2021 Kia K5 GT Review: An Almost-Perfect Everyday Sport Sedan

You learn very quickly that the traction-off setting in the 2021 Kia K5 GT really means off.

Not every modern car is honest on that front. But the K5 is. Switch into the Sport Plus driving mode—exclusive to the GT—and this sharp-suited sedan will happily lay down two thick strips of rubber on the road. Uh, if you’re so inclined.

It’s this honest approach to simple fun that defines the K5 GT. Kia’s new sport sedan doesn’t offer layers upon layers of obfuscation between driver and road in the quest for smooth, efficient progress. It doesn’t shield you from its occasionally scrappy nature, either. That’s what makes it such a welcome addition to the four-door landscape—and at a great deal, too.

What’s new?

For 2021, the whole dang car. Kia dropped the K5 late last year to replace the mid-sized Optima sedan. The rest of the lineup makes do with a perfectly serviceable 1.6-liter turbo four-pot, sending its 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft to the front wheels or, optionally, all four (AWD is standard in Canada). The GT uses a larger 2.5-liter turbo motor, which throws down a full 290 hp. Torque grows even more, now peaking at 311 lb-ft. Oh, and for the GT, all of that power heads only to the front wheels. More on that fun a little later.

SEE ALSO: Toyota Camry AWD vs Kia K5 AWD Comparison

Casual onlookers will find only a few external clues of the power lurking within this hotter K5. A set of GT-exclusive 19-inch wheels are one tell, wrapped in 245-section Pirelli P Zeroes. Four (real) exhaust tips poke out from underneath the rear bumper too, with a thick black lip spoiler atop the trunk.

The rest of the package is the same K5 goodness. The sharp styling, complete with “heartbeat” yellow LEDs, is arguably the best in the segment. Kia has kept the interior pretty similar too, with black synthetic leather front buckets coming in for GT duty. Despite a lower roofline than the outgoing Optima, the K5 offers adult-friendly accommodations in the back seat. 

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How does it drive?

Like a gem. The K5 GT has a stiffer suspension setup than the regular models, tightening up its responses. It’s not an adaptive system, which keeps costs in check. Kia’s engineering team has found the right balance though, making sure passengers aren’t shaken around when navigating the modern city. A quicker steering ratio keeps the GT agile too, especially with those sticky Pirellis involved. This K5 will zip from corner to corner with glee.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Kia Telluride Review: Living Up to the Hype

Do I miss AWD? In late May, not a chance. Without a limited-slip differential, the K5 will merrily torque steer if (when) the driver gets greedy with the throttle. I consider this a teachable moment: ease into the pedal on corner exit and the K5 is much happier. AWD would also add weight, dulling the K5’s reflexes. Asking drivers, especially enthusiasts, to think about how they drive a little more is hardly a bad thing.

The time between the curves is short, too. That engine is a torque monster, pulling the K5 up the road with gusto. The K5 feels easily good for its quoted 5.8-second run to 60 mph (96 km/h), if not quicker. It’s not the most melodic, but the deep note from the exhausts does feel appropriate. Kia offers piped-in engine noise, too, a defeatable system that ranges from subtle to silly.

When pushing the K5 along my favorite semi-local back roads, the eight-speed dual-clutch transmission is a welcome ally. Its shifts are fast, both in engagement and in response to the wheel-mounted paddles. Left to its own devices, the DCT will hold gears in Sport and Sport Plus, too. The brakes, larger than those found on lesser K5s, haul the K5 up with conviction, and a progressive pedal feel.

SEE ALSO: 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Review: First Drive

It’s in the stop-and-go of the city that the DCT exhibits surprising low-speed judder. I know these ‘boxes are sometimes sold as an experience just like a manual, but I didn’t expect that to simulate a slipping clutch. I didn’t experience this level of judder with the Sonata N Line, for what it’s worth.

Still a great value

It’s not as if Kia strips out half the features to produce the hi-po K5 either, like the muscle cars of old (or the TRD Camrys of today). In America, the GT comes standard with an 8.0-inch touchscreen, including wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. UVO remains as easy-to-use here as it does across the range. The optional 10.25-inch touch screen responds quickly, and the embedded navigation works well.

The interior isn’t much different from the rest of the lineup—either good or bad, depending on your stance. The flat-bottomed steering wheel is familiar from the GT-Line; the well-bolstered front bucket seats are not. Everything is easy to find on the center console, including the clever slot for the wireless phone charger. Material quality is generally good, though the blanked-off buttons by the shifter feel a little cheap on a range-topper.

Canadian-spec K5 GT models like this one come with all the equipment included in the $4,000 US GT1 Package. This includes niceties like the LED headlights, larger touch screen, 12-speaker Bose sound system, 10-way power driver seat, and the heated/ventilated front seats. It also adds a heated steering wheel, which is standard in chilly Canada. Another Canuck perk: a fully digital instrument panel.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota Camry TRD Review

Standard driver assists include automated emergency braking, driver attention warning, lane departure and keep assists, auto high beams, blind-spot assist, and rear cross-traffic alert. The GT1 Package also adds Kia’s Highway Drive Assist and nav-based adaptive cruise control. 

Even with that package, you’re looking at an as-tested price of $35,585 ($41,995 CAD). That’s a wicked deal for something so well-equipped.

Who’s the target audience?

The most obvious choices are those long-standing leaders of the mid-size segment: the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The rowdy Camry TRD is the truer competition, with a segment-exclusive naturally-aspirated V6 being its best asset. Despite those tuner looks, it’s a softer ride than the Kia, and it can’t match the amount of standard kit.

There’s also the Hyundai Sonata N Line, which shares all the under-the-skin goodness with the K5. Same chassis, same engine, same transmission—you get the picture. The Sonata’s styling is more divisive, and it’s interior is a wee bit nicer in this writer’s opinion. You’ll have to contend with a push-button shifter, though. Oh, and it’s cheaper ($34,305 / $39,824 CAD).

Thinking more aspirationally, why not a BMW 3 Series? It’s not a crazy comparison: the 330i starts at $42,245 including destination, though you’d need to pile on a few thousand in options to match the Kia’s goodies. Some will naturally prefer a rear-drive model to the Kia, though—whisper it—the K5 is more fun anyway.

SEE ALSO: 2022 Genesis G70 Review: First Drive

Another in-family option: the recently refreshed 2022 Genesis G70. It’s a better drive than the equivalent M340i in 3.3T V6 Sport form, but would the $38,570 ($45,000 CAD) base 2.0-liter model stand up to the K5 GT? We’d love to find out…

Verdict: 2021 Kia K5 GT Review

The 2021 Kia K5 GT is the modern day equivalent of a much-loved modern classic: the 2007–2008 Acura TL Type S. The old TL was an everyday hero: gifted enough to impress the enthusiast, yet capable of ferrying four or five adults in comfort, too. The Kia pulls off the same feat in a different decade.

Equal parts stylish and affordable, the GT is a laugh riot on the road. It might be a little rough around the edges, but the best ones—be they people, movies, or cars—often are. That’s what makes them interesting.

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