TEN YEARS FROM NOW YOU WILL have a very different opinion of Kia. That’s what the execs in their suits and designers with their natty cravats tell me. Looking back, our perception of the company has already changed. Enormously, in feet, because Kia is no longer a bargain brand but a challenger. And soon enough it’ll be an aspirational brand. That’s what they say. In time, buying a Kia won’t merely be a rational decision, but an emotional one, and the day will come when you and I will see a new Kia on the street and it’ll make our hearts beat a little faster. That’s what they tell me.
FRENCHMAN GREGORY GUILLAUME AND HIS TEAM designed the Stinger GT at Kia’s European design centre in Frankfurt, overseen by Hyundai-Kia design director Peter Schreyer. Both former Audi men, Guillaume and Schreyer are two of Kia’s star signings. ‘Our inspiration was the GT concept we showed in 2011,’ says Guillaume. ‘All of our concept cars have a purpose. They are not just designers’ indulgences.’ The overall likeness between road car and concept car is fairly strong, with the basic shape and proportions left intact. Certain design elements, such as the ‘tiger-nose’ grille – a Kia family motif – and the upswept window line have survived, although some of the more outlandish touches have been cast aside.
Guillaume’s presentation includes mood boards and woolly phrases such as ‘feeling inspired and wanting to inspire’. There is some substance, though, and over a slide that depicts a 911 Carrera RSR, a Miura and a Ferrari 250 SWB, he says, ‘The Kia design team is truly passionate about cars. I suspect some of you might not have expected that.’ There’s a certain self-awareness about Kia, a humility in acknowledging other car companies and an understanding of the scale of the task at hand. Passionate about cars? Both Guillaume and Schreyer own Jaguar E-types. ‘I was born in France in the ’60s,’ continues Guillaume, ‘and in the early ’70s there was this thing about driving from Paris to the south of France on the autoroute du soleil at high speed, to go for a weekend on the Cote d’Azur. I was keen on drawing inspiration from the iconic ’70s GT cars. The original Maserati Ghibli is what I had in mind when we started the project-to find a modern interpretation, but as a four-door.
‘The moment you have a front-engined, rear-wheel drive layout you get completely different proportions. Key to the Stinger GT’s poise are the thrusting bonnet, short front overhang, the long distance between the front axle and the dashboard, the extended wheelbase and the long rear overhang, complete with broad shoulders. It’s all about stance. The low roofline, cab-backward architecture and fastback silhouette are enhanced by the chrome accent line that runs from the A-pillar to the base of the tear screen. When you look from the side you don’t notice the coke-bottle waist, but from the rear you see the car has proper hips. ‘All the aerodynamic features – the front air curtain, wheel arch gills, smooth underbody tray and integrated rear diffuser – are functional adornments, and they play a key role in ensuring high-speed stability. ‘The Stinger GT is a true gran turismo, a car for spirited long-distance driving. It’s not about outright power and hard-edged dynamics at the expense of luxury, comfort and grace. It’s all about the journey.’
THE HYUNDAI-KIA NAMYANG DESIGN CENTRE, 40KM south of Seoul, is a sprawling R&D facility, part gritty and industrial, part ultra-chic. We drive past a huge car park stuffed full of competitor cars, and in among the sea of monochromatic Passats and Mondeos I spot a BMW M4, a Lotus Evora and even a Porsche Cayman R. Another of Kia’s big-money transfers is Albert Biermann, the former head of BMW’s M division. The affable German has the air of a man who is happy in his work, one who feels at home. At 6ft 4in tall and always decorated with a smile, he bounds around the presentation room at Namyang talking frankly and enthusiastically about the Stinger GT.
‘The brief was to make a sporty car,’ says Biermann, ‘but it still needed to have good long-distance comfort. It could not be a harsh car. We make a big effort on isolation on all our cars, but the GT follows a different philosophy. It’s more about precision, response and feedback, better wheel and chassis control. It’s nicely balanced and precise, but still the isolation levels are high. That is what makes it an excellent car.’ The Stinger GT uses an adapted version of the Hyundai Genesis platform and the group’s existing 3.3-litte twin-turbo petrol V6, modified extensively for improved response and sharper delivery. It develops 365bhp and 510Nm of torque. The only transmission option is an eight-speed automatic, which Biermann claims offers better shift times than the ubiquitous ZF eight-speed ’box that the likes of BMW, Audi and Bentley fit throughout their ranges.
Kia quotes a 0-100kmph time of 5.1 seconds, which makes this the fastest accelerating Kia to date, but in an age of sub-five-second hot hatches it’s brisk rather than electrifying. At more than 1900kg the GT is quite a lump, partly because it’s bigger in every dimension than its nearest rivals, BMW’s 4-series Gran Coupe and Audi’s A5 Sportback. The MacPherson front suspension is all-new compared with the Genesis’s and the multi-link rear end has been reworked, too, while additional bracing improves the stiffness of the steel body by two per cent at the front and 14 percent at the rear. In a first for Kia, the Stinger GT uses adaptive dampers, while the Drive Mode Select system enables the driver to choose between five modes – Eco, Comfort, Sport, Smart (which adapts to your driving style) and Individual – that adjust all the usual parameters including steering assistance, damping, throttle response, gearshift strategy and ESC intervention.
The steering is an electronically assisted rack-type system, which is said to give better precision and response than a column-mounted setup, while braking is by high-spec Brembos. The standard-fit tyres are 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. The Nurburgring was used for both durability testing and chassis tuning, and Biermann says he and his team will soon travel to our shores for UK-specific chassis tuning. ‘A limited-slip differential is standard and, for those who like the drift sensation, the ESC can be switched off folly,’ says Biermann. ‘So you can have some drifting fun in a Kia. It’s time you got used to this!’
‘THE STINGER GT IS ONE OF OUR EFFORTS TO DELIVER what Kia stands for,’ says Spencer Cho, general manager of the overseas product marketing team. ‘We’re trying to be defined as the young and sporty brand.’ With that in mind, I wonder, why did Kia arrive at a four-door GT rather than a true sports car, perhaps a rival to the Boxster? ‘We believe that the four-door, four-seater model has much more potential from the market standpoint. Probably a two-door, two-seater looks much nicer, but in reality there are very small numbers of people who will actually buy that.’ It’s about volume, then. The Stinger isn’t just tasked with turning Kia’s image around, it must be a profit-making model line in its own right.
Cho won’t be drawn on other forthcoming models, but he does say the company is working on a number of cars in sectors Kia hasn’t explored before. Nothing should be ruled out for now and given that Kia’s revenues ran to $43bn in 2015, nothing need be ruled out, either. ‘This is not an easy task, we know,’ says Cho. ‘For this car we will deliver one of the best design languages we have ever had and a lot of high-tech features and functions will be added. We know we have certain barriers of the brand to tackle. ‘People may not need this car, but people should love this car and want to have it regardless of how many cars they have in their garage. We have to deliver one of our best products as well as we can.’
Who, exactly, are these people? ‘Frankly speaking, I don’t think we can get people who have owned German premium vehicles into Kia easily,’ says Cho. ‘Of course we will get some, but probably we will get the mainstream buyers. We are trying to get more of the premium buyers, but we ate not that naive [to think it will be easy]. It will take time, but we will get there.’
BEHIND THE WHEEL
ALLOWING A SELECT GROUP OF JOURNALISTS TO DRIVE such an important new car before it’s even been revealed to the wider automotive press and the public is a bold move, but it also speaks of a certain confidence. That said, we each have less time behind the wheel than it would take to boil a small egg, but in those three minutes there is a thing or two to be learned. The cabin feels spacious, with a good, low-slung driving position and plenty of room in the rear even for taller adults, while the high transmission tunnel helps to set a more sporting tone than in existing Kias. The dashboard layout is quite attractive, but the quality of the materials in this development car isn’t yet up to German standards.
The first driving impression I scrawl in my notebook is that it’s an easy car to drift – a long wheelbase, lots of power and a mechanical LSD will have that effect. Even in the firmer damper mode there is a fair amount of body roll, albeit a well-controlled sort of roll rather than the sloppy, way ward kind. That’s a clear indication that this is a GT car rather than a true high-performance car. The steering is crisp and direct, though, and what it lacks in absolute feel it makes up for in rate of response, which is very well matched to cornering grip and that pronounced body roll. Basically, it’s easier to place the car into a corner than its size and weight might suggest. There’s decent grip with gentle understeer at the limit and good braking performance. The engine feels impressively strong and responsive, but it’s done its best work by 6000rpm. The soundtrack is a bit flat for now and although the gearbox works well enough, I wouldn’t endorse Biermann’s claim about it being quicker shifting than the ZF unit just yet. The very briefest of rest drives, then, but all rather encouraging nonetheless. Should the Germans be worried? We’ll find out for certain when we drive the production Stinger GT later in the year.