Progress Report: Kia Elan vs Kia Stinger GT | Top Gear
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Progress Report: Kia Elan vs Kia Stinger GT

Kia hasn’t looked backwards as it’s gone forwards. These two performance cars are clear evidence of that

Kia Elan and Kia Stinger GT cornering
  • Are you saying Kia’s sportiest car yet isn’t the Stinger?

    Kia Stinger GT and Elan

    Provided you define sportiness as an attitude rather than a statistic, yes. The latest Stinger GT has a turbocharged 3.3-litre V6 for 356bhp and a 0-62mph time of 4.9secs. Not even the all-electric EV6 hauls that hard. But pleasingly crisp though it is, it’s a GT. The Elan is a lightweight little roadster, so although it makes do with a naturally aspirated 1.8 with a mere 149bhp and a 0-62mph time of 7.4secs, it has the right attitude.

    Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

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  • Haven't I seen it somewhere before?

    Kia Elan vs Kia Stinger GT

    That’s because the Elan wasn’t all Kia’s own work. The Korean firm simply purchased the tooling and rights to the Lotus Elan (the M100 version, built between 1989 and 1995) and went into production with it themselves. Quite what possessed them to do this is another matter altogether, since back in 1996 Kia was perhaps best known for flogging rebodied Mazdas. Anyway, it was hardly a scintillating success. On sale for three years from 1996, only around 800 were ever sold and in just two countries: South Korea and Japan.

  • Was it identical to the Lotus underneath?

    Kia Elan interior steering wheel

    No and for two main reasons. Firstly, Lotus’ then owners, General Motors, had refused to share parts with Kia. And secondly the Korean authorities demanded the car have proper Korean input. So in came the rather limp sounding twin-cam 1.8-litre in place of a turbocharged 1.6-litre, the Lotus’s Alpine A610-sourced rear lamps went and there were various changes in the cabin. Including the addition of a huge, ungainly steering wheel. There are plenty of trim creaks, but it’s the design and material quality that have really come on in the last 25 years.

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  • Does the Stinger mark a big step forward?

    Kia Elan vs Kia Stinger GT

    The full giant leap. No other automotive firms on the planet have made more impressive gains in the last 25 years than Hyundai and Kia. Except Tesla arguably. Sure, the materials are a bit shinier than those fitted in Audis, but that’s pretty much the level Kia has reached. Compare and contrast with the Elan, where design seems to be a dirty word and the interior has all the tactility of a toilet brush. It’s not lovely inside, playing host to a plethora of wobbles, rattles and shakes.

  • But what about to drive? Surely the Lotus touch wasn’t lost?

    Kia Elan vs Kia Stinger GT

    Initial impressions aren’t exactly positive. The engine is plain, the gear changes loose and the brakes hopelessly spongy. But then you start noticing other things. The ride is utterly uncanny in its smoothness. You glide along, not quite smoothly enough to prevent those trim creaks, but in a way alien to MX-5 drivers. Closer, probably, to a contemporary Mercedes SL. The steering is slow and springy but has some feel to it, it grips well and the chassis is always calm and composed. You tip it into corners with a good deal of roll, but it manages that well and it goes round easily. I wouldn’t say it feels eager, but it’s certainly competent. And when you accelerate out – the engine is far better over the second half of the rev counter – there’s no torque steer at all.

  • Hang about, it’s not front-wheel drive is it?

    Kia Elan red

    It is. The Lotus was as well. Lotus struggled to sell that concept to buyers indoctrinated on rear-drive sports cars, but for Kia it was less of an issue. As was the car’s relaxed dynamic posture. That, at least, is something that’s been carried forwards to the latest Stinger. Hyundai has given us hardcore hot hatches, but this is something different, a car that likes to make progress, but do so smoothly.

  • How does the Stinger feel after the Elan?

    Kia Stinger GT red

    It’s long and seems narrow – insomuch as you have a good idea of where the extremities lie – and that length helps give you stability and ride comfort. It has a nice natural gait. But if you push it or the road taxes it, it starts to run a tad short of ideas. The steering is a little loose around the straight-ahead, there’s a bit of vertical pop to the suspension rebound and its rear wheels struggle to apply traction smoothly on bumpy roads.

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  • Can you tell these two are from the same company?

    Kia Stinger GT cornering on road

    No. Too much water has passed too fast under the bridge for there to be any similarities. Few companies have advanced so fast and what’s most interesting about the Korean brands is that they’re always looking forward. Of course their histories are too short for them to gain much by looking backwards, too plain for worthwhile historical nods, but they also rarely go in for wacky concepts or frivolous ideas. Everything is designed to take the firm forwards.

  • Even the Elan? Surely that was a failure…

    Kia Elan following Stinger GT down road

    Kia claimed it was a brand builder, and for a car that was never sold in the UK or Europe, it has a certain status and following. It also allowed the firm to build links into Europe. However, I do wonder if there’s more to it than that. So here’s a bit of speculation. Given Kia’s previous work with Mazda, I wonder if they’d asked to build a version of the MX-5, Mazda had refused and this was Kia’s riposte. Where the Japanese firm took inspiration from Lotus, the Koreans took an actual car.

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  • It’s always Lotus isn’t it?

    Kia Stinger GT and Elan with pop-up headlights

    It may also be worth pointing out that if you apply the same attitude versus statistic parameter to Tesla, the sportiest car it’s ever done was its first, the original Roadster. Which was basically an electrified Elise. But’s that’s a digression. The Kia Elan has next to nothing in common with the Stinger, but let’s hope that one day Kia might look back on the Elan and think about resurrecting it as an electric or hydrogen-powered roadster. Ideally complete with pop-up headlights. Enough time will have passed for the firm to have proved itself and be able to look back with pride on its heritage.

  • 1996 Kia Elan

    Kia Elan five speed manual gear knob

    1,793cc in-line 4cyl, FWD, 5spd manual
    149bhp @ 6,250rpm, 137lb ft @ 4,500rpm
    0-62mph in 7.4secs, 137mph
    c£12,000 (price now… if you can find one)

  • 2021 Kia Stinger GT

    Kia Elan vs Kia Stinger GT

    3,342cc V6 twin-turbo, RWD, 8spd auto
    356bhp @ 6,000rpm, 376lb ft @ 1,300rpm
    0-62mph in 4.9secs, 168mph
    £42,955 (new)

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