stinger buyers get a choice of five trims – base, Premium, GT, GT1, and GT2. Since all V6s are GTs, that means the final three trims only apply to the V6. Every car on hand for driving was a top-trim GT2.

Available features across the various trims include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, navigation, head-up display, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, USB, Nappa leather upholstery, heated front seats, cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, Bluetooth, premium audio, UVO infotainment, rearview camera, and a host of driver aids (parking assist, forward-collision avoidance assist, front-collision warning, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, driver-attention warning, blind-spot collision warning with lane-change assist, rear cross-path detection, and smart cruise control). You can even have subwoofers under your butt.

Evaluating the overall package, it feels like Kia set out to build a pure sports sedan with a touch of luxury and ended up building a luxury sedan that’s pretty damn sporty.

Not just sporty, but relatively cheap. A base Stinger will set you back just $32,800, including the D and D fee. Stepping up to a GT requires $39,250, while a GT2 will cost you $50,100. All-wheel drive adds $2,200 across the board. So, a loaded Stinger with AWD is $52,300.

While this price range puts it on par (give or take options/trims) with the Infiniti, the Giulia Ti, the A5, and the GS F Sport (only if compared to the GT2, in the case of the Lexus), it also puts the top-end Stinger right around the price point of the 440i/440xi – and that’s before the BMW adds any options. The Stinger presents a value choice, depending on options, for those who aren’t wrapped up in brand identity. If you don’t need a BMW to feel good about yourself, the Stinger is a damn good alternative.

What’s odd is that the Stinger’s competitive set isn’t clear cut. The Lexus and Infiniti are sedans, not hatches, for one. For another, the Audi and BMW might not be cross-shopped much against the Kia. The Chevy SS sedan is dead. That leaves the Dodge Charger/Chrysler 300, which are muscle-car large sedans, not grand tourers, and the Giulia. Which puts the Stinger in a unique spot in the marketplace.

I am curious to see if a more “pure” performance level will emerge in a year or two, or if Hyundai/Kia will leave that to the upcoming Stinger-based Genesis G70. In the meantime, the Stinger is a solid first effort that needs a bit of tweaking to bring out its personality and reduce body roll in cornering.

The GT is the enthusiast’s choice, but even in four-cylinder guise the Stinger is a spacious, svelte grand-touring hatch that provides enough luxury and driving thrills to satisfy, even with some evident flaws. It needs work to be perfect, but the dish is still tasty.

[Images ©2017 Tim Healey/The Truth About Cars]

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  • MarkyMark MarkyMark on Dec 18, 2017

    Tim – I was able to test drive a 2.0L Premium trim Stinger this past Thursday (I'm in Portland, OR so perhaps we are getting them sooner than other parts of the country?). I currently own a Mazda 6 Touring. I drive about 24k a year, as I am in engineering sales, so Seattle, Portland, eastern Washington or southern Oregon, I'm there. A 4-door sedan that gets good milage, yet is't an Econo-compact sedan that doesn't show well to the companies I represent, nor too "look at me" actually can mean a lot. I like sporty, but I'm not buying a luxury car nor dealing with their repair costs, etc... I told myself I've never buy a car over $30k and so far I'm managed that. For how much longer, who knows, but the base Kia Stinger might be my next car. I think you nailed it in saying Kia may sell a lot more 2.0l Stingers than Kia thinks. I feared the 2.0L would seem heavy, large and not nearly the fun nimble car my Mazda6 gives me (until pushed - lot of yaw roll over the font axel for sure!). So, what did it do? 1. The Stinger did not feel heavy. Solid? Yes. Sturdy? Yes. But not heavy or in need of a diet. 2. Handling and the different modes were a hoot! Indeed, the Sport mode, or building a custom mode is where I'll live 90% of the time. Corning made my Mazda 6 feel like a slosh bucket, tipping this way and that. 3. Power. The Mazda 6 feels spry and lively out of the gate, but the 2.0L Stinger, after a slight wait, pedal down and the turbo knows to kick and and there is a surprising amount of off-the-line power. Granted, I'm comparing the Stinger's characteristics to my current car, the Mazda benchmark, but it's what I own today. Kia may be pulling a lot of mid-to-higher-end mid-sized sedan buyers north. Lastly, I was very interested in the new Buick Regal Sportback, but that was months ago, before I started investing the Stinger. Basically, if I wanted a version of a Malibu, with bad leather, and lots of plastic, and so-so driving characteristics, I'd buy a high-end Malibu. The Buick Regal is the kind of car this "tweeter" market seems to have produced for a long, long, time. A tweaked mid-side sedan of some sort, with souped up specs here or there. AKA Buick. But Kia seemed to be truly focused on brining a vehicle into that space, with the fun of driving and great looks inside and out, to provide true value in the mid-$30k range. I'm impressed. Bravo Kia.

  • Jplew138 Jplew138 on Feb 12, 2018

    Drive one of these a couple of days ago, loaded four-cylinder 2WD. Verdict? Unless you just WANT to see a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes-Benz emblem on your hood, I'd buy the Kia and pocket the $20,000 or so I saved and put it to good use somewhere else. It's that damn good.

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