Kia might be killin’ it lately with its SUV lineup, but that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten what got it to where it is today.
Engine: 1.6L I4 Turbo
Output: 180 hp, 195 lb-ft
Transmission: 8AT, AWD
US fuel economy (MPG): 26/34/29
CAN fuel economy (L/100KM): 9.2/6.9/8.2
Starting Price (USD): $24,455 (inc. dest.)
As-Tested Price (USD): $31,300 (est, inc. dest.)
Starting Price (CAD): $31,345 (inc. dest.)
As-Tested Price (CAD): $37,995 (inc. dest.)
At the turn of the century, the mid-size sedan was still the place to be in the automotive kingdom. Everyone was in on the action, and Toyota built a veritable empire on the back of the Camry’s reputation. Kia threw its hat into the ring in 2000, knowing that to be taken seriously, it needed to fight on the main card. In the intervening 20 years, Kia has kept improving its four-door offering, culminating in this, the 2021 Kia K5.
Times change though: the metric for success is now the crossover. That’s what makes the K5’s arrival feel like such a grudge match. Kia didn’t have to put a lot of effort into this fight, since the spotlight is shining elsewhere. Instead, it’s built a lean, mean fighter ready to worry other sedans, packed with practical solutions to the everyday grind and a bevy of high-tech features. Beyond that, the K5’s camera-friendly looks might even draw eyeballs away from the current heavyweight crossovers, with a style none of ’em can hope to match.
Daring exterior design
First off, don’t fall for the Kia marketing speak that calls this the “first-ever” K5. That’s long been the home-market name for what we called the Optima. Now the whole world will call the mid-size sedan K5. That’s that sorted.
It’s not like you’d confuse this with the old Optima anyway. The K5’s design is dramatic, dripping with style in this GT-Line trim. The distinctive “tiger nose grille” now stretches right across the front of the car, incorporating the headlights too. In the daytime, it’s reminiscent of the hidden eyes on classic ’60s muscle cars, but with the wholly modern slashes of the yellow DRLs wrapping around the corners. It’s aggressive, though many of the vents you see on either end are indeed fake. Same goes with the big chrome “exhaust” tips.
The only other piece of chrome on the K5’s body arcs up over the doors, before looping under the rear glass in one uninterrupted line. The chrome’s varying thickness emphasizes the K5’s sweptback profile, giving it more than a hint of big-brother Stinger. There’s no hatch here, though: it’s a traditional trunk, with 16.0 cubic feet (434 liters) of available space putting it at the higher end of the class.
Every K5 comes with alloy wheels, though the base LX makes do with wee 16-inch rolling stock. The GT-Line gets the smart two-tone 18s seen here. Add it all up and the K5 is a seriously good-looking sedan. I’m used to people asking about the cars I’m photographing, but the K5 drew more questions and compliments than (nearly) any other bit of mainstream metal I’ve driven this year.
Practical, tech-forward interior
Step inside and the K5 continues to impress. It’s not as adventurous as the exterior, and doesn’t play with color the way other Hyundai Group products do, but it’s a clean, thoroughly modern layout. The whole center stack is canted toward the driver, like a classic BMW, with a row of redundant buttons for climate control. Open-pore wood wraps around the doors and onto the dash; I appreciate that there’s at least a sliver of it on the rear doors, too. A couple of cheaper plastic pieces show up right near the transmission shifter, but it’s nothing worse than you’ll see elsewhere in the class. The shifter itself is a traditional PRND unit, which is welcome.
Kia’s found one of the best uses of piano black as well: as the surround for the instrument panel. It reminds me of a black hole, with the panel pulling the trim inward.
Today’s crossovers get all the credit as practical vehicles, but there’s a lot of everyday cleverness baked into the K5. The wireless charger isn’t wedged in ahead of the shifter, for example: instead, it’s a tidy drop-in slot just ahead of the center storage. It keeps phones out of the field of vision. Another smart detail is a little raised ridge on the door panel, beside the window controls. It’s just enough to make closing the door easier for the short-limbed among us while still in the car.
Trimmed in synthetic leather, the front seats are comfortable, though the bases could use more contouring. Passenger space is plentiful front and rear, with the panoramic sunroof offering an extra dose of natural light. The sloping roofline does eat into rear headroom slightly, but the tape measure shows it as average for the class at 37.4 inches (950 mm).
The 10.25-inch infotainment display is crisp, and responds quickly to inputs. Kia’s custom font can be slightly difficult to read at a glance, however. The screen real estate allows for smartphone mirroring in addition to a panel of native display, for things like navigation. There’s a catch there, though: only the smaller 8.0-inch screen will do wireless Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. You’ll need to plug in for the larger UVO setup.
Smooth daily driver
The K5’s drivetrain is perhaps its least impressive feature. Every trim bar the upcoming GT uses the family 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. It produces an adequate 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque, just as it does in the K5’s platform sibling, the Hyundai Sonata. An eight-speed auto handles shifting duties here too. The torque peak comes on nice and early at just 1,500 rpm, which makes it fine for the cut-and-thrust of city driving. The K5 never feels out of out its depth on the highway, but it does get noisy if you ask for an overtake. Steering feel is expectedly light, but it never feels vague. The K5 remains composed through corners, with a bit of lean to let you know when it’s approaching the limits of the winter tires. A snow driving mode is selectable, but the weather only threatened it during my time with the K5.
This particular model is AWD. Like most of the others in the class—Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry—the K5 essentially functions as a front-driver unless it senses slip, to minimize the fuel efficiency losses of AWD. On that front, it works: the EPA quotes 26/34/29 mpg for city, highway, and combined, respectively. (Canadian figures are 9.2/6.9/8.2 L,100 km.) That’s on par with the rest of the all-paw players in the segment.
Curiously, AWD is standard on all trims in Canada, with exception to the high-performance GT. That model will arrive packing a more powerful 2.5-liter engine, with power up to 290 hp and 311 lb-ft, all coursing through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission to the front wheels. We’ve tried the combo in the similar Sonata N-Line already and while it was impressive, it will be interesting to see how Kia markets the performance model sending its power to just one axle.
Standard driver assistance tech on the K5 LX includes forward collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, auto high beams, lane departure, lane-keep, and lane-follow assists. Blind-spot monitoring, safe exit assist, and rear cross-traffic alert join the lineup on the LXS. The GT-Line offers improved FCA, adaptive cruise control, and Highway Driving Assist through options packages (equipped here), as does the EX.
A note on trims: our Canadian-spec tester is essentially a loaded GT-Line AWD Special Edition in the US. It isn’t limited to the Wolf Gray exterior, but loses out on the unique red interior of the Special Edition.
Verdict: 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD Review
The 2021 Kia K5 is a deeply impressive all-rounder. It offers a competitive on-paper package, and then wraps it up in a confident, stylish exterior. Spacious, comfortable, and brimming with tech—if not quite as much as its Sonata sibling—the K5 is yet another compelling argument to go against the current crossover grain.
Prices start at $24,455 for an entry-level LX ($31,345 CAD), including destination. The GT-Line AWD goes for more, but still rings in at a reasonable $30,055 ($37,745 CAD). That’s bang on with the class, and while the K5 can’t topple any single model in one discipline, it’s never far off. If you’re looking to get off the crossover train, this is one sedan worth checking out.
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