THE LAST TIME ANYONE GOT EXCITED ABOUT A 9.5-minute lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Hermann Lang was popping corks, having grabbed pole at the 1939 German Grand Prix.
But such a pace in a Kia Stinger felt plenty exciting. That’s partly because the so-called sighting lap of this fearsome track turned out to require, oh, about 100 percent of this writer’s capabilities. But it’s also because the Stinger is great. You can’t accuse Kia of lacking ambition. Not content with making life difficult for established automakers in the affordable end of the market, Kia now wants to wage war on premium brands. And the 167-mph Stinger is its weapon of choice.
Kia’s other weapon is engineer Albert Biermann, a 32-year veteran of BMW, the last seven of which he spent at BMW's M division. He was lured to Hyundai, Kia’s parent company, by what we assume to be a sizable paycheck as well as a new challenge: make a Korean car drive well enough to persuade you out of your BMW 4-series Gran Coupe.
“This has been a great opportunity for us to do something really different, to really surprise people,” Biermann says.
A classic front-engined, rear-drive sedan—all-wheel drive is optional—the Stinger comes in two levels of sting, each with a standard eight-speed automatic transmission. The base model has a 255-hp, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder. The Stinger GT has a 365-hp, 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6, the same one as in the Genesis G80 Sport.
Biermann is at pains to point out that the Stinger is not meant to be a track car, nor a full-blown M rival—just a well-rounded sport sedan that doesn’t feel out of its element if you happen to stumble across 12.9 miles of one-way toll road in Germany’s Eifel Mountains.
He’s underselling it. Controlled and agile, with huge reserves of front-end grip from its 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires, the rear-wheel-drive Stinger GT didn’t feel remotely out of its depth at the Ring. Only the worst of the Nordschleife’s horrific dips that cause extreme compression in every car’s suspension system questioned the Stinger’s resolve and body control. The steering feels natural, and the long, 114.4-inch wheelbase, coupled with a rear-driver’s limited-slip differential, makes neat little tail slides easy to hold.
Biermann’s team is working on an electronically controlled rear differential to improve the agility. That’ll be a bonus, not a Band-Aid. More important are Biermann’s ideas of what doesn’t belong on a sport sedan. “No run-flat tires and no flat-bottom steering wheels. Not on my watch.”
The all-wheel-drive car sparkled a little less. It’s still solid, still more fun than an Audi A5 Sportback—another clear rival—but not as sweet to steer, as eager to turn, or as playful as its simpler brother. Blame those front driveshafts and a curb weight edging dangerously close to 4000 pounds.
If there’s a weak link, at least within the entirely unnatural confines of the 'Ring, it’s the GT’s engine and gearbox combination. The torque-converter automatic, developed by Hyundai, isn’t as responsive as an Audi’s dual-clutch ’box, and the engine sounds a little bland. We’re promised that U.S.-spec Stingers will take full advantage of North America’s less stringent noise regulations and make more music. No complaints about the performance. A factory-measured 4.9 seconds to 60 mph will leave plenty of German-car drivers red-faced.
Kia knows that while excellent performance and handling are necessary to be considered seriously against German rivals, they may not be sufficient. So, the Stinger plays Kia’s well-worn value card. It’ll be priced to undercut a 4-series—think $33,000 to $50,000—but is closer in size to a 6-series Gran Coupe. Legroom is vast, and head- room fine, despite the tapering roofline—a shape that designer Gregory Guillaume says was inspired by iconic 1960s and ’70s European GTs, like the Maserati Ghibli. Left unmentioned is the similarity to the more contemporary Audi A7. Regardless, it’s handsome.
Those looks and the attractive price are what will draw in most buyers. What has us hooked, however, is this first dance on the Nürburgring. We’ll have to wait until later in the year to get a fuller picture of the Stinger, but on this evidence, the message is clear: If you’re in the market for a 4-series Gran Coupe, you should check your brand prejudice and take this car seriously. BMW and Audi will, if they have any sense.