2021 Kia K5 review: The one to beat

The K5 is an attractive looking sedan.

Antuan Goodwin / Roadshow

The Kia K5 – formerly known as Optima – arrives on the scene with a new name, a new look and new propulsion options. All of these work not only to differentiate it from its predecessor, but also to help it stand out in the crowded crop of competing midsize sedans.

Like it

  • The lively 1.6-liter turbo engine is now standard
  • Agile performance and easy to drive
  • Solid standard cabin and security technology suite

I do not like

  • Only the smaller screen offers wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay
  • Auto light is too sensitive a touch

The aesthetics are mostly new, but the proportions of the K5 are not too far removed from those of the previous Optima. Overall, the sedan is about 2 inches longer with a 1.8-inch longer wheelbase. The volume of freight and passengers is also a few cubic inches compared to last year’s numbers. The roofline is about an inch lower, which accentuates the more “Stinger-like” fastback profile. Together with the increased length, this gives the K5 a much more planted and menacing look than the Optima it replaces. However, unlike the Stinger, the K5 is not a liftback, keeping a trunk separate from the cabin. A chrome accent arches from the base of the A-pillar to the rear of the vehicle – a hallmark of Optima design – but now flows smoothly into the window graphics rather than just tapering to an arbitrary point.

At the front, the K5’s “tiger nose” grille is flanked by amber LED daytime running lights with a zigzag design. The new sedan also ditches the fake bumper air intakes for a cleaner look. At the rear, you’ll find a new full-width LED taillight that ties in the design well, making the sedan appear wider despite having the same width as before.

My example is a mid-range GT-Line model, which adds flashes of sporty style without the performance upgrades of the more powerful and well-rounded K5 GT. The GT-Line features 18-inch alloy wheels, a glossy black rear spoiler and exclusive front and rear bumpers with LED fog lights. Inside, there is a flat-bottomed steering wheel and a unique SynTex leatherette upholstery on the seats.

1.6 liter turbo engine

Kia’s 1.6-liter Smartstream turbo engine replaces the older 2.4-liter I4 as the K5’s base engine, producing 180 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. That’s 5 horsepower less than the 2.4-liter engine but, perhaps more importantly, a 17-pound-foot thrust, which keeps this engine buoyant in the city.

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The GT-Line model features styling and feature updates without the performance enhancements of the real GT model.

Antuan Goodwin / Roadshow

The 1.6T is paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission that feels like a good match for the engine. Together, they’re not a supersport pair, particularly with the GT-Line’s lack of steering wheel controls, but they form an engaging duo that balances quiet performance in normal drive mode with smooth, sweeping thrust when shifted to Sport.

Driving the K5 is best described as light and easy. From steering to throttle response, the sedan feels light on the toes, agile and non-fatiguing. There is less feedback through the steering wheel than in a Honda Accord or Mazda6, which have better steering, but the Kia is still responsive. In a class where your options are usually numb and aloof or overly still and “sport-tuned”, the K5 stands out as one of the good ones, a particularly balanced and joyful ride.

This year also marks the first time that the Optima / K5 is available with all-wheel drive. Selecting this box adds $ 3,700 to the bottom line because it also rolls into a premium equipment package. Of course, the all-wheel drive option pushes the K5 fuel economy estimates up to 26 miles per city gallon, 34 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined, so if you live in a state where you don’t need the extra grip, consider to stick with the front-wheel drive setup, where most K5 models are good for 27 declared city, 37 highway and 31 mpg combined. During my week of testing, I averaged 29.9mpg with FWD. The base K5 LX model stands out, gaining 1-2mpg across the board when compared to higher finishes, most likely due to its lower weight and less comfort.

If a higher level of performance is desired, the K5 GT has a more powerful 2.5-liter engine with 290 hp and 311 lb-ft. I’ll be evaluating this in a separate review soon, so stay tuned.

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The K5’s list of standard safety features is impressive, but there are some quirks.

Antuan Goodwin / Roadshow

Excellent driver assistance technology

The 2021 Kia K5 keeps up with the automaker’s suite of standard safety and driver assistance technologies, with lane departure warning, lane keeping assistance, forward precollision warning, pedestrian detection, monitoring of the driver’s watch and automatic headlight systems each model. Kia’s auto-lighting technologies are a touch too sensitive for my taste, though; while driving in broad daylight, I take the headlights that activate momentarily if I pass under a dense tree or overpass, swiping the map from day to night mode, which is distracting. I also find the automatic high beams annoying, which are activated even at low speeds on my reasonably lit residential street.

On higher trim levels, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic warning are added to the feature set, and Kia’s adaptive full-speed cruise control is available online as optional equipment. The latter works well, even at stop-and-go speeds, without any jolts when other vehicles enter or leave my lane. These higher trim levels can also upgrade the emergency brake assist configuration with cyclist detection and intersection assistance, which helps prevent collisions during cross traffic turns (left).

Cab technology: Bigger isn’t always better

Kia’s cabin technology is usually pretty straightforward and easy to understand, but 2021 adds some weird details that you’ll want to keep an eye on. You can get the K5 with an 8-inch or 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system in the dashboard. Both versions run the latest generation of the automaker UVO software, depending on the set-up and options chosen. Both are cleverly organized and easy to use with features ranging from surprisingly useful (voice memo recorder) to some sort of weird (ambient coffee sounds).

Both also have standards Android Auto is Apple CarPlay. However, while the smaller unit has wireless connectivity for Android and Apple phones, the 10.25-inch model only connects via USB. For this reason alone, I would personally prefer the smaller screen. The difference in field of view isn’t huge, but the wireless phone connection is more convenient, making the cabin less cluttered with no dangling cables. It also makes the optional wireless phone charging slot a more interesting and useful upgrade.

Of course, if you’re going to use onboard software, this is less fussy to choose. Kia’s built-in navigation is quite good and easy to use with natural language speech recognition and address entry. The menu structure makes sense and is very easy to get around thanks to the dedicated hardware shortcut buttons just below the screen that lead to all the main functions.

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The smaller UVO system (pictured here) features the Android and Apple wireless connectivity that the larger unit lacks.

Antuan Goodwin / Roadshow

Prices and competition

The 2021 Kia K5 starts at $ 24,585 for the base LX (including $ 995 for the destination), an increase of just $ 100 from last year’s starting price. Considering the K5 comes with more standard equipment than the Optima, not to mention the once optional upgrade to the turbocharged engine, I think it’s worth spending a little more.

While the thrifty will be tempted by the LX’s lower price and slightly better fuel economy, I think the sweet spot of the range is probably the front-wheel drive GT-Line. It’s slightly more expensive, starting at $ 26,485, but it adds more standard features, looks better, and has a higher level of safety equipment. Consider the optional $ 1,600 GT-Line premium package with its LED headlights and interior lights, panoramic sunroof, wireless phone charger, smarter collision avoidance technology, and adaptive stop-and-go cruise. As tested and so equipped, you are looking at $ 28,085 out the door. Drivers who need the sure-footed all-wheel drive look at a still reasonable $ 30,185 with the Premium package.

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The 2021 K5 is at a sweet spot of great performance, desirable features, and excellent value.

Antuan Goodwin / Roadshow

That’s about two thousand dollars less than a comparably equipped Toyota Camry, with or without all-wheel drive, with more engaging performance and easier-to-use technology. The Honda Accord is only available with front-wheel drive, but manages to be more expensive than the K5 AWD. The Mazda6 is slightly cheaper and more fun to drive, but it also boasts less space for people and goods as well as more spartan technology.

The 2021 Kia K5 and the new Hyundai Sonata are my top picks in the affordable midsize sedan space, the Kia that matches its cousin’s technology, safety features, build quality and value. However, the K5 pulls ahead on more subjective metrics, with more palatable styling and sharper performance.

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