I just spent a week abusing the 2018 Kia Stinger GT–a $45,000 365-horsepower rear-wheel drive sport sedan made by a company that was largely invisible to driving enthusiasts 10 years ago. Suddenly Kia makes a legitimate practical performance car, and we all want to know how it compares to logical and maybe some unintentional rivals.
(Full disclosure: Kia had a Stinger GT dropped off at my apartment with a full tank of fuel. I returned it about a week later, undamaged.)
Our Editor In Chief Patrick George proclaimed that the Stinger GT “is the real deal.” And simply put, I’d agree. As an executive express sedan that can be exciting when you give it a squeeze, the killer Kia delivers a solidly enjoyable driving experience.
“Yeah but you could get a Mustang GT/WRX STI/Civic Type R/used M5 for that kind of money,” I have heard people say. Indeed. Let’s indulge ourselves in that thought exercise, and I’ll offer some insights based on other things I’ve driven.
You might think nobody would bother comparison shopping a turbocharged V6 import sedan against what is essentially a modern muscle car, but honestly I think you’d be crazy not to.
The 5.0-powered Mustang has a whole lot more horsepower and performance pedigree, but when it comes to driving hard in the real world, the Stinger GT feels pretty similar in some key ways. Like a Mustang, the Kia can effortlessly pull your heart into your stomach and scare squeals out of your passengers at any stoplight or on-ramp. Both cars feel a little long in aggressive turns, and either one will happily step its tail out and take every opportunity to bite you in the ass if you misbehave with traction control deactivated.
The Ford Mustang feels faster, meaner and its interior is lot more artfully executed. It’s also a better handler, based on my runs up and down Angeles Crest, not any instrumented testing. The turbocharged Kia Stinger GT hits you with more of a surge, whereas the Mustang pulls hard from pretty much any RPM.
But in real life reasonable spirited driving, the Kia has the same instantly accessible rambunctiousness as Ford’s muscle car. Either one wants to rip out of parking lots and turn rear tires into ragged strips of refuse while you blast Psycho Holiday and try to burn a hole in the pavement behind the mall.
Except, when you don’t want to behave like a delinquent, the Kia lets you carry your family and work colleagues around in lowkey luxo car comfort.
I’m not saying the Stinger is setting up to steal Mustang fans in droves, but if you’re a commuter who’s casually into cars, like I bet a lot of people piloting pony cars are, the Korean cruiser might have enough overlapping attributes to be worth considering.
The Civic Type R may list at $35,000 but everyone knows that people are paying way over sticker for that car. Meanwhile, I hear there are good deals to be had on the Stinger GT. Ergo, you might be in a position to be able to afford either one.
And if you’re a driving enthusiast, looking for a fun and reliable four-door, you might find yourself thinking about both.
Honda’s angry robot-looking compact sedan is a heroically well handling car and its aluminum shift knob is a joy to throw between gears. But despite the hordes of people proclaiming “there’s no torque steer!” let me assure you once again that you’ll never forget that the Civic Type R is front-wheel drive.
It will understeer when you whip it and will keep you busy with left-foot braking if you really want to set aggressive lap times.
The Stinger GT on the other hand... also understeers when you’re mashing on it.
Yeah, the rear-wheel drive Stinger GT handles well but like I said, it feels long and heavy when you’re really hustling. “But I’m a GT car, it’s right in the name!” the Kia would say, and, fair point. You’ve got to drive pretty antisocially to make the Stinger GT feel sloppy, but the short story is that the smaller Civic is much more rewarding to whip through turns despite being wrong-wheel drive.
When it comes to cruising comfort it’s not even close, though. The Type R is stiff and loud, the Stinger GT is smooth and serene until you step on it. In a contest of civility it’d be like sending the Phillie Phanatic to fight Iron Man and believe me the Kia is the superhero.
There’s not really a logical reason to compare the Kia Stinger GT to the Subaru WRX STI which, like the Civic Type R, lists for about $10,000 below the Korean super sedan. But both the Kia and Subaru are imported turbocharged four-doors. And besides, the last WRX I drove was equally as expensive.
The Kia cribs off the import tuner scene for styling, not unlike the Japanese hero cars. Big red brake calipers and vent-looking accents all over the place make the Stinger GT appear that it’s trying to be subtle about trying to be loud. “Brembo brakes? Oh, those old things? Yeah, I just something I threw on,” the Kia seems to say, like somebody secretly reveling in a compliment on their outfit.
In general, Stinger versus Subaru plays out similarly to the Civic Type R comparison. The Subie is the superior handler, the Kia is way more comfortable. Both beg you to put your right foot down.
The Stinger GT’s acceleration and handling characteristics really felt closer to the Mustang than a WRX or Civic; a little loose, a lot of tail-happy when you entice it to be. And really strong straight-ahead pulls.
The $50,000 WRX STI Type RA I drove recently had a cool interior, and its build quality felt solid. But if you want to know if the Stinger feels $10,000 nicer to ride in than a standard WRX STI, or Civic Type R for that matter, my answer is yes. Yes it does.
Now, would I rather be comfortable or be able to slice and dice canyons like Darth Vader dispatching a turkey at the Skywalker family Thanksgiving? I don’t know. It depends on the day, to be honest. But that’s something you might want to think about while you’re bench racing these vehicles against each other.
$45,000 is a huge budget for used car shopping. You don’t have to look hard at all to find a clean few-year-old Mercedes-AMG E63 or slightly older four-door BMW M3 for less. M5s and newer M3s still tend to be pricy, but deals are out there.
Of course, the downsides to such machines over the Kia are obvious ones: the Kia comes with a 10-year warranty you probably won’t need and the German powerhouses will require close attention to service schedules and expensive parts to keep alive.
If you can afford it, I think it’s safe to say a well-maintained BMW or Mercedes will offer better handling than the Kia. And you’ll enjoy wafting your own farts much more as you tell people you own something that’s, well, not a Kia.
But I might also argue that the Kia’s interior is more comfortable than what’s in an M or AMG car. While the highline German performance vehicles are cool looking inside, I’ve never been a fan of BMW’s leather which is hard as an X-ray apron and frankly the Korean infotainment systems kick just about everybody’s ass when it comes to user friendliness right now.
I bet most people who end up with a Kia Stinger GT will at least consider the idea of spending that money on a used German car. After all, the whole point of this car is to provide an affordable alternative to the benchmarks in the class, right?
Kia can’t replicate BMW or Mercedes’ pedigree out of thin air, but it’s done a pretty decent job cribbing the driving experience. This is especially true now that M and AMG cars are all turbo’d. The Stinger GT may not be able to keep up with the Germans on an open Autobahn, but there’s enough personality overlap between those cars that its worth weighing the pros and cons of both.
There were some things I didn’t love about the Kia Stinger GT. The paddle shifters are flimsy and lame. So is the fact that there’s no manual transmission option. And where the hell is the trunk release button in the cab? But generally speaking, I was impressed with this car. It’s comfortable and it scoots and looks sharp if you’re not too bothered by fake air vents.
It’s definitely not superior to a Ford Mustang GT, a used M or AMG, a CTR or an STI, but it can hold its own against any of them in a contest of overall value, which is kind of the whole point of this exercise.
Most of all, I think a rear-wheel drive Kia Stinger GT feels like an interesting amalgamation of a muscle car and a luxury sedan, which is what inspired me to write this post in the first place.
This was hardly an empirical comparison, but I’m always advocating that feel is going to tell you a lot more about what a car’s like than numbers on a spec sheet anyway. So keep these comments in mind if you’re thinking about buying a Stinger or hanging a picture of one on your wall. And speaking of comments, I have never been more excited to read yours, so thanks in advance for finding funny ways to tell me how wrong I am.