The 2018 Kia Stinger is hard to classify. You can try and compare it to the BMW 440i GranCoupe and S5 Sportback, but the Stinger is considerably larger and doesn’t come with a luxury badge.
So you have to look at the Stinger for how well it accomplishes its own mission: to change the perception of the Kia brand with an exciting, high-performance grand touring car. There are arguably three components that define this type of car: style, luxury, and performance.
The 2018 Kia Stinger really stands out in person. It’s more attractive in the flesh than in photos, especially when it comes to the “boring” colors like white and silver. The overall style of the car was designed to accentuate the notable length of the car, and as you approach the car you realize how much attention was given to the details of the car. Body panels fit together seamlessly. Some creases provide strong character lines while others are subtle hints at the car’s performance.
At the front of the car, the LED headlights have an insect-like feel that is cool and provides a good level of differentiation from other Kia models. The fact that fog lights were totally omitted from this design to make way for larger vents to cool the front brakes helps to show how confident Kia is about the car. The dark chrome looks awesome, and even in bright sunlight it’s still dark and mysterious without too much bronzing which you sometimes see in cars with this style of trim.
The rear of the car is an overall simple design, but the way the body colored part of the bumper protrudes into the lower fascia in the middle, the intricate details of that lower fascia with the quad exhausts, and the thin area of transparent red connecting the two taillights allude to the sporting nature of the car. One of the more controversial elements of the style of the car is the rear side marker lamps which cut very far into the side of the car. They work better in some colors than others, and I’m sure that’s one area that many people are going to make aftermarket modifications.
So the car looks good, but the problem is that the Optima has been turning heads since its refresh in the last generation, and the Stinger closely follows the style guide set by that car while adding in the performance bits we expect to see on a grand touring car. While styling isn’t going to turn anyone away from this car, the fact that it doesn’t deviate more from the Optima means that it won’t be acclaimed as a styling revolution for Kia, despite its attractive sheet metal and superior external fit and finish.
Remember the word grand in grand touring? You can’t just throw an Econobox interior into a car like this. The enjoyment of a GT is in the full experience. And Stinger buyers will be dropping $40,000 or more on this car (which is still a good value seeing as cars of this type regular sell for more than $80,000), so they’re going to expect the fancy stuff that buyers look for in more premium segments.
A few things you’ll also notice are the quilted Nappa leather seats, which are very comfortable, but still grip you nicely in the curves. In the front you get three levels of cooling and three levels of heating, along with a power tilting and telescoping heated steering wheel. The black soft-touch headliner is also impressive, especially in a sea of cars with lighter colored headliners. The HUD system is also impressive, giving a much broader range of information than I’ve seen in other heads up displays, while keeping that information concise and only showing it when it’s necessary.
There are some criticisms when it comes to the level of luxury offered in the car. First of all, the fact that the UVO3 infotainment system is exactly the same one you could find in a Rio or Soul. I asked Eddie Rayyan, the product manager for the US version of the Stinger, about this. He said that the reason was that UVO3 is already the best infotainment system out there – and that’s not untrue. I recommended that he should at least offer some sort of differentiation for Stinger buyers. Even a refresh of the graphics on the UVO screens would be welcome here. On a positive note, the 8-inch screen that sticks out of the dashboard does have a higher resolution than that of other Kias and the screen feels more solid in real life than it does in photos.
Another big issue that the Stinger faces in America is the lack of several key luxury features that do exist in other markets. Those include among others heated rear seats, wireless phone charging, and the 360 degree camera. Rayyan told me that this had nothing to do with cost, but instead were due to product planning decision made a long time ago. These features will most likely appear in the 2019 model year.
One final element that is going to frustrate luxury-minded buyers is the fact that it’s impossible to spec out this car with a high degree of customization. Each exterior color is only offered in one interior color (with the exception of the GT1 black car which has the option of red or black interior), the yellow and dark gray colors are only available in the base GT, ceramic silver is only available in the GT1 and GT2, and the smaller engine only has white, silver, black, and blue (premium only) available. Also, the limited slip differential on rear-drive cars is only offered on the GT2 and the yellow base GT.
The reason for this is, again, NOT cost cutting. Rayyan told me that since Kia doesn’t offer factory ordering, having an extremely wide variety of options would mean that very few cars could be made in each variation, making it almost impossible for buyers to find the car they want. That’s why they opted to offer the car only in a limited number of variations based on popular combinations they researched. It’s understandable, but not ideal for people used to a higher level of customization with cars that can be ordered from the factory.
I was very lucky to drive this car in the hills above Pasadena in Los Angeles. It’s been an unusually warm December in Los Angeles, which combined with the strong winds is why we’ve seen all these massive fires. On the day I drove the Stinger, it was clear, sunny, and beautiful, and road conditions were perfect, with minimal traffic.
And it did shine. I pushed the car very hard on these canyons, not really giving it any time to calm down as I took advantage of the full power of the engine, full stopping ability of the ventilated Brembo brakes, and the 0.93g lateral acceleration limit of the car.
The most dangerous aspect of this car is that as soon as you get behind the wheel, it just begs you to push it hard, which means it will be very easy to get into situations where you could get pulled over. As soon as you take your foot off the brake, you feel an irresistible urge to gun the throttle, and if you do resist that urge, you’ll find your foot asking you to push that pedal down a little bit further; just a little bit more! When you reach the bottom of the gas pedal, you’re already pushed back in your seat and you find that the twin turbos have even more power to give just when you thought you had reached the extent of the car’s acceleration (Car & Driver recorded 4.4 seconds to 60 in the Stinger, although Kia says 4.7).
— The Korean Car Blog (@KoreanCarBlog) December 13, 2017
I drove the rear wheel drive GT2 model, and it felt planted even when flying through tight corners (a testament to the tires, suspension, and that limited slip differential). I really couldn’t suggest the all wheel drive model unless you are living in a place that regularly sees ice and snow. The rear-drive car is lighter, faster, and doesn’t give up much maneuverability. In fact, when I floored the car through a roundabout (yes, there are some roundabouts in Pasadena) the rear of the car started to get loose. I was back in control quickly though as the intense pulling power of the 3.3 V6 straightened the car out almost too easily.
For the best driver’s car, choose a base GT Stinger in rear wheel drive. If you need the luxury features, then get the GT2, but again, you won’t need the all wheel drive in most driving conditions.
On that note, Rayyan mentioned to me that he’s sure this car is capable of a lot more power than it has now. The chassis is one of the best on the market. After all, it was the brainchild of Albert Biermann, who used to be the boss of BMW’s M division. I can’t see very many people being disappointed with the performance of the Stinger.
So the Stinger does almost everything right. The style, the luxury, the performance, it’s all there. Yes, some car brands do it better. But look to pay at least double the Stinger’s MSRP if you want a superior GT.
One final note: I have already noticed some dealers marking up Stingers. I asked Bell about this. His response was that there’s nothing Kia can do about it. So depending on the actual demand for this car, which we’ll know more about in the coming months, you may have to fight dealer markups to get a good deal on the most impressive Kia ever.