Kia GT4 Stinger: A killer bee in waiting?

Roughly two decades ago, when Kia entered Western markets, it was inconceivable that this peddler of economy cars would blossom into a juggernaut pushing 500,000 units annually in the US.

More unlikely would be the notion that Kia would lean so heavily on design, leaving other automakers’ products looking haplessly mainstream.

The latest proof came on 13 January at the 2014 Detroit auto show, where the GT4 Stinger two-door coupe was unveiled, a sporty concept that dominated the company’s news conference. Tom Loveless, Kia executive vice president for sales, sounded as if he were working for a German performance brand, calling the Stinger “a true enthusiast machine”.

The Stinger borrows successful design aspects from various production and concept hatchbacks and coupes – in just the past two years, the Provo, the Track’ster and the Europe- and South Korea-only Pro’ceed. The show car’s searing yellow-orange paint may subtract from its more beautiful elements, including its strong creases and bulges. Tall LED headlamps evoke those of  current Cadillacs, while the bulky, triangular rear evokes the tapered, streamlined hind quarters of the Volkswagen XL1. Viewed from above, the GT4 Stinger suggests an amphibious shape. Long and short of it, the car has presence.

Built around a two-plus-two layout, the interior appears almost production-ready. The slim bucket seats are a throwback to mid-century offerings, and not since a Porsche Boxster Spyder has a sports car seen so many red grab handles. It’s an amalgamation, but one that works.

The GT4 Stinger is a front-engine, rear-drive runner, and features a drivetrain with relative feasibility for production. The imagineers from Seoul squeezed every last drop of power from their corporate 2-litre four-cylinder engine, managing to route 315 horsepower to the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. That output makes the GT4 Stinger theoretically more powerful than even the veritable Volkswagen Golf R, and nearly as potent as the Mercedes-Benz GLA45. It also puts to shame the humble output of beloved modern sports coupes, such as the Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ.

It is almost enough to make you think that Kia is serious about attracting the enthusiast buyer. A record of recent non-starters tempers that idea, but there may be new resolve at the brand. As one Kia designer confirmed in a preview video that played before the Stinger’s reveal: “No one really needs a sports car, but you only live once.”