What Do Old-School Mustang Guys Think of the Kia Stinger?

We wondered, so we put the Original Venice Crew in our long-term Stinger GT.

Aaron GoldWriterBrandon LimPhotographer Robin TrajanoPhotographer

MALIBU, California—As much as cars from the Hyundai-Kia-Genesis juggernaut have improved over the past couple of decades, driver appeal has never been a strong point—at least it wasn't until 2015, when Hyundai hired Albert Biermann away from BMW's M Division. He's steadily improved the group's products, but the Kia Stinger is his first standard-bearer.

After nearly a year with our long-term Four Seasons Stinger GT, the Automobile staff knows it's the real deal, but is the rest of America ready to believe in a driver's car from Kia? That was the backdrop for introducing our Stinger to the godfathers of American performance: the Original Venice Crew.

Fifty-four years ago, Jim Marietta, Ted Sutton, and Peter Brock were part of the Shelby American team that helped Carroll Shelby create cars like the competition-ready GT350R. Today the trio makes continuation-build GT350Rs from '65 Mustangs the same way they did in Carroll's day. Their built-to-order Mustangs boast a few minor enhancements that Shelby had (or might have) planned for the original, such as aerodynamic elements for the front valance and rear window, engine improvements, and an optional independent rear suspension. Still, there's not much in the new cars that couldn't have been done in 1965.

After 50 years of wrenching on Mustangs, Jim Marietta (above) knows a thing or two about performance. He put our Stinger through its paces on the challenging roads above Malibu.

The connection to our Kia? Technically, the Stinger has some Ford ancestry: Not long after the OVC started wrenching on Fords, Hyundai started making the Ford Cortina, Granada, and Taunus for the Korean market, and Kia made U.S.-market Festivas and Aspires on Ford's behalf. Still, would these guys scoff at driving our newfangled, fuel-injected, twin-turbo, electronic-nanny-laden four-door? Nope—car guys are car guys, and they were eager for a chance to wring out the Stinger.

Marietta and Sutton accompany us to the wildfire-ravaged hills above Malibu, California, home to some of the world's greatest driving roads. They've brought one of their competition GT350s, and Marietta conducts a walkaround to demonstrate what the "original" in Original Venice Crew really means.

Marietta points out the carburetor intake plenum and the splash guard for the fuel cell. "We weld these up by hand," he says. "Nowadays, you can buy them for $20, but that's not how we did it in the old days." He moves to the hand-flared rear fenders. "I did one side, and Ted did the other," he says. Are they identical on both sides? "Of course not!" he says with a laugh.

Before turning Marietta and Sutton loose in the Stinger, we head into the hills for some pacing-and-chasing shots while the cars are still clean. Sixties-era muscle can feel a bit tame compared with today's fuel-injected turbocharged wonders, but it becomes instantly obvious the Stinger isn't going to shake this particular Mustang.

OVC's GT350Rs pack a stronger punch than the originals. The estimated 450 horsepower is about 150 better than the original and 85 more than the Stinger. And at 2,800 pounds, the Mustang is also more than half a ton lighter than the Kia. Stealth is the latter's only advantage: The Stinger's exhaust doesn't bellow its intentions the way the Mustang's does. But get on the Kia, and Marietta is right on its tail, and everyone within a half-mile radius knows.

Our Kia has talent, but there was no way it was going to shake the OVC's GT350R. The Stinger's advantage is stealth.

We stop for a bit of poking and prodding under the Stinger's hood; you might expect these two to be critical of the Stinger's maze of plumbing, but they seem satisfied everything is in order. We give them a quick overview of the controls, then Marietta takes the wheel.

The OVC previously hired race-car driver Rick Titus to wring out its Mustangs at Willow Springs, but as Marietta fires the Stinger into the first corner, it's a wonder why—it's evident this guy can drive. "It's got plenty of scoot," says Sutton, who's riding shotgun. "These are some pretty challenging roads. These curves and hills are like Willow Springs, where we test our cars. A bit unnerving for someone who doesn't have a hold of the steering wheel."

"I don't want to be too aggressive," Marietta says, and then he jumps on the accelerator. The Stinger's eight-speed automatic responds instantly with a downshift. "That popped down pretty quick," he says. "We should have hit 100 there. I can't look at the speedo because I'm a little bit busy."

"Pop the chute!" Sutton exclaims.

"Did you feel it break loose a bit there, in the rear?" Marietta asks. "No," Sutton deadpans. "I did," Marietta says. "Just a little tail out." Braking hard for a sharp bend, he says, "It wiggles a bit on hard braking." Sutton feels it at the same time. "The tail was wagging a bit, wasn't it?"

As the driver gets more and more comfortable with the car, he cranks up the speed even further. Sutton calmly takes in the scenery as we rocket through the path of the wildfires. Motor homes are parked next to the blackened remains of houses as residents rebuild their homes and their lives. As we pass a field of blooming wildflowers, Sutton says, "That'd make a nice picture. Yikes!" We're in a sudden left-hander. "Oop, oop, oops," Marietta says, and—thankfully—the Kia's tires bite with their usual ferocity.

We suggest that this particular corner seems to come out of nowhere. "It is a surprising curve," Marietta agrees. "It looks like there's a dip and you're going to go straight, but guess what, you're turning left. You ever been to Lime Rock? That reminds me of a little dipsy-doodle there."

"Full speed ahead!" Sutton cries.

OVC and Automobile discuss old school vs. new school over burgers. The boys were favorably impressed by our Stinger.

We wend our way back to where the Mustang is parked and then retire to a local burger joint to talk over their impressions. The hard-core American performance gurus refuse to scoff at the Korean upstart. "It's a nice-feeling car, without question," Marietta says.

"We were driving it pretty aggressively on a really demanding road. "

"It has a lot of grunt, and it accelerates quickly. I wasn't expecting the low-rpm grunt that it has. I felt a little pull to the right on acceleration, which means it probably doesn't have positraction." (The Stinger does have a mechanical limited-slip diff—optional on 2018 cars and standard as of 2019—but it may unlock briefly if the stability control is triggered, in order to allow a brake to be applied on a single rear wheel. )  "You definitely need to keep it in Sport mode," Marietta continues. "I think they can tighten up the suspension a little bit. Under hard braking, setting up to go through a curve, the rear end gets a little light. Going around corners, depending on the road surface, on the bumps it gets a little front-heavy. The transmission feels good. And if you're going to run a car hard like that in the mountains, you're going to need bigger, better brakes."

"We were driving it pretty aggressively on a really demanding road," Sutton says. "We were doing a lot of hard acceleration and hard braking and hard cornering, and like Jim said, it picked up the corners really well. The cabin is comfortable and reasonably quiet, and you get some nice acceleration noise from the engine." As the Original Venice Crew works primarily with naturally aspirated engines, we're interested in their opinions of the Stinger's small-displacement, twin-turbo setup. Is there something inherently dishonest in the turbocharger?

"We were doing a lot of hard braking and hard cornering. it picked up the corners really well. you get some nice noise from the engine. "

"I don't think it's a cheat," Marietta says. "Even though I'm not a tree-hugger environmentalist, it does make sense to get more horsepower without having to get a bigger engine and pump more fuel through it. I was favorably impressed because I thought it had a lot of grunt right out of the box. I didn't feel much turbo lag. They seem to have found a way to correct that."

"It has quite a bit of grunt down low," Sutton agrees, "and it kept hammering on and didn't fall off."

No surprise, the Original Venice Crew has little patience for the Stinger's electronic nannies. "One thing I would change," Marietta says, "or turn off as soon as I could, is all the stay-in-your-lane, don't-do-this—the 'mommy car' is not what you want, because it really is distracting when you hear those things or feel the little tug at the wheel. I'm here. I know what I'm doing.

"The head-up display is distracting," he adds. "I looked through it right away—I didn't see it until you brought it to my attention because I'm focusing on what I'm doing, especially on those roads. You need to focus. We weren't out there for a sightseeing tour."

It becomes apparent that the OVC sees the Kia Stinger as a potential project. "I think we could find some ways to improve it," Sutton says. "We don't know how good that air-to-air intercooler is. I think because this is a production car, there are a lot of things we could do to get the air in there a bit quicker and less turbulent. I didn't look to see if the brakes were cooled, but we'd definitely put coolers in. Probably not the water spritzers, but at least air coolers.

"It's a nice little car. Feels good, feels solid. But I think we could up its game."

Our 2018 Kia Stinger GT2
AS-TESTED PRICE $50,175
ENGINE 3.3-liter twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6; 365 hp @ 
6,000 rpm, 376 lb-ft @ 1,300 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 19/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 190.2 x 73.6 x 55.1 in
WHEELBASE 114.4 in
WEIGHT 3,829 lb
0-60 MPH 4.7 sec
TOP SPEED 167 mph
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