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2018 Kia Stinger GT: First Drive Review

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author photo by James Riswick December 2017

"Forget everything you knew about Kia."

That cliche might seem to be convenient here, but really, don't do that. The 2018 Kia Stinger doesn't represent a reinvention for the brand or a revolutionary change in direction. It still has a lengthy warranty, more equipment for the money than comparable cars, and attractive styling that consists of elements consistent with its handsome existing siblings.

Nope, this isn't a completely different Kia, and that's actually a good thing. You see, the Stinger represents Kia continuing to push itself forward, effectively taking a Sharpie to one of the few unchecked boxes on its list of "how to make a great car." Namely, it's vehicle dynamics, which have always come up short relative to competitors and have left car reviewers pining that "it's a great car, but I just wish it drove better."

Well, the new Stinger definitely drives better. And not just compared to other Kias, but to other luxury sedans in its $32,000-$52,000 price range as well. The 365-horsepower turbocharged GT model boasts genuine driver engagement, with steering that's quick to respond, and imparts actual road sensations to your hands through its pleasantly small and perfectly contoured steering wheel. Its chassis is stiff and its suspension composed, with manners that greatly outdo its corporate cousin, the Genesis G80 Sport, and speak to the huge lengths Kia has gone to to make the Stinger a class-competitive sport sedan.

Indeed, so confident is Kia in what it has created with the Stinger GT that it brought along a handful of sport sedans to compare side-by-side on an autocross during the car's press launch in California. Now, a giant parking lot with traffic cones isn't an ideal evaluation ground, but there's no denying that someone taking back-to-back test drives in the Stinger GT and a BMW 440i Gran Coupe or Audi S5 Sportback might seriously walk away thinking the Kia is the most engaging among them to drive. Seriously.

The Stinger GT demonstrates an initial nimbleness and an eagerness to turn into corners, and although you do start to notice its greater size as you pull through those corners, it never loses that superior feeling of agility. By comparison, the BMW's steering feels immediately limp and lifeless, while the suspension is a tad doughy. We'd say the Stinger is reminiscent of BMWs from 10 years ago, but then that would perhaps not be surprising, as Kia/Hyundai's head of high-performance development (and therefore the Stinger's engineering) was previously an engineering executive at BMW's M Division.

The Audi S5 Sportback actually feels like the closer dynamic rival (yes, the S5 as opposed to the A5), though its standard seats and driving position aren't up to the task of keeping you in place the same way that Kia's snug, low-slung chairs do. There's also a more satisfying midrange punch from the Stinger GT's 3.3-liter turbo V6.

The thing is, though, the Stinger shined away from the closed-course confines of an autocross as well. It's genuinely dynamic and composed out on real-world roads, which is really the story here. Midcorner bumps and big road heaves don't flummox its suspension or send shudders through its structure, as was the case with previous sporty Kia/Hyundai efforts (like the G80 Sport).

Nor do the efforts to make it sporty result in an unsorted, uncomfortable ride. Yes, it's on the firmer side, much like a BMW 5 Series from 10 years ago, and you definitely feel bumps more than you would in a more softly sprung, comfort-focused luxury sedan. The bumps are well-damped, however, and sharper impacts aren't met with harshness or the sensation that the wheels are a size or two too big (the GT gets standard 19's). That's even the case with the available adaptive suspension in its most aggressive Sport mode. Those multiple drive modes also alter steering, traction control, throttle and transmission response and the available all-wheel-drive system.

In regards to that adjustable steering, we found both its Comfort and Sport settings felt appropriate for a sporty car like the Stinger, but your choice will largely come down to how much effort you prefer in your steering. Thankfully, Kia allows you to easily mix and match the various settings in a Custom mode.

Now, it's important to note the Stinger's claim to being a proper sport sedan competitor doesn't end with its vehicle dynamics credentials or the final conclusion that it's simply a "performance bargain." It isn't a Korean Chevrolet SS.

Besides its eye-catching exterior, the cabin is also luxurious and stylish, obviously drawing on Audi for design inspiration (and when it comes to interiors, there are few better places to look). We tested the top-of-the-line GT2 trim level, and as the Stinger is like other Kias, that probably means we experienced this car in a state considerably ritzier than what most folks will take home. It has fancier Nappa leather seats with ventilation and driver-adjustable side bolsters and thigh support, a Harman Kardon sound system, a head-up display and all the otherwise optional driving/safety aids standard.

Those extras do make a difference, and perhaps a lesser version would've impressed less. However, such lesser versions still come with more standard equipment than other entry-level luxury cars. Even the base 4-cylinder trim level, at around $32,000, still comes standard with leather, heated power seats, a heated steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, power-folding mirrors, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio and Kia's UVO3 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Much of that content is optional or not available on comparably priced luxury sedans -- even the Buick Regal Sportback can't quite match it.

There's also the matter of space. Though priced like an Audi A4, the Stinger's dimensions actually fall in between those of the A4 and the larger Audi A7. There's a greater amount of rear-seat legroom, and although the sloped roofline does reduce rear headroom (much like in the A7 and the A4's sleeker A5 Sportback sibling), a tall adult should still be comfortable. Plus, like those "Sportback" Audis, the Stinger has a hatchback trunk that affords significantly more cargo volume and versatility than in a typical sport sedan. Don't discount how much more useful this body style is, especially when loading the car up for a road trip.

Of course, it shouldn't come as a surprise that there are areas where the Stinger looks and feels like it should indeed be cheaper than its rivals. The trunk is not as nicely finished, the various knobs and buttons don't have the same solidity or crispness of movement, and its touchscreen interface is the same as you'll find in Kia's other vehicles. It's a perfectly user-friendly interface, but it lacks a certain premium look. It's also a bit too far away and could really use a redundant control knob.

So, is the 2018 Stinger up to top-notch Audi, BMW, or Lexus luxury standards? No, but anyone considering Infiniti, Acura, Genesis or any other brand one rung down the luxury ladder should take the Stinger very seriously. That's especially true should you value performance and driver engagement, because Kia has really outdone itself here and can finally claim to have made a great car that's also great to drive.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle's manufacturer.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2018 Kia Stinger GT: First Drive Review - Autotrader