During a recent presentation here at Hyundai Motor Group's Namyang R&D Center in South Korea, Kia Executive VP Albert Biermann -- formerly Chief Engineer for BMW's M division -- explained that the new driving philosophy of the Kia brand is a pursuit of "fun-to-drive" cars.
This hasn't always been the case. Biermann himself used the phrase "almost fun to drive" to describe the brand's history, but pointed to the newest generation of Kia's portfolio -- specifically than the 2018 Kia Stinger GT -- as proof that the automaker is quickly distancing itself from what he describes as "the old Kia."
Despite the Stinger being only a year old, Kia can't just rest on the laurels of its early success. Biermann and the gang let me peek behind the curtain and see how they're already working at making the Stinger even sharper and more engaging, starting with seat time in an engineering prototype equipped with the next-generation "CK D-AWD" system.
RWD at the touch of a button
Everyone I know thinks that the rear-wheel drive (RWD) version of the 2018 Stinger is just better. It's lighter with a more connected, dynamic feel in corners compared to the more neutral all-wheel drive (AWD) Stinger we're currently long-term testing. The new CK D-AWD setup aims to close the dynamic gap, bringing some fun back to the AWD Stinger by simply sending more power to the rear axle. According to Biermann and Kia's engineers, the next Stinger AWD will essentially become a RWD car at the touch of a button.
Mechanically, this means transplanting the limited-slip differential from the current RWD Stinger to rear axle of the D-AWD system to better dole out traction with the increased rear-biased behavior. Electronically, there's new programming for stability control, torque vectoring logic, transmission shift programming and so on. As with the production Stinger, I was able to control these settings via four driving modes:
Static torque split (F:R)
Transmission auto upshifts at redline, reverts to automatic shifting after a few moments without manual input
Will not revert to automatic shifting, but still upshifts automatically at redline
More rear bias and looser stability control allows experienced drivers easier midcorner rotation
Nearly full rear-drive with minimal stability control allows controlled slides, will not upshift even at the rev limiter
As you move up through the drive modes, the static torque split becomes more rear-biased, culminating in a Drift mode that sends over 90 percent of torque to the back wheels. Of course, the system continues to dynamically shift and allocate torque around these static baselines. Comfort mode, for example, can vary between 50:50 and 10:90 at any given moment. However, the most dynamic settings are always rear-biased: Sport Plus never sends less than 70 percent of the power to the rear axle and Drift mode never drops below 85 percent.
Comfort and Sport are accessed with a simple flip of the Drive Mode toggle on the console; Sport Plus and Drift mode are accessed by tapping and then double-tapping the ESC OFF button, bringing with them progressively looser stability control. The transmission's shift program and shifting behavior also changes depending on the mode. In most modes, it'll automatically knock up to the next gear when you reach the redline, but Drift mode will just bounce off the rev limiter, holding the high engine speeds needed to keep the rear wheels lit up.
I started by testing out the difference between the Comfort and Sport modes on a dry handling course at Kia's Namyang facility -- a short track featuring a few hairpins, chicanes and elevation changes.
Comfort mode still feels neutral and not at all different from the car currently in our garage. Sport mode was sharper, but only a tad. I was able to accelerate earlier and more aggressively after each apex, which made corners more fun and the overall feel fell somewhere between the current RWD and AWD models with a foot planted firmly on the safe side.
For Sport Plus and Drift modes, I was shuffled over to a large skid pad by my hosts -- which was disappointing because I really wanted to try Sport Plus on the track -- and instructed to chuck the fastback sedan into circles and figure-eights as hard as I could. The difference was immediately apparent.
The looser stability control and higher engine speeds allowed much tighter rotation in Sport Plus and even tail-out slides in the appropriately named Drift mode. Kia's engineers tell me that Drift mode will occasionally shuffle a bit of power to the front axle to help straighten out when recovering from a sweet slide, but that it's basically full-time RWD. The heavy rear-bias means this is not a "get out of jail free" card -- my first few drifts quickly snapped into smokey spins.
I also learned it's also not an "instant drift" button. The Stinger is a big boy and, even in Drift mode, getting it to slide rather than push-understeer or snap-oversteer requires a level of familiarity and agility that proved difficult for me (and many of my fellow jet-lagged journalists) with such a short window in which to play. I ended up handing the reins over to a fresh-faced Kia engineer who was more than happy to smoke the tires for me with a surprisingly deft and smooth drift demonstration.
Finally, I was allowed to test the Stinger on a wet handling course -- a series of corners that were constantly sprayed with water -- to demonstrate how even in the Sport and Sport Plus settings, the D-AWD system can quickly scramble grip out of slip. Here, I managed to get nicely sideways when I "accidentally" strayed onto a wet cobblestone segment, but even then it was surprisingly easy to catch and countersteer the Stinger into my desired direction. On regular pavement, the system performed admirably even at what I'd consider a fairly quick pace for a rainy day.
Prototype to production
Based on an admittedly short time behind the wheel, it seems like Kia is on the right path to balancing the dynamism of the rear-drive Stinger with the four-season drivability of the all-wheel model. For now, however, the automaker is still in the evaluation stages with the D-AWD system. Biermann tells me that a sharper Stinger is coming, but Kia hasn't decided which global markets will get it or when. Demand for the more dynamic system will have to be weighed against the extra cost of the limited-slip differential, as well as warranty and safety concerns.
I got a wink and a nudge from another Kia representative, however, who hinted that, given the Stinger's success in the North American market, we'll likely see this system in the States within this generation, especially if enthusiasts and buyers ask loudly enough.
So expect more "fun to drive" from the Stinger soon, but Biermann also says we should expect to see this driving philosophy manifest throughout the rest of Kia's lineup. The next Soul, for example, should be much more agile than before. Biermann also told me that Kia is already hard at work on the next Optima GT, which promises an "interesting powertrain" and sport-tuned handling that will represent the "next level of Kia performance." I can't wait.
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