Possible second bite of the cherry for Kia Stinger in the UK
From a purely personal viewpoint, Iain Robertson fell head-over-heels in love with the new large Kia saloon in early 2018, as it satisfied his desires for performance, driving experience, comfort and potential longevity but he felt that Kia let him down.
Getting excited, when Kia launches a new model, is a given. While my personal fascination with EVs remains at a low ebb and Kia can boast some examples on its mostly complete product list, the rest of the range consists of attractively packaged cars-of-their-time. Kia seldom makes errors. Each successive model introduced is a picture-perfect example of automotive excellence.
However, when the company revealed its Stinger range to the UK motoring media, a model intended to take the class competitive fight directly to the doors of the Teutonic Threesome (Audi, BMW and Merc), in the process bypassing the Mondeo/Insignia sector, to suggest that it tripped over its own feet would be a mild criticism of what really occurred. Of course, carmakers, even the best of them, do not always make the right decisions.
For a start, ‘Stinger’ is not exactly an upmarket, or aspirational model name. It lacks seriousness of intent and can be confused all too readily with ‘Stinker’, which it most definitely is not. Even accepting that car companies have an increasingly tough task in naming their latest models, largely because of the impact of the Internet and several aggressive agencies worldwide that appear to have registered dictionaries of car names that they defend expensively as their own, Kia could have done much better. Boasting via key-fobs carries weight with the aforementioned German brands; Stinger, let alone Kia, simply does not do it.
While I am sure that Kia will not send me a commission payment, ‘Karat’ is my alternative offering, even with potential ‘Carrot’ jibes, that also works with trim badges (SE, GT and so on). Yet, having made its bed, I cannot imagine that Kia will adopt it. The large Kia saloon was perfect in all other respects. Eminently stylish, it casts a slick shadow, above Optima and the various smaller models in the line-up. It possesses necessary street presence and would not look out of place parked outside the most prestigious of addresses, or venues, anywhere in the world.
Kia’s second error of judgement, although it will not admit to it, was trying to do a Lexus, or Audi, or even Infiniti. Neither BMW, nor Mercedes-Benz, have to play a differentiating game with lesser marques in their respective families, as Audi has to, but Audi separated its high-end brand from Volkswagen in the 1990s and simply has not looked back. Lexus has succeeded in its various markets, despite marketing Toyota-badged variants of Lexus models (or vice-versa) in some of them. Sadly for Nissan, Infiniti is a total failure in the UK new car scene, its reliance on a dealer-led introduction was always set to flounder. Kia tried to make only a limited number of its dealers into Stinger centres.
As a brand that had grown rapidly from the budget arena into mainstream consciousness, Kia was perhaps a tad too arrogant in its aspirations. In just two-and-a-half years of UK listing, I would have anticipated Stinger-spotting to be somewhat easier than it has been. Instead, while enforcing a theatrical ‘double-take’, snatching a glimpse of a Kia Stinger is a genuinely rare joy. Ask owners of the three Germanic marques if they know what a Stinger is and, apart from ballistic missiles, the response is more likely to be blank, which is sad indeed. Yet, name apart, the big Kia is a worthy competitor and is significantly better than its mainstream brand rivals in all respects.
Kia’s dealer network has let down the brand. It did not know how to manage it. It attempted the Audi marketing model but failed abysmally. Several of my personal business contacts were keen to sample and buy the new car, about which I was so highly enthusiastic, but were even unable to obtain a test drive. I tried the same exercise at a couple of Stinger dealers and arrived at a big fat zero and I realised that I was not alone. As a direct result, the uptake speed of Stinger registrations has been undeservedly at glacial levels. Therefore, the news that Kia might soon launch a graceful hatchback version of Stinger is greeted with a mild grimace, rather than a satisfied grin.
Kia talks of personalisation potential for the improved new model, destined at this stage for its South Korean domestic market only. The company talks of how it projects an air of elegance, comfort and also great purpose, for long distance driving. The updated model builds on the svelte gran turismo design Kia introduced almost three years ago, with modern flair and a subtle hint of aggression to enhance its on-road presence. The interior, too, has been enhanced and the new design elements and technologies incorporated into the model reconfirm its credentials as the consummate grand tourer. Yet, it avoids recognition of the two key factors, model-naming and market-positioning, that have afflicted it so far, even though hinting at a future UK launch date.
Larger diameter and different alloy wheels, allied to fresh LED illumination, are fripperies and a choice of ‘dark’ packages is pointless without an in-house tuning ‘partner’ (AMG for Merc, RS for Audi and M Sport for BMW). Upgrading the touchpoints, enhancing the cabin quality and improving electronic packaging are little more than typical mid-life model updates. Unsurprisingly, the final UK specification has not been determined, as yet, which also means its power units, possible partial-electrification and, whether or not a thumpingly potent 3.6-litre V6 bi-turbo petrol engine will remain available, are undecided. The simple truth is that Kia needs to effect a proper, upmarket reintroduction of the car. It needs to use its sporting connections and ‘celebrity’ links to spark conversations and to build awareness.
Conclusion: Appreciating that Kia will not rename its Stinger (despite my offer!) will not help its cause to eat into the German domination of the classier car segment. However, it might be able to pull a rabbit from its corporate hat, with a following breeze and some judicious brand management. Personally, I hope so.