Kia's twin-turbocharged Euro-style liftback performance halo has been given a refresh for 2021, and while the interior has been given some much needed upgrades and still performs like a champ, slow sales bring the model's future into question.

When it debuted in 2017, the Kia Stinger presented itself to the world as if it was the second-coming. A turbocharged rear-wheel drive saloon with all the right performance credentials, it looked as though it would not just be the car that finally put the Kia name in the minds of enthusiasts, but here in Australia, it looked like it would capitalise on the hole left by the likes of the Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo and the Holden Commodore SS.

Fast forward to 2021, however, and things haven’t exactly played out as Kia may have planned. With sales slow and in decline, it seems the hype died off quickly and what has been regarded the whole time as a very competent car has struggled big-time despite just how good a driver’s car it is.

To reinvigorate it and help stave off the years, though, Kia has given the Stinger a much-needed update for the 2021 model year, with this freshen-up bringing revised looks and, most importantly, a revised interior with the hope of rounding out what was already a pretty solid package.

Four models remain in the Australian lineup, with mid-spec Si versions having been killed off due to spec upgrades. Four-cylinder buyers can choose from either the 200S or GT-Line, while V6 models come in 330S and GT flavours, the former of which is what’s on test here.

Having previously tested the 200S and 330S versions when the Stinger first came out, I can confirm that it felt like far too basic a thing inside. Sure, it might have had some very nice leather bucket seats (with power adjustment for the driver) which do still remain, but a dinky and ugly little infotainment screen and a black and white trip computer display in the gauge cluster really let the side down. It was basic outside, too, with distinctly under-styled wheels and awful yellow halogen projector-beam headlights.

Now, though, it’s been given a proper dress-up with a 10.25-inch infotainment screen perched atop the dash that runs the latest Kia software and looks far more modern and fitting in a car like this that has premium aspirations. There’s a colour display inside the gauge cluster as well, and while it mightn’t be a big screen at 4.2 inches, it does at least display a boost gauge, tyre pressure monitoring, and other information you’ll likely want to know.

The build quality feels to be much better than before also. Every pre-facelift Stinger I drove suffered from a myriad of interior rattles, but now, it feels to be bolted together much more solidly. The materials themselves still feel a bit basic in some areas, admittedly, but there’s nothing too offensive to be found anywhere you look.

Outside, it’s been given a nice freshen-up, too, with LED headlights made standard, a new full-width lightbar at the rear, and wheels that actually look decently impressive – they’re the same ones you’ll see on the North American GT-Line model.

There are still compromises to be made by buying an S model, though. While the lack of a power-operated tailgate won’t be a dealbreaker, it would make this thing feel more premium – like it wishes it was – as would some interior trim that was nicer still than the plentiful piano black plastic. A wireless phone charger would be nice to have as well, especially since it feels like there should be one in the cubby hole ahead of the shifter, given how perfectly a phone fits there.

Perhaps the most notably absent thing, though, is blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. In a car selling for $56,890 drive-away, it’s just disappointing to see omitted – especially as many cheaper Kia base models do feature it. The latter, especially, would be handy given just how long the Stinger is.

At least autonomous emergency braking has been fitted as standard since 2018 – early 2017 S models lacked it, with that alone giving these versions a three-star ANCAP safety rating, unlike the rest of the five-star range. The inclusion of the crucial tech bumped it back up to five-stars across the range.

Blind-spot monitoring is something you’ll be able to live without if you’re buying this car for it’s performance, though, as performance is something it offers plenty in the way of.

While the turbocharged four-cylinder base engine (due to low demand for the four-pot, it’s still a 2.0-litre here and in Europe, while the US and South Korea get a new 2.5-litre engine) is a decent performer and will be perfect for those looking to simply daily drive one of these, the engine fitted to my tester is the one you really want.

A 3.3-litre twin-turbocharged V6, it produces 274kW (367bhp) at 6000rpm, with the 2kW increase courtesy of a new exhaust system, along with a beefy 510Nm that’s spread evenly from 1300-4500rpm. Mated to an in-house eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission, it’s available with rear-wheel drive only in Australia – just the way it should be, although all-wheel drive can be had in other markets. You can expect it to sprint from 0-100km/h in just 4.9 seconds meaning that, yes, it’s seriously quick.

If you figured that with this much power and a rear-wheel drive chassis the Stinger would likely have a propensity to slide, you’d certainly be right, although just how tail-happy this car can be is something that’s easily underestimated. Having a mechanical limited-slip differential certainly helps with controlling power oversteer, but that’s not the only reason why it wants to hang its arse-end out around every corner.

That mainly comes down to the fact that this 330S model is riding on 225/45 R18 rubber all around – rather than the GT’s staggered setup with 255-wide rear tyres and 19-inch rims – and the tyres themselves are soft compound Continentals. With so little rubber on the back trying to handle the constant twisting power of 510Nm, those skinny tyres are getting fried regularly. In a straight line, it’s all wheelspin through the first three gears, especially if the road is damp, and through the corners the back end loses grip quickly as well. Even using its Launch Control system, it’ll light up those skinny tyres and start to kick a little sideways.

Now if oversteer is your thing, this will all be music to your ears, as the Stinger is one of the easiest cars to get a feel for sliding about in – the long wheelbase makes it feel more forgiving, balanced, and controllable; it has good front-end grip and turns in crisply; and all the oily bits such as the tight diff are exactly the ones you’d want. However, it does mean you need to know what you’re doing behind the wheel if you really want to hustle it.

Of course, if you’re simply going to be daily driving this thing, there’s a lot to like about the way it drives. The weighting of its variable ratio steering strikes a good balance between both city and spirited driving, the ride quality is very supple for a performance saloon, the transmission is smooth and intuitive, and the predictability of its handling characteristics means it’s still pleasant and composed when you’re taking things easy.

Maybe the only thing I’m not a fan of are the brakes – perhaps surprising, given it sports a big set of Brembos with 350mm front and 340mm rear vented discs, and four-piston front and two-piston rear calipers. While you’d expect a solid feel through the pedal, the brakes actually feel spongey and quickly start to fade. You can probably chalk it up to the big Stinger’s 1793kg heft, but it’s a touch disappointing nonetheless.

But truly, from behind the wheel, it still feels like the ideal Commodore or Falcon successor – big, relaxed, and comfortable, but able to really thunder along when requested. Consider, also, the fact it’s more practical (a liftback layout, rather than a traditional sedan design, means it sports a huge cargo area) and offers as much rear legroom (if with slightly compromised headroom for taller passengers) and looking from the outside in, it may seem surprising how it’s failed to take off.

In my eyes, and no doubt the eyes of others, the main problem has simply been the fact this is a Kia – or, more specifically, the fact it isn’t a Holden or a Ford. It didn’t matter whether the Stinger was a brilliant car or not – the Commodore and Falcon buyers it was duly pitched towards were never going to change sides no matter what badge it had on the front.

Being a Kia specifically has hurt its appeal as a budget alternative to something European, however. Nevermind the fact it’s close of half the price of a European saloon that can perform the same as it can, and that it offers a class-leading seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty – these types of buyers would rather be seen in a car with a Euro badge on the front, and will either offset the price difference by financing or leasing it, or by getting a model that lacks this sort of performance. Plus, buyers across the board and moving from the likes of sedans into SUVs, causing a downward trend for all models like this, which only makes it harder for any new entrants like this to break out into a fast declining market.

Given it can’t present a strong-enough case to either of these demographics to see it win out over what they’d normally buy, it’s no wonder sales have been consistently low here in Australia – it leads the two-horse race it has with the Skoda Superb in the Large Cars Under $70,000 segment, but sales have remained stagnant at 1773 units in 2019 and 1778 last year after peaking at 1957 units in 2018, while the Superb’s numbers are on the rise here.

Other key markets have seen a similar dip in sales as well – in the US, it’s gone from 16,806 units in 2018 to 12,556 in 2020 – so it’s no wonder there’s been so much talk for years of it becoming a one-hit wonder for Kia, with this facelift only bringing that conversation back to the forefront of the model’s media coverage.

If Kia can’t find a place for a successor, it would be a right shame as the Stinger is a fine car that can feel seriously thrilling in the hands of drivers who aren’t afraid of trying to tame this powerslide-favouring chassis. However, it’s hard to see a case being made for it given just how slow sales have been here.

I hope the company can find a way though – with a classy new logo design that’s already being sported by the Stinger overseas, and no doubt some know-how from one of its sister companies, Genesis, on how to make a sporty rear-drive car that truly feels luxurious, there’s the chance for this sort of an offering from the company to succeed.

For now, though, it’ll remain an underrated and under-appreciated offering that has simply failed to deliver on its potential in the way us in the press first thought. If a true rear-wheel drive performer is what you want, it’s truly your best bet for the money. How many of you out there do want that though, I suspect, is fewer than Kia – or anyone – really thought.

2021 Kia Stinger 330S List Price: $53,330 | Drive-Away Price: $56,890
  • 8.5/10
    Performance - 8.5/10
  • 8.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Practicality - 8.5/10
  • 8/10
    Value for Money - 8/10

Pros: Muscular twin-turbo engine, slides easily and predictably, interior finally feels the part thanks to the new infotainment system, it’s in a class of its own (almost literally)
Cons: Spongey brake feel, struggles to put the power down on 225-wide tyres, no blind spot or rear cross-traffic alert

In a nutshell: The Stinger is every bit a competent car that will put a huge grin on the face of oversteer lovers and will seriously impress in a straight line. However, it still struggles to carve a true identity for itself that would help it appeal to both former Aussie sedan buyers and entry-level Euro buyers. 

Photography by Marcus Cardone.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Kia Motors Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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