In car reviews, recounting how much “better” the Korean automakers are than they were in decades past has become painfully cliché. It doesn’t need to be said that Hyundai and Kia make world-class cars these days and have for some time, except in one area: performance. This is what the 2018 Kia Stinger GT aims to change.

The Stinger is a sport sedan, from Kia, benchmarked against and aimed directly at the Germans for a lot cheaper. From... Kia.

The idea of a performance-focused, rear-wheel drive sedan with a 365 horsepower twin-turbo V6 engine, Brembo brakes and an adaptive suspension that does zero to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds, a car that can be had for the fraction of the price of a BMW 340i—all while wearing a Kia badge—is audacious. Arrogant, even. So what if it makes decent compacts and minivans; how dare Kia think it can do this?, a skeptic may wonder, and understandably so. This is a brand that once competed with Geo and Daihatsu, and now it wants to take on BMW?

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But the Stinger GT pulls it off, and in spite of a few minor flaws, it manages to be both an obvious performance car bargain and one of the great car surprises of this decade.

(Full disclosure: In late 2017 the Kia Motor Company needed me to drive the Stinger so badly they flew me out to Los Angeles and put me up in a hotel for a week—or wanted to. Unfortunately, I had to leave immediately to handle a family emergency, but they were kind enough to give us a loaded Stinger GT2 with a full tank of gas in New York last week instead.)

Fighting Fire With Fire

The old saying goes “if you can’t beat them, join them,” but in this case Kia did one better: “If you can’t beat them, hire them.”

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The design comes from Audi and Lamborghini veteran Peter Schreyer, whom Kia hired about a decade ago. The stuff that counts comes from Albert Biermann, the former VP of engineering at BMW M, poached away to oversee performance car development for the entire Hyundai Motor Group. In other words, the Stinger’s pedigree is legit; it was made by people who know what they’re doing. Namely, Germans. (We know the strategy works, since BMW did the same thing to Ford back in the 1970s.)

To make matters even more interesting, it’s technically a five-door hatchback, not a four-door sedan—think of it as an Audi A5 Sportback but for people who have never yelled at their server in a restaurant.

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Schreyer and his team nailed the design. It’s got an aggressive presence with wide fenders and a handsome, sleek overall shape. Those brake vents at the front and sides? They’re functional. (Alas, the not-quite-NACA ducts on the hood are fake.) Size-wise, it’s a bit longer than a 3 Series, and with a longer wheelbase, but also wider and a tad heavier at 3,829 pounds to a rear-drive 340i’s 3,700 pounds.

In the week I had this Hi-Chroma Red GT2—the most loaded GT trim level—it drew a lot of stares, both from car people who knew what it was and were excited to see it out in public, and from passers-by perplexed at its badge. “That’s a Kia?” was a common reaction. It looks like an Optima that went out and bought some Zegna suits, started mainlining protein shakes, and learned Jeet Kune Do.

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The Stinger is built on a platform evolved and shortened from the one on the Genesis G80 (formerly the Hyundai Genesis sedan) that also underpins the upcoming Genesis G70. It can be had with two engines: a 2.0-liter turbo four with 255 HP, or the GT, with the 365 HP twin-turbo V6. I haven’t driven the four-cylinder version yet, and now I’m curious to do so, but I’d say for the money that you should aim for the V6. Both can be had in either rear- or all-wheel drive.

The cheapest four-banger Stinger starts at $31,900. The turbo V6 GT starts at $38,350. A decent amount for a Kia, but when you consider all you get here—and that both are in range of the average new car cost—it’s not bad. My tester, a GT2 with every single box checked, came in at $50,100.

That’s admittedly eye-opening, but also not necessary, as I’ll explain.

Why It Matters

With the Koreans, when it comes to performance (and also luxury to some degree), it’s always been a game of almost, but not quite. The Genesis Coupe? Almost first-rate, but it fell short in handling and refinement. The Genesis sedan? Certainly a great value, but never the best in any category it’s evaluated in. The Veloster? Good, but not a hardened Volkswagen GTI or Mini Cooper S competitor. (Maybe that could change soon.)

See, unlike most other successful car-producing nations, South Korea doesn’t have anything like a long history of sports car driving culture, or even auto racing for that matter. Making a great performance car is the last and most elusive frontier its automakers need to conquer. This is what the Stinger aims to do: make a legit, rear-drive (or all-wheel drive) sport sedan that delivers on speed and handling at a fire sale price.

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Plus, it matters because it’s another affordable-ish performance car, and we should take all the ones we can get in our current SUV takeover.

On The Road

I’ll cut to the chase here: the Stinger GT is fast, a superb handler, and most of all, just damn good fun. The first time I threw it hard into a sweeping corner, the realization hit me that Kia’s built a sedan that handles at least as well as a 340i or a Cadillac ATS, the two cars I consider the athletic standard bearers in this segment.

The steering feel is hefty and tight and solid, far better than I anticipated, and the car itself feels agile and incredibly controlled. The Stinger will easily get the rear end out on command while offering enough feedback that you can quickly snap it back in line when you require. It flies its RWD freak flag high, and proudly.

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There’s a bit more body roll at times during hard cornering than I expected, but never enough that it rises to the level of a complaint—it’s too composed and dialed-in for that. And best of all, it feels smaller and less heavy than it really is.

If you need to take a moment to marvel at the fact that we’re saying these things about a Kia, go ahead! I can wait.

The motor’s another pleasure here. The Lambda II T-GDi is the latest and now turbocharged variant of a long-running Hyundai and Kia engine, and it’s never been more impressive. Even more delightfully than the horsepower is that torque is rated at an even-higher 376 lb-ft at just 1,300 RPM.

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Make no mistake that the Stinger’s very quick: mash the gas and it rockets forth with an immediate and surprising urgency. It will have you looking for excuses to pass another car at speed, or to misbehave a bit when the light goes green and no one’s up ahead of you.

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This is a torquey and linear motor, as good as any twin-turbo six anyone makes right now, and it fills the cabin with a satisfying deep V6 baritone when it moves. It feels like an Audi twin-turbo V6, albeit a tad less refined. We detected an odd hesitation right at the outset of throttle application, but other than that it’s quite good.

The sole transmission option for the entire Stinger range is an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

Yes, I wish it had a manual. Don’t even ask.

(The nearly mechanically identical upcoming Genesis G70 does, however, offer a manual with the four-cylinder engine. Do with this information what you will.)

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As it is, the automatic is a decent gearbox that gets points for being generally smooth and responsive in full automatic mode. But it loses points for one big reason: there’s no fully manual mode that can be engaged with the gear selector. If you want to change gears yourself, you hit the paddles, but the car defaults back to full automatic big-D drive every time you come to a stop. Lame.

Other than that it’s mostly fine, though this Hyundai-Kia unit it lacks the speed of manual shifting you find in a ZF auto—to say nothing of a dual clutch gearbox. Also, I mentioned the V6 engine note a moment ago, and it’s great, but the exhaust leaves a lot to be desired. It’s barely noticeable at all when you give it a good rev. I’m hoping someone does a good aftermarket catback exhaust for this thing, it needs it.

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The ride quality’s definitely on the more harsh side, especially compared that 2018 Honda Accord a drove exactly a week prior, a car that’s a good baseline for... well, basically everything. But I got used to it, even over New York’s awful pockmarked streets.

I found that switching the Stinger’s drive mode to Custom and setting the gearbox, engine and steering to Sport but the ride to Comfort was the perfect combination for livability and barely legal shenanigans—exactly what I want in my sport sedan. It makes for a perfectly fine daily as a result.

The Stinger’s a total package car. The powerful motor and ultra-competent chassis pair well with one another, offering a balance that’s often elusive these days. It’s fast enough to be respected, strong enough at cornering that it can hang with some of the best, and routinely encouraging its driver to push the limits. Basically, an Audi with BMW handling, for a fraction of the price of either. That’s how the Stinger drives.

Not terrible at all.

Inside And Tech

The doors clunk shut with a heavy, solid feel, the way German cars used to but don’t anymore. The leather-wrapped flat-bottom steering wheel makes you feel like you’re in for something special. The seats are delightful, offering a near-perfect combination of daily comfort and electronically-adjustable bolstering.

It’s certainly no cheap econobox inside. There’s even thoughtful touches like the Audi-esque turbine fan air vents or how the digital speedometer CHANGES TO ITALICS WHEN put it in SPORT MODE. (Italics mean speed, you see.) Other than that, it feels quality. No rattles, no squeaks, no obvious misfires.

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I’d say the whole setup is trying for a modern Audi vibe as inexpensively possible. There’s a bit of wasted space across the dashboard, but the buttons and switches are all easy to figure out.

Kia’s touch screen infotainment system never proved an issue either, with simple address entry, though in terms of graphics it feels a bit dated compared to some competitors. The navigation occasionally made some questionable decisions for me as well. At the same time, I was pretty fond of the 15-speaker Harman Kardon audio system my tester had, as it made a great sound with nice surround effects.

Some hot takes I’ve read have complained that the Stinger’s inside isn’t up to par with the Germans it’s competing against. To that I say: it’s not really supposed to be. They had to make the value proposition happen somewhere, and the point of this car isn’t that it’s as opulent as an E-Class—it’s that it can perform. It succeeds where it counts, and that’s in its driving dynamics. And besides all that, the inside of a Stinger is generally a nice, comfortable, attractive place to be.

One downside to getting that four-door coupe shape, however, is the sacrifice in rear headroom. It’s only fine if you’re a small person, but a full-sized adult will be pressed for space back there. The Stinger doesn’t present an especially comfortable situation for four large adult humans. Also, those huge, curvaceous C-pillars and relatively small back window make rear visibility less than great, but the backup camera mitigated any issues that might arise from that.

But! With the hatchback design comes a ton more practicality than most sedans. The Stinger has 41 cubic feet of space with the rear seats down and a bit more trunk cargo volume than a comparable 3 Series. Like the aforementioned A5 or a Tesla Model S, it’s not a full-on wagon or anything—I don’t think you could fit a couch back there—but it does add more space than you normally get in this segment and should an IKEA run actually fun for a change.

Maybe sedan sales wouldn’t suck so badly if they all became hatchbacks instead.

Verdict

I liked the Stinger GT a lot. I got this car and it got me. It’s a middle finger to the idea that the European luxury brands have some monopoly on this kind of performance, and I can get behind that.

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I got an evil grin every time I came upon a clear on-ramp, and I cried the sadness-tears when I had to give it back. That doesn’t happen to me much. I came to deeply appreciate the car and its many gifts, all wrapped in the most unpretentious badge imaginable.

We should talk about that price. My loaded GT2 was pricey thanks to tech and driver assistance options and packages like smart cruise control, lane departure warning, cross-traffic alerts, high-beam assist and more. Do you need that stuff on your sport sedan? I believe you do not. Just pay attention when you’re driving. It’s not hard. Come on.

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I can’t say I’d buy a Stinger at $50,000, but I would sure consider it at $39,000, and I’d probably take one over a Volkswagen Golf R or a Subaru WRX STI. For real. Bear in mind that the last 340i I drove was almost $60,000 and this starts looking like the steal of the century, when equipped smartly. At any price, it’s still better than a Jaguar XE or an Infiniti Q50 or a few other pretenders in this segment, plus the interior quality alone is far above the Alfa Romeo Giulia.

Yet my fear is that the Stinger could share the same fate as the Chevrolet SS or Cadillac ATS—a critically acclaimed sport sedan that nobody ends up buying, whether it’s because of the badge or just because sedans are getting trashed in sales by SUVs and crossovers. I hope that isn’t the case, and I think the presence of a base four-cylinder engine will help. Kia’s notorious dealerships, however, will not.

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But at the end of the day, the Stinger deserves your attention if you’re an enthusiast. It’s as good as you’ve heard and then some. Whoever ends up in one should have years of luxury badge-subverting, high-speed fun. Hyundai and Kia finally did it, and I pray this is a sign of good things to come.