“The Stinger will mark a new era for Kia, dividing our history into before and after,” says Justin Sohn, President and CEO, Kia Motors America.

After spending a day driving Kia’s 167-mph (269-km/h) beast on some of the best twisties in the U.S. and at the automaker’s proving grounds in the California desert, we’re inclined to agree.

U.S. Baby Boomers have watched Kia evolve from a producer of tinny, entry-level cars to a brand that offers a lineup of stylish products such as the Soul subcompact and Optima sedan, which have earned top third-party quality and reliability ratings.

But the Stinger is not just another rung in the ladder of Kia’s 30-year continuous improvement program. It is a moonshot that takes the automaker to a whole new level in the hierarchy of global automakers.

Not only is the Stinger promising to disrupt the luxury market with its turbocharged V-6 GT models, but affordably priced 4-cyl. versions are aimed at shaking up the snoozing family sedan market, bringing spectacular styling and practical hatchback design to a segment desperately in need of something new to stave off the CUV onslaught. It’s a bold agenda Kia has been planning for years.

“Unlike any Kia that has come before it, the Stinger really is a dream car for us and comes after years of commitment and hard work from a passionate group of designers, engineers and executives around the world, ” says KMA’s Orth Hedrick, vice president-product planning.

We drove a V-6 GT 120 mph (193 kph) on the test track’s high-speed loop, we had the tires wailing on the high-speed road course and we drove it back-to-back with premium German and Japanese metal on a handling course. The Stinger is really, really good, even compared with similar models from top luxury brands priced tens of thousands higher.

Not only is the Stinger GT far more accessible than these competitors at a fully loaded price of about $53,000 including a $895 destination fee, it also has more rear legroom and interior space than almost all of them – and the big hatch in back offers CUV-like utility.

Even more importantly, five versions of the car are being offered, starting at less than $33,000 for rear-wheel-drive models powered by Kia’s stout 255-hp 2.0L turbo which makes 260 lb.-ft. (253-Nm) of torque and delivers 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in a sporty 5.9 seconds. All-wheel-drive is a $2,200 option for all models.

The car has such beautiful lines and proportions, it could become the first hatchback sedan to excite mainstream U.S. buyers in decades. It is modeled after the classic European grand touring cars of the 1970s that were fast and beautiful, but also comfortable on long trips.

Hatchbacks, sportbacks or whatever you want to call them are infinitely more practical than standard sedans and are embraced in Europe and the rest of the world, but they rarely catch on in the U.S. unless the hatch is attached to a CUV or SUV. The Porsche Panamera and Audi Sportback models have fan bases, but not large ones, and BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class hatchbacks flopped.

Kia says the key to the Stinger’s success will be its good looks and rear-wheel-drive proportions: a long hood and short front overhang, an extended wheelbase to deliver a spacious cabin, and a long rear overhang with strong shoulders. The stance and visual balance are designed to look elegant and athletic rather than race-car aggressive.

The Porsche Panamera and Audi A7 are the best examples of this concept, but they both look a bit awkward from the back while the Stinger impresses most from the rear three-quarter angle.

Backing up the sporty styling are excellent drivetrains and vehicle dynamics.

The Stinger GT’s twin-turbo 3.3L V-6 makes 365 hp and 376 lb. ft (510 Nm) of torque and bellows like a big V-8 under hard throttle.

It has more power and twist than most new turbocharged V-6s in its competitive set, with the exception of Infiniti’s 3.0L twin turbo which makes more horsepower but less torque, 400 hp and 350 lb. ft. (475 Nm); and Lincoln’s 3.0L twin-turbo V-6 making 400 hp and 400 lb. ft. (542 Nm). It accelerates from 0-60 mph (97 kph) in 4.7 seconds, faster than an $85,000 Panamera with a naturally aspirated V-6; a $70,000 A7 or $50,000 Infiniti Q50.

Much of the engine’s rich bass sounds are produced electronically and piped through the audio system, but it sounds so good we doubt anyone will complain aside from a few hardcore engine enthusiasts and curmudgeon auto journalists such as ourselves – and we aren’t complaining.  

The vehicle dynamics were honed under the direction of Albert Biermann, former BMW M Performance vice president, and are impressive.

We drove an Audi A7 Sportback, BMW 4-Series Gran Coupe and a V-6 Porsche Panamera back-to-back with the Stinger on a handling course set up by Kia at the proving grounds and the Stinger performed as well as or better than the competitors.

“I think for the Kia brand, the Stinger is like a special event,” Biermann says. “Because nobody expects such a car, not just the way it looks but also the way it drives. It's a whole different animal.”

The interior is attractive, comfortable and roomy, especially in the second row. There is real wood and aluminum trim and a large touchscreen above the center stack. The top trim levels feature a microfiber material on the pillars and headliner similar to Alcantara, a luxurious suede-like material found in vehicles priced in the high five (and six) figures. 

The car also is available with almost all the latest advanced driver-assist systems on the market, short of a General Motors’ Super Cruise ADAS system that can take the wheel for hours on geo-fenced routes.

Our trip did not have a lot of open highway, but we tested some of the Stinger’s ADAS features on a few flat stretches in the desert. The lane-keeping assist kept the car nicely centered in the middle of the lane, and combined with the adaptive cruise control system, the car allowed 30 seconds or so to take our hands off the wheel and fetch a notepad from the backseat before telling us to grab the wheel. The ACC has stop-and-go capabilities in traffic.

Forward collision avoidance and warning with pedestrian detection; blind-spot sensing; rear cross-traffic collision warning and a head-up display are among the active safety options.

A lot of excellent midsize sedans are entering the market in 2018. None will challenge the status quo like the Kia Stinger.

dwinter@wardsauto.com