Based on the tire-smoking television commercials featuring rocker Steve Tyler and racer Emerson Fittipaldi, I expected the 2018 Kia Stinger to be something akin to the Dodge Hellcat, which seems to be the generally accepted standard for the Modern Muscle Car.
OK, so no twin-turbocharged V6 is likely to match up against a supercharged V8, but based on those commercials, shouldn’t the Stinger be something of a wildcat, and at least an alley cat with an attitude?
But at this point I need to ask myself a question: Is it the Stinger that disappoints, or the entire notion of the Modern Muscle Car?
First of all, as much as I enjoy their products, and no matter what their marketing departments say, the hopped-up late-model Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros are not “modern muscle cars.”
Yes, I’m a purist, but back when John Z. DeLorean and his team of clandestine crusaders at Pontiac got this thing started, a muscle car was a mid-size hardtop or sedan into which they found a way — often despite corporate policy — to wedge beneath the hood a huge V8 engine. Upgrade the wheel/tire package, maybe the gearbox and suspension to handle the extra horsepower, and the Detroit muscle car was foisted onto American roadways, to the chagrin of some but to the delight of the rest of us.
It didn’t matter that a muscle car didn’t stop or turn with much efficiency. It came off the line and tattooed the pavement with black stripes as it raced toward the next set of lights, whether a block away on the street or a quarter-mile distant on the drag strip, or as was too often the case, the red (or red and blue) lights atop a police patrol car.
But that was a visceral world, and this is an increasingly virtual one.
Pull up to a stoplight in your GTO or 442, your Plymouth GTX or Cobra Jet-powered Torino and the burble at idle was better music than anything playing on that AM radio. Tip into the throttle a couple of times and the car next to you knew you were ready to race.
Pull up to a stoplight in a Stinger and the engine shuts off of save fuel.
Yes, the Stinger is rated at 19 mph in town and 25 on the highway, but when gas was less than a buck a gallon, it was mph not mpg that mattered.
OK, I’ve gotten that off my chest, so it’s time to focus not on the past but on the present and on what it’s like to drive a 2018 Kia Stinger which, believe it or not, is the name of a full lineup of mid-size, five-passenger, fastback “sport” sedans, among them “the highest-performance production vehicle in the company’s history,” Kia notes.
Based on the company’s GT Concept car introduced seven years ago at the Frankfurt Motor Show, the new Stinger, with its four-door fastback architecture, ranges from the just-plain Stinger to the Premium version, the GT, the GT1 and the GT2.
In a change from the norm for modern mid-size sedans, Stingers are driven by their rear wheels, with all-wheel drive optional on each version.
In the commercials, and in a parking lot across the street from the SEMA Show where Kia was giving tire-shredding thrill rides, we see the Stinger GT with its 365-horsepower twin-turbocharged 3.3-liter V6. But the basic Stinger and the Premium trim package come with a 255-horsepower single-turbo 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.
They also come with different gearing, constant rather than variable steering, without Brembo brakes and with less-grippy tires than the Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber on the GT.
You have to opt for the GT1 to get electronically controlled suspension and special gauges package, and for the GT2 to get a limited-slip differential, shift-by-wire gear selection, and premium Nappa leather-covered and ventilated front seats with 16-way power adjustment.
The GT2 also comes with collision warning and avoidance technology, smart cruise control, heads-up display, and lane-keep assist (which you can shut off by flipping a toggle switch).
Primary design and development of the Stringer was done in Germany, with Albert Biermann moving from BMW to Kia in 2014 and leading the vehicle testing and high-performance development group, which reportedly did a lot of laps at the Nurburgring circuit in that process.
Which brings us to this quote, from Orth Hedrick, vice president of product planning for Kia Motors America: “From its GT Concept-car origins to its tuning and refining on the legendary Nürburgring circuit, no detail was too small to be obsessed over, and the result is simply stunning.”
So then why, the first time I took a corner with any sort of enthusiasm, did the water bottle placed in the rear cupholder suddenly give into the dynamic forces and fly across the car? So much for no detail too small for obsessive refinement; and at least the cupholders in the front console didn’t free their occupants during such a maneuver.
For the past week, I’ve been driving a 2018 Kia Stinger GT2 and the good news is that you can take corners with enthusiasm after you dial the car into its Sport mode (Custom, Eco, Comfort and Smart can be selected).
Opt for Sport and you’ll notice that the digital speedometer readout subtly switches from Roman to Italic type. But there are other changes that come that you feel as the electronics reset their control parameters. The car is taut, quick and fast.
You can still putter around town as calmly as a Camry, but you also can get out on country roads — or here in Arizona the two-lanes across the desert or up through the mountains — and the GT2 takes on a different and, for the enthusiast driver, a much more pleasing personality.
You’ll find there’s some jungle cat in this kitty.
2018 Kia Stinger GT2
Vehicle type: 5-passenger fastback sedan, front-wheel drive
Base price: $49,200 Price as tested: $50,100
Engine: 3.3-liter twin-turbocharged V6, 365 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm, 376-pound-feet of torque at 1,300-4,500 rpm Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 114.2 inches Overall length/width: 190.2 inches / 73.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,829 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 19 city / 25 highway / 21 combined
Assembled in: Sohari, South Korea
Lot of money for a KIA.