'When you’ve got to live with a car, there’s a lot to be said for niceness'

Porter ruminates over that intangible quality that makes some cars so much more pleasing than those without: niceness

Richard Porter Opinion

You know the hardest thing to engineer into a car? Niceness. All that other stuff – ride, handling, engine response – that’s all very fiddly, but you’ve got CAD/CAM units and data and target parameters to aim for before completing with some seat-of-the-pants tuning. Niceness is a harder one to define. It’s a warmth and a pleasantness that makes you enjoy spending time with a car, and that’s the sort of thing that can’t be put onto a spreadsheet. 

I was thinking about niceness the other day while driving the new Kia Stinger. You’ll have heard about this one, I’m sure. It’s Kia’s rear-wheel-drive sports saloon (which is actually a hatchback) and the company’s attempt to shake off an image of well-warrantied sensibleness by doing something un-Kia-ish, like one of your mates taking time off from his actuary job to learn pole dancing. For a first attempt at such a thing, it’s really very good. But it’s also far from perfect. The engine, as is normal for most V6s, doesn’t make a particularly delightful noise. The steering is dead-eyed and, like many electrically assisted systems, does weird and seemingly random things with its own weighting. The brakes aren’t as bitey and firm underfoot as I’d like, even though they’re from Brembo. The interior isn’t of a material quality to match medium-sized rear-drive cars from Germany and it insists on playing rather too many bongs and tones including a jaunty jingle that comes in when you switch off the engine and which invariably clashes with the music still coming out of the stereo. 

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If this sounds like a long roster of gripes, I should add that it’s still shorter than the list of things the Stinger gets right. The ride is pretty good, for example, and the driving position is low-slung and terrific. Some of the plastics feel a bit rental car cacky but the actual build quality is excellent. The key is an unusual shape so that the locking button is like a remote firing trigger for some kind of missile system. And while the engine’s sound isn’t especially charming, you can’t fault its strength. This is a quick car, as you’d hope with 365bhp, but it’s the delivery that makes it good and specifically the smooth, easy way it can muscle its way to more speed. Then there’s the handling which is generally tidy and easy-going, especially for a hefty thing that’s somewhere in size between a 3- and a 5-series. But on damp roads it’s also surprisingly frisky, in an amusing way. With a long wheelbase and a slippy diff, it can be edged into gentle slides in a manner that never threatens to pucker the leather on the driver’s seat. It’s a friendly car. A surprisingly fun car. It is, frankly, a nice car. 

Part of this niceness comes from the way it drives, and part of it from what it’s like to live with. It’s rarely noted that Kias are deeply unannoying cars. They should make more of this in their marketing. Their interiors are always well laid out with big, logical buttons and stereo/nav systems that don’t make a meal out of hooking up to and then maintaining a link with your phone. Here’s an example of the thoughtfulness that makes them un-irritating; in many cars you’re streaming, say, a podcast off your phone and it’s one of those ones that seems to have been recorded off Skype at the bottom of a well. So you can crank up the volume and then when you switch back to the radio it splits an eardrum. But the Stinger remembers the last radio volume level to avoid doling out a sudden deafening. In the evo universe you might think this of no importance compared with the on-limit off-camber tread shuffle characteristics, but in day-to-day living this sort of detail matters. Not enough to make you like a car in itself, but delightful when set against the backdrop of an effortlessly muscular engine and a happy, funtime chassis. The Stinger really is nicer than the sum of its parts. It looks good, too. In the time I was driving it, I was surprised to find unsolicited coos of admiration from strangers became a daily event. 

Of course, there’s a snag. The price. The V6 Stinger GT S costs just over £40,000. At that money most people will accept less power and fewer toys for a Germanic badge on the front. There’s no doubt that snobbery will be the Stinger’s greatest enemy. As a result, I’m certain a three-year-old example will be worth a great deal less than 40 grand. But that’s no bad thing because if you could pick up a Stinger for buttons, it would be a tempting thing. It’s not necessarily better than some of its familiar rivals but it is nicer. And niceness is a hard thing to get right.

Richard Porter is the pen behind @sniffpetrol, script editor on The Grand Tour and our longest-serving columnist.

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