Human Drivers, Lend Me Your Votes: The Kia Stinger Should Be the 2018 North American Car of the Year
The new Honda Accord is worthy, but I’m voting for the Kia, and the continuation of our driving species. I urge my fellow jurors to do the same.
As an automotive writer who's blessed (or cursed) with strong opinions on cars, my vote for the North American Car of the Year award is usually a slam dunk. Not this year. The 2018 Kia Stinger and equally-new Honda Accord have had me straddling the fence and engaging in Socratic arguments with myself. But decision time is at hand, so here goes: The Kia Stinger is my 2018 North American Car of the Year. And my esteemed fellow jurors, if they’re not idiots, should agree with me.
There’s a third finalist for the prestigious award, which reliably finds automakers scrambling to get their contenders in the hands of 57 voting jurors, all auto journalists in the U.S. and Canada: The 2018 Toyota Camry. That Camry is markedly improved, but nowhere near as good as the redesigned Accord, its perennial nemesis for the hearts and dollars of family-sedan buyers. To be blunt, the Camry doesn’t have a prayer of winning the award, which also honors a Truck of the Year and—since 2017—a Utility Vehicle OTY.
New Kia Stinger deserves the win
That leaves the Stinger in a comfortably-familiar awards position, the same one it occupies in the marketplace: The dark horse, the Rocky Balboa, the car no one expected from Kia. Actually, that last bit is only partly true. Together, Kia and its South Korean sister brand Hyundai have grown to sell more than 1.4 million cars a year in America. Millions of consumers now rightly view Hyundai and Kia as legitimate cars and brands, no disclaimers required. Yet despite Hyundai’s toehold in the luxury market through its Genesis division, the Kia Stinger—with no separate luxury brand to elevate its image—remains a stretch for a Kia brand built on smart-shopper value. Priced from $33,000 to nearly $53,000, the Stinger is still a relative value...but that's relative to luxury cars with more socially-approved badges, including the Audi A7 and A5/S5 Sportback, the BMW 4 Series Gran Coupe, and sedans like the Mercedes C-Class and Lexus GS.
The Stinger’s success on all counts—captivating design, stirring performance, affordable luxury and quality—has made it one of the year’s buzzworthy cars. It’s no Dodge Demon in terms of Internet traffic, but the Kia has sparked more water-cooler conversation than the Accord, whose blue-chip status makes even an all-new model easy to take for granted. Some of that conversation has focused on the imported German talent that’s partly responsible for Kia’s (and Hyundai’s) growing expertise in design and performance—the latter a longtime blind spot for brands that were often satisfied with “good enough” in terms of handling dynamics and powertrain refinement. Peter Schreyer was on a fast track to become Audi’s chief designer when Kia plucked him to lead its styling studio back in 2006. He now directs design for both Kia and Hyundai. (At one point, Volkswagen’s all-powerful, now-retired chairman Ferdinand Piech was moved to comment of Schreyer, “We should not have let him go.”)
The Stinger becomes the first showroom fruit of another stunning free-agent coup: Albert Biermann, the former chief engineer of BMW’s storied M Division, is now director of high performance for Kia and Hyundai. The sophisticated fingerprints of Schreyer and Biermann are all over the Nürburgring-tuned Stinger, a roomy hatchback gran turismo that combines silken autobahn-style road manners with serious oomph. Especially the Stinger GT and its 365-horsepower, twin-turbo V6, which bests virtually everything in its class with a 4.7-second rip to 60 mph and a 167-mph top speed. That Stinger GT starts from $39,895—about $15,000 less than a smaller, 354-hp Audi S5 Sportback and $4,000 less than the A5 Sportback, whose 257-hp, 2.0-liter four gives up one turbocharger, two cylinders, and 108 horses to the six-cylinder Stinger GT.
So how do we NACTOY jurors choose between cars and trucks as varied as the Accord, Camry, and Stinger? Key criteria include segment leadership, innovation, design, performance, safety, driver satisfaction and value for the dollar. If you’re thinking the Demon is the rightful Car of the Year, or the McLaren 720S or Ferrari 812 Superfast, know that the award has an egalitarian bent toward models that typical consumers can afford. Luxury and performance cars have taken the trophy—and yes, there’s a new trophy, an Oscar-inspired, Art Deco dreamboat created in 2016 by former General Motors chiefdesigner Ed Welburn. (If Cadillac built a car that looked anything like the trophy, they’d have a trophy winner on their own hands).
The Tesla Model 3 might have been a shoo-in for the finals, but Tesla doesn’t deign to participate by providing actual, un-chaperoned test cars under the same no-favoritism rules that govern every other automaker. Besides, building a half-dozen Model 3s for media testing might push back showroom production for another six months. That’s a joke, Tesla fans. Then again, maybe one close to the truth, since Tesla cited other project commitments—including the need to scale up Model 3 production—as its reason for not participating in NACOTY.
That aside, even the priciest Cars of the Year have been within reach of people who aren’t millionaires: The Mercedes C-Class in 1994, the quantum-leap C5-generation Chevrolet Corvette for 1998, the reborn Mini Cooper in 2003, and the Corvette again in 2014. In two rounds of voting that winnows the field to finalists, I was tempted to give some points to the latest Porsche Panamera sedan, which I’ve argued may be the world’s most technically advanced automobile. But I knew that the Porsche, whose window sticker can shatter $200,000 in 680-hp, Turbo S E-Hybrid guise, didn’t stand a chance. That kind of principled statement becomes a wasted vote akin to checking the box for Bernie Sanders, making it less likely for potential winners like the Kia to reach the finals. That $33K base price is about $3,000 less than November’s record-high average transaction price of a new car, putting it right in the wheelhouse for both the award and middle-class buyers.
Not to say the new Honda Accord isn't great
That said, a word of praise for my runner-up, the Accord. The Honda looks much better inside and out, having become a family car you can feel proud of instead of just feeling smart for buying. A pair of turbocharged four-cylinder engines includes a peppy 1.5-liter that showed me better than 40 mpg on the highway, and a thumping 2.0-liter—a detuned version of the Civic Type R’s killer four—whose 254 horsepower feels closer to 290 in the real world. You can have a six-speed manual transmission with either engine (hurrah!), or a CVT or 10-speed automatic depending on which four you pick. The Accord feels House-of-Mirrors huge inside, with amazing outward sight lines. It’s stuffed with safety features, and blessed with a new, upgradeable Android-based infotainment system that shames Honda’s former, godawful setup. Oh, and the ever-affordable Honda drives as beautifully as some luxury sedans, and comes complete with a sporty soul for drivers who choose to exploit it.
Now, if mainstream popularity is a tiebreaker here, the Accord is the literal Titanic or Gladiator, to name two movies that took Best Picture Oscars even as they ruled the box office. Even as sedans have ceded dominance to SUVs, the Ohio-built Honda consistently finds 350,000 annual buyers in the U.S. alone. I suppose that makes the Kia a Moonlight or The Hurt Locker—a critical and artistic success deserving of any award, but more a word-of-mouth niche car. Even if Stinger sales exceed Kia’s wildest dreams, this luxury GT will reach a fraction of the Honda’s audience. So the Accord has the popularity contest in the bag.
But ultimately—and I’d ask Honda to consider this a compliment—the Accord’s enduring greatness is less of a surprise. This Accord reestablishes itself as the market’s benchmark family sedan, polite applause ensues. The Stinger, an entirely new nameplate, swoops in out of nowhere to put the hurt on the German bullies, and the crowd goes wild, because that’s a better story.
Besides, I’m not rooting for a rare NACTOY award sweep, with winners to be revealed at the Detroit Auto Show on January 15. Honda already pulled that off in 2006, when the Civic and Ridgeline pickup took respective Car and Truck awards. My hunch is that Honda’s shipshape 2018 Odyssey minivan (it has my vote) will win North American Utility Vehicle of the Year, topping a pair of luxury SUVs that may split votes: The fine Volvo XC60 and the overrated, quality-suspect Alfa Romeo Stelvio. An Odyssey win would still give Honda something to celebrate and tout in their ad campaigns. And like the Oscars voter who's tired of seeing Meryl Streep nominated every year, I'm susceptible to fresh talent and faces. Honda’s second-gen Ridgeline proved a repeat winner just last year, and the latest Civic in 2016. Sit down, Meryl, and let the glorious Alicia Vikander have her turn.
Finally, the Kia pushes my vote-casting buttons in another way. The Accord is brilliant to drive, but it’s still a standard-issue family sedan. The Kia is a true enthusiast’s machine—faster, flashier, and more fun than the Honda. The Stinger is not inexpensive, but it does remind us that stylish, luxurious, hot-performing cars are even better when regular folks can actually afford them.
The Stinger also underlines that the industry's very best cars—now and for years to come, I'm certain—are still designed for human drivers first, and passive bedwetters second. The Kia is expressly aimed at people who can tell the difference between a good car and a bad one, who get a kick out of driving and can't imagine giving it up, who take pride in their skills behind the wheel. Dull and disinterested types—the ones who get all turned on by Uber and the prospect of Waymo's Wall-E pods—will have zero interest in the Kia.
Hell, for that reason alone, I declare the Kia Stinger my 2018 North American Car of the Year. I look forward to its deserved victory on January 15. If I've overlooked anything, please chime in with your own choice. But you'd better make it convincing.