2021 Kia K5 GT review: Optima prime

I love that profile.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

The 2021 Kia K5 GT proves that a bad name can’t torpedo a good car. Sure, Studebaker Dictator, Ford Probe, and Toyota Estima Lucida G Luxury Joyful Canopy are all much worse K5 nicknames, but this four-door – especially with the flagship GT trim – is so nice and capable, sleek and fast that you won’t care what it’s called.

Like it

  • Powerful and responsive engine
  • Spacious and beautiful cabin
  • Artistic bodywork

I do not like

  • Difficulty maintaining the occasional lane
  • Transmission performance

While it’s not necessarily above the midsize sedan crowd, the new K5 it is close to the top of its segment in almost all categories. This Kia feels cooler than the gracefully aging Honda Accord, is far more interesting than the sloppy Subaru Legacy, and is more swanky inside and out than Toyota’s popular Camry. In short, the K5 is as well-rounded as a beachball.

Spicing things up, this sedan delivers plenty of visual pizzazz. Front and center, the K5 wears a reinvented version of Kia’s signature tiger nose grille. The main opening is filled with a geometric mesh pattern and flanked by a pair of wink-looking LED headlight clusters with pronounced tails running down the front fenders. The sapphire blue paint in this example is almost the perfect color. In profile, the K5 resembles a Volkswagen Arteon mashup and an Audi A7; in front of the A-pillars is strikingly similar to the first, behind them is the spitting image of the second.

That gracefully curved roofline ends in a sharp rear that is almost as intricately designed as the front of the car. The trunk lid is incredibly short, but the opening is very large, so loading cargo shouldn’t be an exercise in playing Tetris cargo. The space itself measures 16 cubic feet, a whisker less than what you get in an Accord but one more skosh than a Camry provides. The rear seatbacks fold flat to carry longer items, although the through opening isn’t particularly wide.

As with other redesigned Kias, the interior of the K5 amazes, being both stylish and functional. The dashboard is highly horizontal and deeply sculpted, and the materials on display are all of excellent quality. The front door panels are wrapped in soft plastic that is handsomely grainy, the silver accents sprinkled everywhere look great and cause no annoying reflections in sunlight and in places where hard polymers are used, none of them smell like pinched pennies. The only thing I don’t care about is the piano black coating, which isn’t all that premium.

Improving usability, the car’s center console is angled slightly towards the driver, so the infotainment screen and climate controls are easier to reach. Unlike many vehicles these days, the K5 features a traditional mechanical gearbox. With a meaty T-handle, this shift selector looks great and is super satisfying to use. And so are the seats on this car, which are wrapped in a decent leatherette material (real cow skins are not available, at least not on the seat surfaces). The front chairs do their job and there’s a surprising amount of space in the back. Lanky passengers will have plenty of head and leg room in this Kia.

Two infotainment systems are available, one with an 8-inch display and a higher tier offering with a 10.3-inch touchscreen. Curiously, both multimedia arrays support Apple CarPlay is Android Auto, although only the base system offers wireless connectivity for these smartphone mirroring systems. If you opt for the big screen, which is lovely and comes with built-in navigation, be sure to bring a charging cable.

When it comes to usability, Kia’s latest infotainment system is a winner. The updated system on the 10.3-inch screen is not only super easy to use and remarkably responsive, never stuttering or slowing down, but it’s also pleasing to the eye. The home screen icons look like little purple neon signs, and the radio tuner appears as a series of nixie tubes for a touch of whimsy, something we could all use a little more these days.

Differentiating them from the lesser K5s, the sporty GT models are equipped with a robust 2.5-liter turbo engine. Powerful as a handful of fentanyl tablets, this four-cylinder breather delivers 290 horsepower and 311 foot-pounds of torque to the front wheels, far more of each than the base 1.6-liter turbo. The reason all-wheel drive is only available with the smaller engine is a guess, but as you can imagine, the K5 GT has no problem squealing tires when you spur it. This sedan pulls fiercely from around 2,250 rpm and up, although it is very punchy below that speed. During use, some powertrain vibrations may be felt in the cockpit (remember, 2.5 liters is a large four-cylinder), but the engine is quiet and generally well-mannered.

The interior of the K5 is elegant and well organized.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

Making the most of that mountain of torque is an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Once the K5 is rolling, this shift shifts imperceptibly and as fast as a brain synapse, helping the car hit 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds. Performance here is impressive, except at low speeds. Unfortunately, as with almost all dual-clutch transmissions, takeoff from a standstill is never as smooth as with a torque converter. Sometimes you can feel faint but noticeable jolts and while driving at idle, as in heavy traffic, the car seems to wheel up, move inconsistently while modulating the speed, which becomes annoying.

At the pump, expect 24 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. Combined, the 2021 Kia K5 GT is expected to return 27 mpg.

Aside from that all-you-can-eat couple buffet, there’s nothing particularly magical about the way this sedan drives. Dynamically, it’s fully competent, with midway steering, brake pedal feel, and chassis performance. There are several driving modes available, but in reality only the steering weight and gear shift schedule change. The ride of this example is absolutely solid, no doubt improved (or degraded?) By its 19-inch wheels wrapped in relatively low-profile Pirelli P Zero 245/40 all-season tires. The K5 GT isn’t stiff enough to shatter thorns or make your head bang when you encounter bigger bumps, but it sure feels the way.

When it comes to driving aids, this Kia offers a lot. Features such as frontal collision warning with pedestrian detection, lane keeping assistance, lane departure warning, a driver attention monitor and automatic high beam are standard across the K5 range. Quite typical stuff. Of course, all kinds of other services are also offered, from rear cross traffic warning and adaptive cruise control to parking sensors and blind spot monitoring. For the most part, these technologies work flawlessly, although the automatic high beams can be a little spastic and the lane-centering system does odd things in certain curves. When navigating moderate turns, the system will tug on the steering wheel annoyingly and rather hard, fighting grip as you work to keep the car on the intended line. On straight asphalt and through minor curves the lane centering function works beautifully, it gets a little wobbly when pushed.

The K5 has an almost Audi-like rear.

Craig Cole / Roadshow

As it stands, the K5 GT I’m testing here costs $ 35,705 including $ 965 in shipping. A $ 95 and $ 155 cargo protection in carpeted floor mats cover the base price, as does the $ 4,000 GT1 package. This expensive add-on includes a host of amenities like the larger touchscreen, a premium Bose sound system, electric front seats with heating and ventilation, and a host of safety technologies. However, this machine is reasonably priced considering how beautiful it is and moves quickly.

Despite its questionable name, the 2021 Kia K5 GT is one of the nicer mainstream sedans you can buy today, especially if you want something with a sporty feel and lots of power. Of course, if the K5 doesn’t float your boat, you can always call this car for what it is: awesome.

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