South Korea's bona-fide sport sedan. Good sport sedans are hard come to by lately. Volkswagen has returned downmarket after a brief flirtation with sporty, quasi-luxury models; the hot stuff from Ford and Chevrolet are long gone; and even Mazda isn't quite as zoom-zoom as it used to be.
Outside of the German competition, the choices are few for a bona-fide sport sedan. One of those few choices, though, is the excellent 2021 Kia Stinger.
Poised and powerful backroad cruiser.Kia is no expert at the sport sedan game; before the Stinger, the brand's sportiest model was likely a turbocharged Kia Optima or Kia Soul. In other words, nothing to get the heart racing.
The Stinger, in contrast, gets the blood boiling by bringing to the table all the right ingredients: a rear-wheel-drive chassis, a twin-turbocharged V6, confident styling, and a 0-60 mph time that backs up the looks. A limited-slip differential comes with the V6, and the optional all-wheel drive includes a brake-based torque vectoring system.
We have to note that the V6 isn't standard – sticking with the base model means getting stuck with a 255-horsepower, 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder under the hood. This isn't a bad engine, but it doesn't back up the looks or reputation of the Stinger. Consider it a sheep in lion's clothing. The style-conscious crowd will be fine with it, but anyone who wants their Stinger backed by some actual firepower will need to upgrade to any of the other trims, all of which come with the V6.
More specifically, the 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 is good for 365 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque. All that torque comes on quick, well before the needle on the tach pushes past 2,000 rpm. That powerful kick in the pants ushers the Stinger to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds.
Dual turbos help mitigate any sense of power lag; just punching the throttle results in instant acceleration. The eight-speed automatic transmission is a willing accomplice to such shenanigans, particularly when the drive mode dial is twisted to the most aggressive sport setting.
When initiated, the sport mode quickens gearshifts, improves throttle response, and generally tightens everything up. We wouldn't use it during the daily commute – less aggressive modes are better for slogging through traffic – but an empty backroad twisting its way through nowhere begs for it.
And that's the thing with the Stinger: it's far more in its element as a capable backroad GT car than a track weapon. We frankly would refrain from tracking this, as its behavior at the extreme limits gets sloppy, uncoordinated.
That doesn't make the Stinger a bad car by any means; it just means Kia focused its efforts on more usable performance rather than precision, ten-tenths driving. We appreciate that. The handful of people looking for track car from Hyundai/Kia need to shop the Hyundai Veloster N, not this.
Familiar interior. The cabin of the Stinger is a fine reminder of the segment's German domination. Kia doesn't push the envelope here, instead choosing to sample some of the best bits of Mercedes, Audi, and BMW.
The central portion of the dash is all Mercedes, the three round air vents a not-so-subtle callout to the Mercedes HVAC layout. The physical radio and climate buttons are reminiscent of Audi design, and BMW influence seems to be behind the pared-down, driving-before-gingerbread mentality of the whole interior. Or maybe that's just a consequence of delivering a premium performance experience at Kia pricing. We're not sure.
Regardless, the interior design isn't the most original or outlandish. Is this a problem? We don't think so. Kia figured out what the segment leaders were doing right and emulated their efforts accordingly. For a first-time sport sedan effort, we aren't offended by this. As time goes by, we imagine Kia will come into its own and consequently become more adventurous and cutting-edge. For now, the brand turned to what works, and the result is a nice if somewhat unoriginal interior.
We're also happy to report that build quality wasn't sacrificed on the altar of price point. Though it isn't as overtly luxurious as something from a premium brand, the cabin is built to a suitably high standard of fit and finish that is more than adequate for the price. A buyer bringing home the top-spec GT2 trim won't have to explain to their spouse why they just spent $50,000 on a Kia – if anything, people will have trouble believing it only cost what it did.
Uniquely competitive. The Stinger's value might be its biggest asset, perhaps even more than its performance. Like any good Hyundai or Kia, the enticingly low base price underpromises and over delivers. It's hard to imagine that a Kia starting at around $35,000 could run with the segment leaders who have come to dominate the sport sedan market, but the Stinger is truly a legitimate offering among other hot four-doors.
The base $34,125 model gets buyers into the showroom, but its rather tepid turbo-four means most shoppers are better off starting at the V6-powered GT trim, which begins at $39,590. It gets features like nine-speaker audio, power front seats, and a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment unit with smartphone compatibility.
The $46,525 GT1 model goes one better by adding an 8-inch touchscreen and a host of active safety features. That's our one complaint with the Stinger: you can't get driver assist technologies even as an option on the lower trims.
In a day and age where most cars – including most Hyundai/Kias – get these features as standard, the Stinger requires shelling out over $10,000 over the base model in order to get something as commonplace as automatic emergency braking. That doesn't fly with us. At the very minimum, we expect Kia would bundle the active safety stuff as an option package on the more affordable trims. A buyer sticking with the base turbo-four shouldn't be forced to forego the latest safety features.
That aside, the Stinger is otherwise well equipped. And when considered from a holistic perspective, it's hard to see the Stinger as anything but a screaming deal: what other midsize sedan under $50,000 provides 365 horsepower, hits 60 mph in less than five seconds, and provides a decently upscale experience? Spoiler: there aren't many.
The German compact sedans are more luxurious and dynamically superior but smaller and more expensive for equivalent performance. The Dodge Charger Scat Pack costs a bit over $40,000 for 485 horsepower but has a dated rental-car interior. The Hemi-powered Chrysler 300 is a better match for the Stinger but is also severely outdated and doesn't have the handling chops of the Kia.
The best alternatives are the Cadillac CT5-V and Acura TLX. The new CT5-V has a twin-turbo V6 with 360 horsepower and starts at $48,690; the redesigned TLX begins at about $40,000 for a 2.0-liter turbo-four model, while the upcoming Type S model, which will come standard with a 355-horse twin-turbo V6, will likely retail for around $45,000.
Final thoughts. Changing consumer tastes have whittled down the number of good sport sedans still on the market. But those that persist are some of the best of the breed, and the 2021 Kia Stinger is no exception.
Powerful and agile, the Stinger is short on prestige but big on emotion and performance. As a comfortable, engaging daily driver, this Kia will make anyone question the merit of spending significantly more money on a brand-name sedan.
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