Every automaker – with the possible exception of Lada – strives to build its “halo car,” the culmination of everything the company has learned in terms of design, technology and performance.
The intent is to put a brand ambassador on the street so that car buyers are reminded just how awesome the company is, and hopefully telegraph the notion that some of its qualities have trickled down to all of the maker’s products. That’s the marketing theory, anyway.
Examples of halo cars include the Ford GT, Acura NSX, Audi R8 and Nissan GT-R. Halos needn’t command six-figure prices; autos such as the Chevrolet Corvette, Toyota Supra and the diminutive Mazda MX-5 Miata are all effective envoys.
After a couple of decades of doing business in North America, Kia was keen to develop a halo car of its own to help draw attention to its performance branding – something that might come as news to a lot of drivers. The Stinger became its breakout ambassador in 2018. One magazine characterized it as a four-door Korean Mustang, given its slick profile, rear-wheel drive and muscular twin-turbo V6.
Turns out Kia has lots of good stuff on the shelves it shares with its corporate parent, Hyundai. The rigid platform was initially engineered for the mother corp’s Genesis luxury sedan, although the Stinger uses a shortened version of the rear-drive chassis bolstered with additional steel braces for a solid foundation from which the suspension could do its best work.
The front-strut and rear multilink suspension was meticulously tuned by Albert Biermann, lured from BMW, and his team, who sweated such details as control-arm attachment points and bushing stiffness. The car also benefited from extensive testing on Germany’s famed Nürburgring Nordschleife racing circuit.
What buyers will likely first notice is the Stinger’s low-slung appearance. It has the profile of a Porsche Panamera, rather than the more upright look of a BMW 3 Series or Lexus IS, which are in the Stinger’s price bracket. There’s good space in the cabin, although getting inside takes a bit of bending; occupants quickly realize the seats are mounted close to the floor to maintain the car’s low centre of gravity.
Tall drivers may brush up against the headliner, especially since a sunroof comes standard on most models. There’s even less headroom in the back due to the sloping roofline, and rear legroom is merely decent. Outward visibility is good peering ahead, but the sloping beltline towards the back and the large rear pillars compromise the view out back. Trunk space is very accommodating and here’s why: the Stinger is a hatchback.
“Why buy a soulless throat lozenge like every crossover out there?” someone pondered online. “Buy a Stinger and get power, style, handling, and still be able to carry loads of stuff in the hatch.” The cargo hold is wide and rectangular, though the rear seats don’t quite fold flat.
The Stinger is loaded with the latest tech, starting with a sharp touchscreen and standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. A suite of the latest driving aids is available, including blind-spot monitoring, forward collision warning and more, on trims where it isn’t already standard. Most models come with an impressive-sounding Harman Kardon audio system.
Powering the stereo (and the whole car) are two distinct engines: base models use a 2.0-litre turbocharged four cylinder that makes 255 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. GT models get a 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6 that churns out 365 hp and 376 lb-ft of healthy torque. The bigger engine has a bigger supporting cast, including 19-inch wheels, Brembo brakes, adaptive suspension dampers, variable steering ratios and a launch control system.
Both engines are from the Genesis parts bin and utilize the same 8-speed automatic transmission developed in house by Hyundai’s Transys. The optional all-wheel-drive system is rear-biased – the way Biermann, and God, intended.
Engineers must have gotten the Stinger right from inception because they made no significant changes right through the 2021 model year – although Kia Canada quietly dropped the four-banger Stinger part way through 2020. The 2022 models – all GTs – earn their first real refresh, which includes a three horespower uptick in power (368 hp total) thanks to a reworked exhaust system, crisper headlights and taillights, and some interior renovations and tech updates.
Mercifully, the twin-turbo Stinger GT musters a performance to match its extroverted styling. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in 4.6 seconds, which is pretty impressive for any four-door hatchback regardless of its place of origin. The GT doesn’t launch very hard from rest, but floor the gas pedal at speed and the thrust is immediate.
“It is fast off the line, but the most surprising power is when you are moving at 30-40 m.p.h. and you put your foot down. You quickly will be rocketing toward ‘arrest me’ speeds,” writes one owner who had cross-shopped Audi and BMW. The base Stinger with its 2.0-litre turbo four is not nearly as hurried; zero-97 km/h takes 6.4 seconds, or 6.1 seconds when equipped with all-wheel traction.
The steering effort is moderate, in contrast with other Kias where the wheel feels too light. The Stinger never feels darty at the helm. It exhibits some body roll, the result of its hefty curb weight taxing the suspension settings. Still, the Stinger handles well and is entertaining to hustle on winding roads. It’s also a comfortable highway companion; road noise is well managed while wind noise is pretty much banished.
The V6 can be a thirsty beast; city driving can yield not much better than 16 mpg (17.7 litres/100 km) while highway runs can crack 32 m.p.g. (9 L/100 km) with a light foot. Owners of four-cylinder models do considerably better in town at 12.9 L/100 km. Be prepared to pay for expensive premium fuel with either engine.
OWNERS TALK RELIABILITY
The Stinger is aimed at the near-premium, performance-oriented market segment, which is a significant leap forward for the Kia brand. Owners cite the car’s standout appearance, athletic performance and refined interior combined with a handy hatchback. Negatives include somewhat limited headroom in the back seat, restricted visibility rearward and less than stellar fuel efficiency.
In terms of mechanical deficits, there are some disconcerting reports of vehicle fires that started in the engine bay. Kia determined that a vehicle safety defect exists in certain 2018 Stinger models manufactured from July 20, 2017 through June 8, 2018. It may cause damage to the front wiring harness which can result in an electrical short circuit, increasing the risk of a fire. Stinger owners have posted first-hand accounts of fires starting on the road or while parked.
It would not be the only recall tied to a fire risk. Kia recalled certain 2018-2021 Stinger models equipped with the 3.3-litre V6 that could be the subject of an engine compartment fire involving the anti-lock brake hydraulic electronic control unit. Dealers can install a new fuse kit in the electrical junction box to address the fault.
Other problems included owners of early builds noticing that the Korean-made Stinger had some paint issues that saw certain colours, mostly yellow and blue, chip too easily. More common were gripes about interior rattles, creaks and other noises that are unbecoming of a $50,000 car.
Some noises were traced to the Stinger’s large sunroof assembly, which dealers could replace under warranty. Kia issued a technical service bulletin involving the large hatch, which was another source of rattles. A few Stinger pilots grumbled about fast-wearing performance tires and the high cost of replacing Brembo brake components on the GT.
Beyond these concerns, the Stinger comports itself well and many drivers report a flawless ownership experience to date. Part of the appeal is Kia’s extensive warranty coverage, which has lured some German sedan owners over to the marque.
If there’s one trait the Stinger shares with other halo cars, it’s this: It hasn’t sold in big numbers and it’s a rare sight on the street. If you like what you see in the Stinger – and many owners do based on their ringing endorsements – you might wish to acquire one before it vanishes altogether.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.