The rear-drive, 2874-lb, 315-hp GT4 Kia GT4 Stinger concept was one Detroit show car (along with the Nissan IDx concepts) that set our one-track mind reeling off-axis. Affordable drivers' cars? More, please. I sat down with the project's team leader, Tom Kearns, to find out what's what.
Turns out, Kearns — chief designer at new the Kia America Design Center in Irvine, CA — and the rest of the design team responsible for the Stinger are devotees of power oversteer, massive fans (and proud owners) of the G-body Porsche 911, and first-order track rats. That bodes well for the GT4 Stinger becoming a car we'd actually want to drive. Naturally, we first must deal with the typical "we won't say whether or not we're building it, but it's possible we will" hard-tease from Kia. Either way, Kearns is on the right track with the Stinger, and if I had to bet, I'd say the car will be a real product, in some form, within the next two years.
What's the deal with this car?
We just wanted to build something that is, I don't want to say "back to basics" because that doesn't sound right, somehow. Kind of an analog approach: a direct connection between driver and machine.
It's an affordable, attainable enthusiast car. It's got a manual transmission, it's got a small, two-liter motor that's derived from our racing program. [That's the Pirelli World Challenge Optima]. That's the whole idea.
[Note: Mike Ofiara, Kia PR guy says, "The race engine is capable of making about 400 horsepower, so the engine's strong and it's, completely capable of 315 hp all day long."]
Why do it now?
It's kind of hard to ignore there's this Scion FR-S and the Subaru BRZ. And we actually like those cars. We think they're great, affordable enthusiast cars that you can mod. One time, we went to the track, and I don't know if there was a club there or what, but we saw like 25 of them lined up, and we were like, this is what Kia needs to be into. We're not yet, so that was the idea behind the concept.
What cars did you think about as archetypes?
Well, I can tell you that within our design team in California, we have now, I think six of us have G-body Porsche 911s, '74 to '89. We're crazy 911 fans. And why are we crazy 911 fans? It's that purity, that direct feel, that steering. I've owned a first-generation Mazda Miata. What a great car, it's so much fun, especially on a small track.
Why do small, affordable, lightweight rear-drive sports cars seem to be coming back now? Is it just power of suggestion led by the BRZ/FR-S?
It's like a light's going on. There's a select group of people that can appreciate a car that's pared down and simplified and a more direct, analog connection between themselves and the machine.
What were some of the design ideas you applied to it?
We wanted it to have a Kia face, and you can kind of see, most of the grilles we do these days have a kind of signature look to them, and so that was really key — we wanted it to be recognizable as a Kia. But the other thing was, we wanted it to look sleek and sporty and all that, but we wanted it to look very clean and pure. I won't name any names, but there are a lot of manufacturers that are taking their designs to an extreme, like more is better.
Do you think there's a sort of crisis of design in the auto industry right now?
Everyone's trying to do more. You look at headlight and taillight shapes, and everyone's like, "We're going to do the craziest lamp shape that no one's ever seen before in the history of automotive design." I give them credit for taking that step, but on the other hand, good design is good design, and at a certain point you almost have to step back and say we're going to go back to design 101 and make things, you know, nice.
Every manufacturer now has gotten so good in general with quality and safety and powertrains and whatever, compared to maybe 20 years ago when everyone was quite different, that design is the one area that's left in the automotive product that you can separate yourself from everyone else. And the design teams and the companies recognize that, and so everyone's trying to out-design everyone in that effort, I think it's gotten a bit much. It's almost the same analogy as with [driver-assistance] electronics vs. the analog approach to the interaction [between driver and machine], both are kind of on the same path.
For some of us, it's almost hard to digest from a visual standpoint. And so, much like the story of the mechanicals is pared down, we kind of pared down and simplified the overall shape of the [GT4]. It's very clean, it's very simple. The body side doesn't have a lot of undercuts and gouged-out shapes in it, and it's really just a pure, pure shape.
We had a good architecture proportion, it's low, it's wide, it's got a good stance, the cabin's back so it's got that rear-drive proportion.
I told our team, just get out of your own way. It doesn't take much to turn it into a beautiful looking car.
What about those raised fenders?
We wanted the hood really low. so it's got good visibility, but then to clear the shock towers we had to kind of bump up the fender shapes, which also kind of gives it a slightly muscular look. And then we kind of echoed that in the back, too. It also has the same kind of shape. Just to emphasize the wheels and the stance of the car, we did that. It's just a clean surface that shows off the size and proportions of the car.
Is it Kia's version of the Hyundai Genesis?
[MO: It's loosely based on a chassis that's in the Hyundai motor group, but it's been heavily modified. It's not Kia's version of the Hyundai Genesis Coupe; it's actually about a foot shorter than it, and proportionally a lot smaller. This car's 2874 pounds, curb weight.]
Within the Hyundai Motor Group we do have a rear-drive architecture that we could potentially use. Although the Genesis Coupe is quite heavy; we'd want to make it smaller and lighter.
If Kia did build the GT4 Stinger, where in the line would it fit?
Even though we're starting to offer more premium cars [like the K900] I would think that this car, if it was produced, would still be a good value and probably under $30,000, something like that. I see it as something very obtainable.
The pedestrian safety thing has been screwing up everyone's designs for a while. Is the Stinger designed with that requirement in mind?
For the concept, we didn't build in those requirements, so we'd have to alter a bit.
What are your favorite car designs of the past?
[Porsche] 911, especially the early 911s. Pure, simple, but also very unique. I had a '71 S for a long time, but I sold that and I bought a Dino 246 GT. I think it's one of the all time best production car designs. It's just pure beauty.
Any concept cars?
There was a reinterpretation of the [Alfa Romeo] Duetto, it had a crazy long name [It was the 2010 Pininfarina 2uettottanta — Ed.] Unlike ours, it was very round and organic, but again, just a really simple and purely beautiful design. Red, of course.