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Kia’s first sports car …and no, it’s not the Stinger

2018-11-12 09:06

Ferdi de Vos

Kia Elan

Image: Wiel magazine

The new Kia Stinger GT is somewhat of an anomaly in terms of what we came to expect from the brand over the two decades it has (officially) been represented in South Africa.

The powerful four-door coupe stands in stark contrast with the rest of the Kia model range and buyers’ perceptions of the marque. Solid and reliable? Yes. Well designed and engineered? Yes.

READ: Kia Stinger GT for SA: 5 fast Korean performance cars

Sporty and fast? Not really. Exhilarating to drive? Not so much; although one needs to acknowledge the Ceed GT and its cee’d GT precursor powered by a 1.6-litre T-GDI engine now delivering 150kW, turning it into a more than lukewarm hatch. But it still is no sportscar.

Kia Elan

                                                     Image: Kia Elan roadtest: Wiel motoring magazine April 1999

The Stinger GT has been introduced here with a very specific purpose: to act as a halo model for Kia, and the Korean carmaker, celebrating its 20th anniversary in South Africa, is relying on the fastback gran turismo to attract new buyers to the brand.

Contrary to popular belief, however, the Stinger is not Kia’s first foray into the world of halo sports cars… 

The Lotus connection

Roll back the time to 1995, a couple of years before the establishment of Kia Motors locally, when the English firm Lotus Cars collaborated with the mother company in South Korea to refine the suspension setup of Kia products.

READ: Picking up where its predecessors left off - The Kia Ceed GT will set the hatchback segment alight

At the time Lotus, owned by Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli (who also owned luxury car brand Bugatti), still produced the M100 Elan front-wheel drive two-seater convertible sports car.

1962 Lotus-Elan

                                                                     Image: Net Car Show

The model, launched in 1989 when Lotus was still under control of General Motors, was built for six years until production ended in 1995 due to high costs (it was notoriously expensive to develop and produce) and flagging sales.

However, Kia management showed interest in acquiring the production rights to the Elan – as the Seoul based company saw this as an opportunity to enter the sports car market in an inexpensive way, thereby also acquiring a halo model to help establish the brand’s fledgeling overseas operations.

Artioli, facing financial difficulties due to the insolvency of Bugatti, sold the rights to Kia (and the majority stake in Lotus to Proton) and in 1996 the Korean version of the Elan, built by Kia Motech (Kia Motor-technology) in Ansan, was unveiled.

Crucial differences

The Kia rendering of the Elan was a slight adaptation of the Peter Stevens designed M100. It featured a fibreglass composite body over a rigid steel backbone chassis and looked almost identical to the original.

Externally, the most discernible difference was the chrome-detailed Kia taillights which replaced the Renault Alpine sourced lights of the original. However, under its fibreglass body, it was somewhat different from the archetype.

With the 121kW Isuzu 1.6-litre turbo engine in the Lotus version unavailable (as Isuzu was then GM owned), Kia equipped the Asian built Elan with its own normally aspirated T8D 1.8-litre engine (derived from a Mazda motor) developing 111kW and 190Nm. Also, in order to curtail costs, Kia used less sophisticated headlights and replaced the rear ventilated discs with solid ones.

Local test

In 1999 the newly established Kia Motors South Africa under the leadership of Ray Levine imported a left-hand drive Elan for evaluation purposes, and as I was working for Wiel magazine at the time, I got to drive it.

Having previously sampled the real M100 Elan, it was clear that the 60kg heavier and less powerful Kia version was slow (managing only 11.3 seconds in the 0-100 km/h test at the Gerotek testing facility, versus a claimed 8.3 seconds at sea level for the non-turbo Lotus model) compared to the real McCoy.

Kia Elan Engine

                                                       Image: Kia Elan roadtest: Wiel motoring magazine April 1999

It handled okay, displaying more oversteer than the Hethel built car, but engine response and the ratios and shift action of the five-speed gearbox were atrocious. Compared to the brilliant Lotus the Kia with its winged nose emblem proclaiming "Kia Motors. The Spirit of Sports Car" was in my view a "flawed diamond."

In the end, the first effort by Kia to build a sports car never made it to South Africa, as production of the Elan ended later that same year – with only around 900 examples produced.

Sportscar reloaded

After the adverse Elan experience, it took nearly two decades and the arrival of designer Peter Schreyer before Kia reconsidered the possibility of building a proper sports car.

Kia Elan

                                                       Image: Kia Elan roadtest: Wiel motoring magazine April 1999

However, this time they did not take shorts cuts, and hired Albert Biermann, former head of engineering of BMW’s M division, to develop and engineer their next contender.

Even with all the base elements already at Namyang, it took another three years and two concept cars before Kia’s second sports car – the Stinger – was unveiled last year.

It is an excellent car, a GT in the true sense… and a Kia with genuine élan. It deserves to succeed, and the initial signs are good, with eleven already retailed in a market segment dominated by fiendishly fast Germans.

Here is the original road test back in April 1999:

Wiel motoring magazine April 1999
Wiel motoring magazine April 1999
Wiel motoring magazine April 1999
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