Payne: Stinger adds venom to Kia lineup

Henry Payne
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Los Angeles

Mix some Detroit muscle, a dash of European style, and a 100,000-mile drivetrain warranty and you have a recipe for the Kia Stinger, a growling, made-in-Korea performance sedan.

That’s right, a Kia muscle car.

The Stinger, which stole the Detroit Auto Show in January and was first tested by media here in September, is more than just a pretty face — it represents a bold new direction for Kia as a sport brand. Long in the shadow of its bigger corporate brother, Hyundai, Kia is ready for its moment in the spotlight.

“The Stinger is a stunning car. It marks a new era for Kia, dividing the history of Kia into before and after,” said Kia President of North America Jang Won Sohn.


Armed with a 255-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder, the swoopy fastback sedan is estimated to start at just $32,795 when it goes on sale this winter. Stuff it with an optional, 365-horsepower, 3.3-liter twin-turbo V-6 for just $39,895 and the upper trim Stinger GT will outrace a $100,000 Porsche Panamera fastback sedan to 60 miles an hour in just 4.7 seconds.

Its top speed of 167 mph also eclipses the Porsche — and similar luxury sedans from BMW and Audi. Comparing the Stinger to premium performance sedans like the Jaguar XF S and Cadillac CTS-V-Sport costing double the GT, Car and Driver raved “the Stinger may not be quite ready to steal the heavyweight sports-sedan crown, but its value is a knockout.”

The car is the culmination of a number of strategic personnel and product moves. Where Hyundai has relentlessly pursued Japanese rival Toyota’s model as an efficient, reliable, full-line manufacturer (even adding a Lexus-like luxury brand, Genesis, last year), Kia has set itself on a more style-oriented path.

The hiring of acclaimed Audi designer Peter Schreyer brought European swagger to its car’s exterior and interior appointments.

“For years we were known as a value brand with great fuel economy, and then we brought in Schreyer and became a design brand. Then we introduced lots of technology and safety systems,” said Michael Sprague, Kia North America’s chief operating officer. “What we were always lacking was driving dynamics and (Stinger) brings it all together.

That dynamic cred came from engineer Albert Biermann who Kia hired away from BMW’s legendary M performance division in 2014.

Biermann inherited a brand that had already made bold moves to distance itself from the more “establishment” Hyundai. At the turn of the century, Kia — which first sold cars in the US in 1995 — was known for small, fuel-efficient sedans and an industry-leading 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

The cube-shaped Kia Soul, introduced in 2009, was a sharp departure from convention. It was quickly followed by the slinky Optima sedan and brand signature “tiger nose” grille — an attempt by Schreyer to change what he called the brand’s “neutral image.”

“(The Soul) has done phenomenally well. Much better than anyone of us anticipated,” said Sprague. “Still a fun car, but also from a marketing perspective a great car that we can do a lot of things with.”

Things like ads featuring human-sized hamster rappers flogging Souls — a popular ad campaign that took home the 2011 “Automotive Ad of the Year” at the Nielsen Automotive Advertising Awards.

Bierman took this funky, fun vibe and gave it athleticism.

“We’ve had great looking product since Schreyer joined the brand but now this is a vehicle where the driving dynamics deliver on the design language,” said Sprague. “When you look at it you think — that’s going to drive really well — and now it does. Between Albert Biermann with driving dynamics and Scheyer with the design we’ve got everything.”

Sprague says the Stinger was the first car that Biermann really sunk his teeth into, leading the design team in South Korea — with technical and testing work performed at Kia’s Mojave Desert, Calif., proving grounds.

But for all its European pretentions, the Stinger is an undeniable homage to 1970s Detroit muscle cars with names like Javelin and Stingray and Mustang. Ultimately the sedan coupe is something between a Porsche Panamera and a Dodge Challenger.

“The inspiration for the name came from Schreyer and (product designer) Greg Guillaume when they were growing up in Europe driving the GT vehicles like the Maserati Ghibli. Similar to what was going on in the 1970s here — people driving these Grand Turismos,” relates Sprague.

“It transcends a couple different segments on the premium side and the domestic side. It’s hard to pinpoint. It’s not a Camaro, it’s not a Mustang — but for somebody who loves those cars and that driving experience, and who now have kids and need room for four, this fits.”

In 2016 Kia’s market share grew to 3.7 percent with over 650,000 units sold — shy of big brother Hyundai’s 4.4 percent share. Kia manufacturers its mid-size Optima sedan and Sorento SUV in West Point, Georgia. The lower-volume Stinger will be assembled in Korea.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch "Car Radio with Henry Payne" Sat. noon-1 PM on 910 AM Superstation. 

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