ARJEPLOG, SWEDEN-The Hyundai-Kia Group in Korea has done pretty well recruiting German talent.
First, back in 2006, Kia lured Peter Schreyer away from the VW-Audi Group to be their chief stylist.
How has that worked out? Not only are Kias very attractive, Schreyer is now president of the company.
Two years ago, they backed the money truck up in front of the house of another top-level German, this time the vice-president of engineering for BMW’s M division, Albert Biermann, and told him to keep forking it out until he was happy.
He is now executive v-p of engineering for the Hyundai-Kia conglomerate.
Korean cars have been getting better in leaps and bounds over the past decade or so, but are primarily family-oriented vehicles — sedans, hatches, SUVs, crossovers — with lots of content and value.
Biermann’s task is to infuse these vehicles with some sporting flair, some dynamic excellence, which will justify the bean-counters’ plan to up the prices to improve margins, hence profitability.
The first project to hit the streets which will bear Biermann’s imprint will be the Kia Stinger, a sports sedan which comes to market early next year.
The car had been previewed at auto shows several times, and engineering was well underway when Biermann arrived.
He was very pleased with the styling. What’s not to like about Gregory Guillaume’s Schreyer-inspired design? The medium-sized (think BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe or Audi A5) four-door hatchback has a low coupelike profile, and of course, the Kia signature ‘tiger nose’ grille.
Handsome from every angle.
Inside, too. Kia and Hyundai have also made great strides both in interior design and materials, and Stinger benefits from both.
It is a five-seater, although the low roofline makes the rear seat a bit of a compromise for the taller amongst your friends.
When Biermann talks about it now, it almost seems like he was a bit surprised about how well the basic engineering of the car had been done.
The car shares some of its architecture with Genesis, the excellent new Hyundai luxury sedan line.
“We had to do very little added stiffening to give Stinger the rigid structure a sports sedan requires,” noted Biermann.
Even the suspension systems were good, needing just a bit of tweaking — that’s where the art comes in to augment the science.
Biermann was also pleased with the calibre of engineering talent he had to work with.
He just had to act as a kind of orchestra leader to have them play a little bit differently.
One example he gave was the ESC (Electronic Stability Control) systems. For family cars, these have to be focused on safety, as they rightly should be.
But for sporty cars, presumably being helmed by more experienced, more talented drivers, you want to allow a bit more freedom for the car to step out a little.
Biermann said this did not necessarily reflect a change in direction for all Kias. It’s more of a ‘bandwidth expansion,’ making the product range broader, more appealing to more customers.
Canadian specs for Stinger have not been released, but it will be available with two of the three available engines (no Diesel for us, worse luck).
We will have the choice of two Hyundai-Kia Group engines, the Theta 2.0-litre, four-cylinder turbo, producing 255 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, or the Lambda 3.3-litre, V6 twin-turbo (370 and 376, respectively).
We will have a choice of just one transmission (OK, so it’s a non-choice), an eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters, driving either the rear wheels or all four, depending on the model.
Stinger will be available with dynamic torque vectoring control, which will utilize reductions in engine torque to assist momentary application of various brake calipers to help ‘steer’ the car around corners.
Electronic dampers help achieve that elusive ride-handling balance which BMW used to own before they switched to run-flat tires, which killed the ride side of that equation.
Kia wasn’t quite ready to run the car on public roads, so they decided to combine the winter testing program in northern Sweden with a small-group media drive, limited to various exercises at the Mobis Winter Test Center near Arjeplog, which pretty much is the centre of winter testing for Europe — there must be 15 such facilities within a 20-minute drive.
The pre-production vehicles and prototypes available to us included a V6 with four-wheel drive, and a four in ‘GT’ spec with the four cylinder.
We did slaloms on the snow; anchors-out brake testing on a ‘split-mu’ surface — one side ice, the other side dry pavement; a simulated ‘urban’ road course, again on ice; and tail-end-out drifting on — well, ‘nonfriction’ circles of smaller and larger diameter.
The usual ‘handling’ course had started to flood — the metre-thick ice wasn’t quite a metre thick — so had to be abandoned.
We typically started each exercise with all the nanny systems in effect so we could get a feel for how the car behaved, then tried again with the systems switched to ‘have-some-fun’ and ‘you-are-on-your-own’ mode.
The cars went from ‘nice and stable’ to ‘much more fun’ to ‘Holy Cow!’ with each click of the button.
When Kia showed us performance data from ‘unidentified’ competitive models on the same exercises, the Stinger scored extremely well. When nudged sufficiently, Biermann admitted that the competitive models came from what he called ‘The Big Three,’ which we took to mean BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
Why not? Might as well aim high.
Generally, you don’t see the words ‘drifting’ and ‘Kia’ in the same sentence — although Dan Sprongl, who built the Kia Optima rally car which I ran in Targa Newfoundland a few years ago, bought that car and now runs it in Time Attack and drifting events.
Heck, even ‘Kia sports sedan’ takes a bit of getting used to.
But here we were, in just that, delightfully sideways in lovely controllable drifts (no, no, not snow drifts. At least, not me …).
And it was indeed a delight.
Even the four-cylinder engine provides good performance, although the hooligans among us — OK, all of us — preferred the lusty V6.
The lack of a manual transmission has been more or less accepted by even the most nostalgic of us scribes. There just is such a limited market for them these days, and frankly, modern automatic-equipped cars not only often perform better than their manual brethren (or ‘sistern’) where they are available, they often get better fuel consumption, too.
This one performed very well, whether shifting by itself or via the paddles.
Various drive modes are available, changing throttle response, shift speed, damping characteristics, ESC limits and so forth, all in the name of more comfortable or more sporting driving.
Biermann aimed to make the differences between the settings larger than most, so the driver can really feel the difference.
Despite our cold-weather test, it certainly looks and drives like a car that deserves a warm welcome.
The four-wheel drive system has a distinct rearward bias which makes fun in the snow even more fun, and I’m expecting it to be more popular in Canada than even Kia Canada’s marketing people are expecting.
Geez, if I turn out to be right, they could save themselves a lot of money …
Speaking of money, nobody, either from Korea Corporate or Kia Canada, would even hint at a price point for Stinger.
It isn’t easy to develop a ‘competitive set’ for Stinger. While the German Big Three were the technical target — and based on our admittedly limited exposure, Stinger stacks up very well in that field — the Kia brand name cannot yet command a similar price.
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So, if a BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, for example, starts right around the 50K mark, I suspect Stinger will have to slot in a few grand lower, say, low-40s.
Geez (2), what if I’m right about that too?