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Coming of Age

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a new series for BusinessWest — car reviews of a sort. These are first-person looks, and some commentary, about some of the vehicles — and issues — that are, let’s say, in the news.

The author found driving the Stinger to be, well, an adventure.

When last we left our heroes — yes, I’m a huge Rocky & Bullwinkle fan and still have a ‘WhatsamataU?’ T-shirt (oldest thing I own) — we were talking about how no one’s driving cars anymore and SUVs now rule the earth.

While that’s an exaggeration (and Bullwinkle loved to exaggerate), it’s not far from the truth. SUVs are the big sellers, and cars are taking, well, a back seat.

These days, people need a good reason to drive a sedan, or several of them. Which is a nice way to segue to the Kia Stinger, the coolest, baddest sedan you’ve probably never heard of. Truth is, you’ve probably seen one and gone ‘what the heck is that?’ You could answer your own question if you, or the car in question, happened to be moving slowly enough to see the word ‘Stinger’ or the Kia logo. Or you were at a red light. It’s probably the latter, because the Stinger doesn’t move slowly. But we’ll get to that later.

Let’s get back to that ‘never heard of’ part. There are reasons for that.

First off, they don’t make many Stingers — it’s a specialty car of sorts and certainly not a big seller. Secondly, it’s made by Kia, which, although it’s made some serious strides in recent years, is still … Kia, a relative newcomer known mostly for making solid, economical cars with lots of value.

And that’s being kind. The company had a reputation, just like Hyundai did 20 to 25 years ago and Honda and Nissan (yes, I know, it was Datsun back then) did 40 to 45 years ago for making practical but uninspiring — and, yes, cheap, cars. Those brands grew up, and Kia has as well.

“It’s a wonderful vehicle — we’ve received a lot of positive response for it; most of the time, when we get them in, they sell out within 48 hours.”

The Stinger provides all the evidence you need, but there’s plenty more, said Mike Spanilo, general manager of Balise Kia in West Springfield, adding that the new Telluride, an in-demand, mid-sized SUV, is certainly making people rethink what ‘Kia’ means.

“It’s a wonderful vehicle — we’ve received a lot of positive response for it; most of the time, when we get them in, they sell out within 48 hours,” he said, adding that Kia now has a deep lineup of cars and SUVs that attract area buyers in all age groups.

Spanilo, who has been with Balise for more than 20 years now and sold GM and Chrysler products most recently, said he came to Kia with some preconceived notions that he soon realized were quite dated.

“My perspective on this, coming from two American-made brands, is that I was pleasantly surprised at what I found when I got here — because I had never driven a Kia before I got here,” he said. “If you’ve gotta sell ’em, you’ve gotta like ’em, and that has not been a difficult thing for me to transition to; this brand has definitely come a long way.”

Looking Sharp

All this brings us to the Stinger, and also … Jose Perozo, a sales associate at Balise Kia, whose story sounds a little like that of Victor Kiam. Sort of.

You remember him — probably. Maybe not. He’s the guy who owned Remington shavers and, later, the New England Patriots — thankfully, not for very long; one of his teams went 1-15. Anyway, the line he used in his commercials for Remington was, “I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company.”

The Stinger blends concept-car looks with performance and value.

Perozo bought a Kia a few years back and liked them so much he went to work selling them. And while selling them, he absolutely fell in love with the Stinger. So much so, he bought one.

Coincidentally, he was bringing his home just a few hours before he took this writer along for a ride — not in his car, but the other Stinger on the lot.

To say that he could barely control his excitement would be an understatement. Every time he accelerated, and every time he thought he saw a Camaro, Mustang, or Charger driver looking over in what he perceived to be envy, you could see some discernable pride in ownership.

And that speaks quite loudly and effectively not only for this model, but the whole Kia lineup.

You don’t have to put the Kerwood Derby on your head (best Bullwinkle plotline ever; Google it) to know that Riverdale Street isn’t a good stretch for test-driving a car. There’s a ton of traffic, red lights that stay red for an hour or two, and long stretches where you have to go in the direction opposite from the one you want to in to get where you want to go.

Fortunately, a U-turn and a few of those lights later, you’re on that stretch of Route 5 that includes the North End, Memorial, and South End bridges, where the Stinger can begin to show what it can do. And after a quick trip over the last of those bridges and onto I-91, you can really get the idea.

The Stinger GT2 we drove ($51,000 fully loaded; top of the line) has a twin-turbo V-6 that delivers 360 horses and goes from zero to 60 in about 4.7 seconds. Drivers can choose a number of ‘modes’ for travel, or the car can pick one itself. These include ‘economy,’ ‘comfort,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘sport.’ The last of those options is obviously the most fun.

As Perozo punched the accelerator while in sport mode, the Stinger showed off its considerable straight-line speed, which is just one of its many positive traits. Others include the exterior design — it has concept-car looks — decent amounts of handling and comfort, optional all-wheel drive, and the requisite bells and whistles in the infotainment category — Apple CarPlay and Adroid Auto are standard.

While the Stinger has many of the safety features available on luxury brands — and even some non-luxury brands — today, it doesn’t go overboard, if you know what I mean.

And the trunk even passes the golf-club test, which, as we all know, is what the experts look for when scoring a vehicle. Forget those JD Power awards — can you get the golf clubs in the trunk?

And there’s something else. While the Stinger has many of the safety features available on luxury brands — and even some non-luxury brands — today, it doesn’t go overboard, if you know what I mean.

(Warning: old-man rant coming!) If you don’t know what I mean, cars that will alert you when to brake or if there’s a vehicle in your blind spot are fine, for the most part. Cars that flash the speed limit for the road you’re on and then make it blink on and off when going above it, and cars that not only alert you if you’re drafting from the center of your lane but yank you back to center, well … I have people yelling at me and telling I’m doing something wrong all day long; I don’t need the car to do that, too.

The Stinger doesn’t do any of that. What it does is almost defy categorization. It’s a luxury car, but not like most. It’s a performance vehicle, but not like most. It’s a muscle car (well, sort of, but not really) that’s not like most. And it can compete with cars in all those categories. It isn’t inexpensive — the entry-level, four-cylinder model is priced at $34,000 — but that’s far less than most of the luxury brands it competes against, and there is considerably more value.

Kia has indeed come of age, and the Stinger is just one of the models that makes this clear.

Speed Thrills

You’re wondering about that Kerwood Derby thing, aren’t you? See, there was this guy on Candid Camera (yes, from the early ’60s, I know), a co-host of sorts named Durwood Kirby who was bland and, quite frankly, dumber than a bag of hammers. The makers of Rocky & Bullwinkle spoofed the name in an episode all about a derby that had magical powers and could make its wearer the smartest person in the world. Guess you had to see it.

If you did, you’re getting old; you need to feel younger. Test driving a Stinger will certainly help.

As for this series of car reviews, in the true spirit of Rocky & Bullwinkle, tune in next time, when ‘O’Brien Vettes a Chevy,’ or ‘O’Brien takes on all Challengers.’

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]