- Published: Saturday, 07 October 2017 06:41
Kia has thrown absolutely everything in its arsenal at the Stinger, with one simple, unspoken mission: to build a better BMW. We drive it at the Nürburgring
NÜRBURG, GERMANY — “Welcome, everyone,” says Albert Biermann, casually. He’s just pulled up in a Kia Stinger, a car you should already be aware of if you have the heart of a petrolhead. Biermann, too, is someone you ought to know. His last job was at BMW, where he was the head of engineering at the brand’s M division. Even if you don’t know the man, you’re probably familiar with his work.
Though he’s ostensibly a Hyundai man, Biermann (below) volunteered to work on the Stinger as soon as he saw the design prototypes. “Let’s try to make it drive the way it looks,” he told the car’s designer, Gregory Guillaume, himself an ex-Audi man.
We meet Biermann at the Devil’s Diner right beside the Nürburgring’s back straight — yet another thing that resides in every driving enthusiast’s brain, if not his bucket list — because after a lunch of sausages and burgers, Kia is about to let us have a go at the notorious track in some pre-production Stingers.
Biermann is on hand to chat about the car, and recommends the “Comfort” setting because it apparently works better with the Nürburgring’s jumps. “You guys should be going past here at, I dunno, maybe 250,” he says, glancing at the circuit. Gulp.
I don’t know about you, but the first time I ever drove a Kia, I never, ever thought I would someday be in one that could do 270km/h. And while I wanted to drive at the Nürburgring before I could legally drive on the street, I didn’t exactly dream of doing it for the very first time in a Kia.
But all of these elements have come together because the Korean car industry is currently in a state of raw, ruthless ambition, and wants to do to other carmakers what Donald Trump did to the established political order in the US, though perhaps with a better result for the us, the people drivers.
So the Hyundai-Kia group has an R&D building at the Nürburgring, directly opposite Audi Sport GmbH, in fact, and the former head of BMW M has done his thing with the Stinger. It wasn’t actually all that hard getting it to handle the way he wanted, he tells us. Just a few suspension tweaks, apparently.
I can’t really tell if he’s bullshitting me - Biermann seems like a supremely laid back guy and the leash Kia has on its engineers is obviously far looser than the one German brands have.
The reason I’m skeptical is because the Stinger project itself looks like the result of an enormous amount of work. They’ve done everything possible to make it go like it looks, especially in the top-spec, all wheel-drive GT trim. The good news is, Singapore will be getting the Stinger GT with a 3.3-litre V6 twin-turbo (albeit with rear-wheel drive instead of AWD), alongside a more basic 2.0-litre turbo.
Big turbo V6, yes. All wheel-drive, no. For Singapore, that is
So, where to start? The Stinger GT 3.3T-GDI has 370 horsepower and 510Nm of peak torque. It gets to 100km/h in 4.9 seconds. Kia had apparently released a slower time of 5.1 seconds in early spec sheets, but Biermann and his team fiddled with some launch software to make it take off better. It’s now quicker, you should note, than a BMW 440i Gran Coupe. We’ll come back to that car in a bit.
All the GT variants have a variable-ratio steering rack and adaptive suspension, with active dampers. A limited-slip differential is standard in that spec, too. There are 19-inch wheels, and big Brembo brakes — after 10 hard stops, the brake pedal suffers from 23 percent elongation, versus 38 percent for normal stoppers.
Lemme brake it down for ya'll
What the car lacks also says something; none of the GTs have a panoramic glass roof, because it adds weight where it shouldn’t (right at the top of the car, that is) and subtracts rigidity.
At 525mm, the Stinger has a lower centre of gravity than a “competitor” by three millimeters. The Kia folk don’t outright say what this rival is, but it’s clear from the presentation slides that they mean the BMW 4 Series.
That car is an excellent way to calibrate your expectations of the Stinger, anyway. It’s not a sportscar as such, but a grand tourer: it’s meant to be comfortable, but fast, and big enough to take four people and their luggage across countries.
Here, that would mean loading up and heading up to Cameron Highlands with your pals, and arriving in a fit state to do whatever it is that two couples do in the mountains. With a quick stop at Sepang for a few hot laps along the way, if you want.
RED STING, GREEN HELL
It surprises me to learn that every Kia is actually tested at the Nürburgring. They all have to do 480 laps there, or about 10,000km, at a pace that’s within 95 percent of the car’s best laptime. That’s apparently equivalent to 150,000km of road use.
The Stinger did double that distance, but I’m less surprised about that. That’s because within a few corners (following behind Nurburgring legend Dirk Schoysman, a man car companies pay to drive prototypes fast here), it’s clear that the car feels completely at home on what racing drivers call the “Green Hell”.
The first time I punch the accelerator it hikes its skirt up and takes off nicely. It’s not scarily fast, but quick enough to bring a wry smile to the face. The power is sustained, too, building with the revs so it’s rewarding to keep the tach needle in the red zone.
The main thing you notice is how easy it is to drive at maximum pace. The weight distribution is 53/47 front/rear, and it feels balanced and stable when chucked into bends, with a lovely amount of feedback coming through the wheel to let you judge grip levels.
I’m supremely grateful to have an ace to follow around the place, but nothing prepares me for some of the ’Ring’s gnarly crests, especially the ones that happen mid-corner. I don’t think I actually catch air, but the Stinger manages to feel composed even when its suspension is completely unloaded and it has to make a quick direction charge on its tiptoes. My stomach, on the other hand, feels like it wants to exit through my mouth.
The brake pedal feels a bit soft after a day of media drives, but the stopping power itself is pretty mighty. You hit big speeds here, and I see a little over 250km/h on the head-up display before the lead driver backs off a bit to let a Canadian journalist catch up to us, and that means there are sometimes big speeds to shed. The Kia isn’t fazed by any of them, even though none of the cars have had their pads or rotors changed during the media drives.
If there’s a weakness, it’s with the eight-speed auto, which doesn’t drop ratios in anticipation of corners. Instead, you bury the throttle on the exits, and then you get your lower gear. Flappy paddles on the steering are there, of course, but I’ve gotten used to cars that can choose gears on the track better than I can, so it feels strange to have to DIY that part of driving again.
It’s actually mad how good this car is, and after my first lap I’m struggling to think of what I would suggest to Biermann to improve it, smarty pants that I am. I come up with precisely nothing, apart from the transmission. The fact is, if this car had an Audi badge, everyone would be hailing it as a BMW-killer.
This is a nice place to be, take it from us
My first laps are in the AWD model, and when I switch to the rear-drive car it actually feels different; it has the same sort of balance and poise, but it does turn in a little less crisply somehow, with more movement underneath me, as if its tyres are slightly more shagged. It’s strange, because AWD doesn’t help you turn into corners faster, but either way, this is a car that feels effective and fast straight out of the box.
Kia didn’t offer up the 2.0T, but that car should be a blast, too. It has 255 horsepower and hits 100km/h in 6.0 seconds, so how could it not be? The main unknown for now, of course, is how much all this is going to cost you.
A BMW 420i Gran Coupe is $213,800 with Certificate Of Entitlement, so I’m guessing (by which I mean I’m hoping) that the basic Stinger will sneak in at less than two hundred grand. Under a quarter-million is my guess for the 3.3T-GDI, but again, that much is pure speculation on my part.
Whatever it is, my drive of the car on the Nürburgring shows that the Stinger isn’t just good “for a Kia”, but a properly sorted driving machine by any standard. Its success or failure here will be a good gauge of car snobbery in Singapore.
Whatever it is, I’ve started to think of the 3.3T-GDI as a performance bargain, sort of like Mitsubishi’s Lancer Evolution was, only with far more refinement and style. BMW drivers feared and respected that car, too.
NEED TO KNOW Kia Stinger GT 3.3T-GDI
Engine 3,342cc, 24V, V6, turbocharged
Power 370hp at 6,000rpm
Torque 510Nm from 1,300 to 4,500rpm
Gearbox Eight-speed auto
Top Speed 270km/h
0-100km/h 4.9 seconds
Fuel efficiency To be confirmed
CO2 To be confirmed
Agent Cycle & Carriage Kia
Price To Be Announced