Kia Stinger GT-S vs BMW 440i and Jaguar XE S – can it handle the heat?

Even from the cabin of the BMW, handsome Estoril Blue, the attention slathered on the leader of our small convoy isn’t difficult to see.
It could be that car’s own rich hue, which is suspiciously similar to Alfa’s Competizione Red, or the strangely discreet quad exhausts, or the fact that its prominent haunches flow rearwards to meet a tapering fastback and form an eye-pleasing Kamm-tail of sorts. All warrant a closer look. Or those enjoying the delights of the M4 westbound on this overcast weekday morn could simply be leaning over to make sure they’ve read the badge on the boot-lid correctly. So we’re all on the same page, it says ‘Kia’. 
By now you’ll be aware of the Stinger, seen here in top-spec, establishment-bating, eyebrow-raising GT-S trim. You may have also heard that it’s better than expected, with plenty of go and a chassis that’s, not to beat around the bush, rather lively. But good enough to be regarded as a proper driver’s car, one that might be considered an alternative to the likes of BMW’s 440i M Sport and the Jaguar XE S? Surely not. 
It pays to be open-minded, though, and a short while later the Stinger’s respectably heavy key fob is in hand. Climb aboard and it isn’t the elegant expanse of its interior that surprises most. Neither is it the high, wide transmission tunnel, with its Audi-style gearlever, nor the porthole-style air vents (Mercedes) or the dash-top infotainment system (BMW). It’s actually the driving position, which sinks deep enough for your eye-line to skim the top of the wraparound dash. Plenty of adjustability in the steering column then allows you to set the firmly padded steering wheel, with its satisfying narrow girth, close to your chest, in turn extending an invitation for your legs to stretch out and greet the pedals.
All this comes as revelation because the relationship between a car’s principal controls is an ergonomic maze in which experienced marques still get lost from time to time. That Kia has more or less nailed it straight off the bat bodes very well indeed. 
As does the Stinger’s spec-sheet, underscored as it is by one very attractive number: £40,495. Okay, there will be those for whom that seems a disturbingly substantial wedge to hand to a brand best known for its seven-year warranty, but just consider what it gets you. Nestled within the Stinger’s vaguely piggish snout is a 3.3-litre twin-turbo V6 whose 365bhp is delivered to the rear wheels through a paddleshift-operated eight-speed torque- converter built in-house and – how about this for intent – a mechanical limited-slip differential. That it will sprint to 62mph in a shade over five seconds and nudge 170mph flat-out makes it suitably brisk. Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front with double wishbones at the rear and, in a first for Kia, there’s adaptive damping. Braking comes courtesy of Brembo, while the variable-ratio steering rack gets the same power- assistance set-up as Hyundai’s terrifically precise i30 N hot hatch. 
Mind stubbornly closed? The fact that neither of the other cars here gets a mechanical LSD and that the disparity in on-paper performance between the three is so small as to be irrelevant should set you straight. It’s advantage Kia, particularly when you consider that its new flagship undercuts the BMW by £4000 and the striking Jag by double that. But how does it all translate to the road? 
Pretty damn well, in short. As we put chunks of West Berkshire between our convoy and the average-speed-camera hell behind us, this Kia quickly strikes a charming old-school balance between action and traction. Its 255-section rear rubber might appear a touch weedy underneath the coachwork of locomotive proportions but Kia’s restraint is to out benefit, the car’s rear-driven characteristics permitted to come to the fore.
To nobody’s surprise, the morning’s drizzle means burying the throttle at every opportunity is a fruitless approach – as if greasy tarmac wasn’t enough, this engine develops peak torque at just 1300rpm – but it’s not that kind of car anyway. Better to let your gaze wander up the road and manipulate the slightly soft suspension – even Sport mode takes a relaxed approach – to work the tyres through corners, carefully guiding the car’s substantial bow and conserving as much momentum as possible. It’s satisfying rather than thrilling, enjoyable if a little supervisory, but you don’t buy a car like the GT-S for a white-knuckle ride.
Straights obliterated, the Jag’s all-aluminium platform then carves into bends beautifully, with a front end that feels appreciably more alert than that of its rival and which claws into the road surface with greater enthusiasm, even if there isn’t a great deal of feedback through the weighty, slightly elastic steering. It’s a car that urges you to chase the throttle and yet never feels unduly ragged. 
It’s a brutal initial examination for the Stinger GT-S, which doesn’t flow like the XE-S (very little does) and can’t match its agility. Here’s the thing, though: enough similarities exist between the pair that an XE S owner, forced to borrow a Stinger for weekend, may feel a tinge of remorse come Monday morning. Both do the GT thing well and both are deceptively quick, the Jag’s 3.0-litre engine hitting harder, higher up in the rev range, but there are times when the simpler Korean car, developed at the Nürburgring (sigh), elicits the more palpable sense of fun. 
And so to the BMW. We attempted to get hold of the four-door Gran Coupé version for this test but had to settle for the 60kg-lighter coupé. Remarkably, it’s the Stinger that makes shorter work these tricky roads than our stiffly sprung M Sport-spec 440i, which finds good pliancy but also demands a strong hand for the steering wheel, whose fat rim is prone to writhing through your palms over corrugations in the road. Occupying the last rung on the BMW ladder before you’re in M4 territory, it sits at the opposite end of the sports saloon spectrum to the Kia, trading isolation from the road for closer acquaintance with it, warts and all. 
The payback is involvement. For 2017, BMW has tweaked the car’s suspension geometry, damper rates and anti-roll bars, as well as the steering, all in the name of keener dynamics and increased feedback. The 440i simply has a different set of priorities to the other cars here, particularly the Stinger, which comes across as flat-footed by comparison. The steering is low on road-feel but weights up beautifully through bends and, front-end duly nailed, it gives you a confidence only the Jag can compete with. Both cars hit their stride at a higher level than the newbie. The BMW’s 322bhp twin-turbo straight- six is also the pick of the engines here and pulls ferociously hard, it’s creamy delivery punctuated only by the crisp shifts of the eight-speed auto ’box and a slither of turbo-lag. Anyone predisposed to the raw charms of the light-blue car will probably find it hard to love the Kia. Equally, potential Stinger customers won’t clamour to shell out for a less supple rival with a poorer overall ride. It’s the XE S that emerges on top by best meeting the needs of both cohorts. 
Ultimately, though, Kia’s trump card really is that modest asking price. It’s an admission the brand doesn’t currently expect the GT-S to be taken seriously by buyers and yet the truth is that, of the three cars here, this is the one that makes the fewest mistakes. The BMW blots its copybook with its long-range refinement, or lack thereof, while the Jaguar’s price tag gives serious pause for thought. Value, pace, comfort and the ability to entertain are all part of the Stinger package, even if its interior quality does let it down.
As we’ve established, the GT-S also trails its rivals in pure dynamic terms, something largely down to the knock-on effects of its excessive kerb weight. But it’s not night and day. If Kia can find a way to trim the fat, give the V6 a voice to match the well-balanced, extrovert chassis, and also calibrate the gearbox to go about its business in a fractionally less ponderous manner, it would undoubtedly win more hearts. In fact, failure to do so would be a dereliction of duty, because in this bold new model, Kia has delivered not only a real proposition for drivers but one that could challenge for class honours in the future. It’s that good. 
A grand tourer worthy of its title
The initials ‘GT’ are frequently abused in this industry – not least by Kia itself, whose Proceed GT hot hatch is as suited to trans-continental schleps as a Ferrari 575 Maranello is to the paper round. However, in the case of the Stinger, they’re warranted. 
Having driven the car home from Barcelona, we can say that with confidence. Where the Kia’s weight, width and more relaxed settings for the suspension tune and steering response disadvantage it against the BMW on British B-roads, they make for an effortlessly long-legged cruiser with a reassuring sense of heft at speed. The cabin architecture also allows you to position yourself satisfyingly low in the comfy, heavily bolstered seats, but not in such a way that you have to relinquish an excellent view of the road ahead. It left us rested enough to engage Sport+ and let the Stinger loose on the snaking, leaf- strewn forest roads of the medieval Auvergne region after a 420-mile day. 
Of course, what really lends the Stinger its GT gait is the 3342cc V6 that sits just aft the front axle. Peak torque arrives low, meaning you can sit in one of the eight-speed transmissions’ higher ratios without sacrificing response. The engine note is also subdued – a little disappointing at times, but ideal for the outside lane, where it fades into the background. 
Small frustrations do exist. The adaptive cruise control is aggressively calibrated and can abruptly haul you down to 50mph as you’re preparing to sweep around an HGV. The twin-turbo engine is also thirsty if you’re in a hurry – we managed economy only in the mid-20s on the French autoroutes which, given the 60-litre tank, equates to a modest touring range of around 340 miles. The Stinger is otherwise as good a grand tourer as any in this category and better than most.