By Benjamin Hunting
Angeles Crest, that hallowed stretch of canyon road that hovers just above North Hollywood like some twisted two-lane crown, is often a stand-in for the mega-miles of Germany’s Nurburgring for drivers who simply can’t ship themselves across the Atlantic to have a go at the famed circuit. Substituting parched southern Californian sandscapes for Green Hell, the Crest boasts exactly the type of sinuous and occasionally punishing asphalt for which the all-new 2018 Kia Stinger GT - the quickest, and most focused car to have ever been built by the brand - was designed.
That the Stinger GT’s very existence is a massive point of pride for Kia is obvious from every angle. Perhaps no model better embodies the company’s desire to punch above its publicly perceived weight than this four-door grand touring hatch, its twin-turbo V6 blasting 365bhp and 376lb ft of torque aimed squarely at BMW, Audi, et al, the most prominent purveyors of premium ‘sport back’ options. Out-muscling its aspirational foes, and undercutting them significantly on price (the base GT checks in at a smart $38,350/£40,495), Kia’s Stinger is seemingly poised to inject sputtering hot venom into the veins of speed freaks with a practical bent.
As with all things in life, however, the separation of the Stinger GT’s marketing message from its real world persona is more nuanced. After spending a day putting sun-kissed miles on the hatch on both public roads and a private autocross course, it’s clear to me that the gap between Old Money and Nouveau Riche is more considerable than one would at first think - but it’s also evident that Kia’s rabble-rousing hatchback has the potential to eventually jump that divide.
Stunner that it is, our procession of journo-piloted Stingers caused something of a ripple in the normally jaded flow of Los Angeles traffic. Seen from the rear the Kia’s bulging flanks avoid the studied awkwardness of the original Porsche Panamera and manage to instead channel the schooled sleek sheet metal found in the similarly-sized Audi A7.
Up front there’s a snarl in the mesh-grilled teeth of the Stinger GT that is matched by the malevolence of its LED-accented headlamps. It’s in profile, however, that you really perceive the sheer length of the car, with an extended wheelbase that makes possible its generous rear seat and fantastic cargo space.
Inside, it’s familiar Kia territory, which is a good thing on the dashboard for drivers tired of do-it-all touchscreens and aching for buttons and knobs to make working the climate and infotainment systems that much easier. Of course a touchscreen is still present and accounted for - big and bright in the GT, smaller and more monotone at the entry-level - and it presents well in tandem the driver information screen in the gauge cluster. Available leather seats are snug and comfortable without verging on medieval torture for larger-framed individuals, and while there are a few plastics present on the door panels and centre console, it’s not distracting enough to plunge the overall high quality impression of the car’s cabin.
Dig in your spurs and the Stinger GT’s 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 engages its afterburners in commendably smooth fashion, floating the speedo needle past the point of public prudence within a heartbeat or two of your right foot’s command. The car’s eight-speed automatic gearbox is as unobtrusive at finding the perfect ratio as its available all-wheel drive system is at doling out torque to correct axle (with 80 percent available to be shunted to the rear when set to Sport mode), and 60-mph arrives from a standstill in just 4.7 seconds.
Even the entry-level, 250bhp turbo four found in the most affordable Stinger ($31,900 USD / £31,995) is able to keep pace without feeling winded, although it lacks the (admittedly electronically-enhanced) bellow of the six-cylinder at full gallop. European customers will also see a 2.2-litre, 195bhp turbodiesel four on offer.
Evaluated as an example of affordable gran turismo, Kia’s latest model is a solid win. It’s only when rolling up one’s sleeves to engage in a more merciless thrashing of the Stinger GT’s chassis that the vehicle starts to lag its would-be peer group of Teutonic talent. Driven with the electronic nannies artfully engaged in Sport mode forced me to smooth out my driving style to stay quick through a relatively rambunctious autocross course, but with everything switched off the GT displayed considerably more understeer when I asked it to pirouette, slide, and ravage its way through the same set of pylons.
The heft of the car (over 1800kg in AWD trim) never felt uncontrolled in a corner, but nor was it ever far from my mind when driving aggressively. Despite the presence of adaptive dampers at all four corners, the Stinger GT’s tendency to bob and float over uneven pavement at highway speeds was also notable even on flat stretches of road.
Still, if the 2018 Kia Stinger GT points out the path forward for Kia’s effort to further sharpen its hi-po provenance across a wider swathe of its line-up, then there’s much to look forward to from a company that, in the Stinger, has successfully married the pulse-quickening style of chief designer Peter Schreyer with the whip-cracking sensibilities of ex-BMW M (and now Kia development head) Albert Biermann. It’s hard not to be excited about the Stinger, both for what it has to offer budget-conscious performance seekers as well as when considering how it shades the Korean company’s future.