Kia is still tuning the Stinger for us loud-loving Americans
Plus, special-edition models are coming this spring, and Kia is courting the aftermarket, too.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Kia's hotly awaited Stinger five-door grand tourer is poised to hit US dealers around Thanksgiving, yet the Korean car company is still making tweaks to get the upscale five-door sports tourer right for US buyers. Eleventh-hour changes include finding a beefier exhaust note and cultivating a richer sound from the stereo system to better suit American ears.
The company's initial hope was to develop a global exhaust tune, but according to Orth Hedrick, vice president of product planning at Kia Motors America, the resulting tone wasn't throaty enough for a US performance car: "It sounded like a hissing note, like a restriction, something from the seventies." Hedrick told me that's in part because Europe has much tougher pass-by noise regulations, and because "as a general rule, Korean consumers don't appreciate loud exhausts -- because they consider it [to be] a bad muffler, [that] someone's not taking care of their car. It's not refined." As decades of muscle cars and sports coupes readily illustrate, US buyers prefer that their performance cars offer a bit more bark to go with their bite.
To make that happen, Kia Motors America had to urge the home office in Seoul to develop a richer exhaust note, a change that involves moving baffles within the muffler to yield less restriction. The change was so important to Hedrick that the company air-shipped 18 exhaust systems to be fitted to US media press preview vehicles, and then spent a week fitting them to the cars. At the vehicle's Los Angeles media launch this week, Hedrick assured me that even the first customer cars will be fitted with the throatier hardware.
To my ears, the resulting exhaust sounds good but could still go further, and company officials know this. "It's like 38 percent of what I would like," says James Bell, director of corporate communications. Bell, who was integral in pushing for a more vocal engine, notes that Kia is already seeding the car in the aftermarket with companies like Borla, a well-regarded performance exhaust company. When asked if Kia might make an even burlier Borla exhaust available through dealers, Hedrick said, "We're looking at that... it's a lot more doable if it's after the cat[alytic converter]."
Kia expects to show off a number of Stingers at the SEMA Show this fall in Las Vegas, and a Borla-tuned model will be among them. It's also likely that an even more vocal exhaust system will be factory-fitted eventually, too, but don't look for one in the Stinger's first year of production.
The same "boomier is better" American preference holds true for audio systems, too. As Hedrick notes, "the Korean market has a different aesthetic for what they want to hear for sound. They don't appreciate boomy bass; that loud, full bass that we appreciate -- that kind of full resonance that fills the cabin that you can feel."
Bell, who considers himself "a bit of a closet audiophile," had spent a lot of time in a preproduction Stinger and felt that despite the optional Harman Kardon audio system's comprehensive specs, the listening experience lacked low-end oomph. "With a lot of push and a lot of shove, we were able to get them [headquarters] to reconsider it," says Bell. Reworking the audio system for more bass didn't require new hardware, just software, so a special EQ tuning session was held recently in Michigan to address the issue for US models.
Changes to the Stinger haven't just been limited to audible matters. When the car was first revealed at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show in January, a 0-to-60 mph time of 5.1 seconds was announced for the twin-turbo V6 GT model. The production model will do it in 4.7. As Bell notes, "It was my job to go out there and say '5.1,' and every time I said it, I was like, '5.1 -- can't we pull two-tenths of a second out of it?'" Bell and Hedrick showed company officials back in Seoul acceleration data from other automakers who had similar vehicles, and over a summer of tuning, the engineers working on performance managed to find four-tenths. Now, the Stinger GT isn't just quicker than much-costlier cars like the base Porsche Panamera (0-60 in 5.4 seconds), it beats the BMW 440i Gran Coupe's 4.9 seconds, too.
2018 Kia Stinger GT is a master of Germany's Nürburgring
It's totally normal for car companies to make tweaks in everything from suspension tuning to standard equipment to best align new vehicles with specific market tastes, but it is unusual for them to make substantive product changes so close to launch. Most automakers would have frozen a vehicle's exact specifications many months prior (if not an entire calendar year or more) in order to limit the potential for supplier problems and quality issues. However, Kia and its counterparts at Hyundai have developed a remarkable knack for instituting last-minute changes while still keeping suppliers happy and quality high. Honing that ability to make running changes has been a key part of both brands' success over the last decade.
Kia may be new to the higher-dollar, higher-performance end of the market where the Stinger will live, but it also seems to recognize that continual updates are particularly important to this type of vehicle, both to stay ahead of competitors and simply to keep buyer interest piqued in a segment that's continually obsessed with The Next Big Thing.
To that end, special edition Stingers are planned, with the first such models expected next spring. Initially, expect things like unique exterior and upholstery colors and perhaps new wheel designs, but actual performance enhancements are likely, too. "That's the part we're going to work on," says Hedrick.
To my eye, the fact that Kia is making last-minute tweaks to the Stinger GT isn't cause for worry. On the contrary, it's actually a very good sign. It not only shows that the company is sweating the details and prioritizing North American customers, it also suggests that C-suite executives in Seoul are increasingly entrusting overseas divisions with product-level decision making. Kia and corporate-cousin Hyundai have long-held reputations as autocratic operations, with a Korea-centric organizational structure that has historically declined to empower satellite divisions to control their own destiny. But this car's development suggests that top-down strategy may be changing.
In this way, the Stinger may not just end up establishing a high-performance tone for Kia's product lineup, it could well set the pace for a leaner, meaner corporate culture, too.