Larry Printz: Kia looks to bury past perceptions with the 2018 Kia Stinger GT

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

November 27, 2017

BURBANK, Calif. ó For Kia, the 2018 Kia Stinger is as much a marketing exercise as it is a product launch; a vehicle meant to close one chapter while opening a new one for the brand.

"You know for years we built so-so quality products that were really nondescript. They were low-priced vehicles with good fuel economy and thatís what we were known for," admits Michael Sprague, chief operating officer and executive vice president of Kia Motors America. "There was nothing special about them. People couldnít establish that emotional connection with the brand."

Sprague expects that to change with the Stinger, despite being a challenging time for luxury sedans. Sales in the Stingerís segment declined 9.6 percent through October as buyers turn to crossovers and SUVs over sedans. This makes Kiaís decision to field a premium midsize five-door hatchback at the price of a premium compact sedan look smart, even if Kia still has a stigma to overcome.

"I think this will dispel any negativity about the brand that people still write about. There are a lot of people who still remember the old Kia, pre-2008," said Sprague.

The car in question, the 2018 Kia Stinger, is modeled on midsized premium European GTs, but offered at a premium compact price. Better yet, the car comes with European credentials. Its design was overseen by Kiaís design chief Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi, at Kiaís Frankfurt design studios. Meanwhile its handling was tweaked by Kiaís newest hire, Albert Biermann, former vice president of BMW's M Performance Division.

"We have the whole package now; the design, the technology, the safety, the quality, the value, and the performance," said Sprague.

For a brand known for its economical front-drive sedans, a true European GT should do much to enhance Kiaís image. And unlike the launch of the 2014 Kia K900, a car that cost twice that of any Kia model offered at the time, the Stinger makes more sense within its line-up.

"When we launched K900, it came out at $59,900, which was nowhere close to any of our vehicles," said Orth Hedrick, vice president, product planning, Kia Motors America. "By difference, the Stinger is starting at just under $32,000, which is the starting price for our turbocharged Optima. So, it was well within range of a lot of the buyers that we have today, and I think itís more of a natural jump."

Hedrick feels the Stingerís compelling value proposition will draw a lot of interest, citing the Audi A5, with which the Stinger competes, as an example. "Itís all-wheel drive. Itís got a four-cylinder turbo, and itís $52,000. Thatís our max price with our V6 and 365 horsepower. The A5 is a beautiful car, but you pay for it."

Nevertheless, Kia officials know that the Stinger is as much a marketing exercise to change buyersí perceptions, as it is a product launch. "Thatís why weíre doing things unconventionally, doing things that weíve never done before," said Sprague, who revealed plans to set up Stinger boutiques in eight malls nationwide. Kia wants to reach consumers in ways beyond dealership visits. "Weíre trying to connect with people in unconventional ways so that we break down those barriers that they may have put up."

And Sprague thinks they will succeed.

"I think the Stinger is really going to provide an inflection point for the brand."