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2021 Kia K5 GT Review: The Battle Isn’t Won

2021 Kia K5 GT
Photo: D.Rufiange
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Daniel Rufiange
The Kia K5 represents a nice evolution from the Optima, but in a SUV-led world where a car needs to do more to make its mark, it may not have

Auto123 reviews the 2021 Kia K5 GT. The Optima is dead, long live the K5.. .and the sedan!

The downward spiral of cars in recent years is well-documented, and it got only more pronounced over the past year, no thanks to the pandemic. Consumers are buying more SUVs than any other type of vehicle, and that’s almost all at the expense of cars.

Also well-documented is that a number of manufacturers have long since abandoned certain segments. Less choice of course means that cars sell even less. Supply and demand, chicken and egg. Even those manufacturers still committed to the format are seeing the number of sedans they sell shrink every year.

We salute those carmakers’ commitment. There are still and will always be large numbers of car buyers, some of whom just aren’t fans of the SUV format and others who are simply happiest at the wheel of a good ‘ol four-door.

Those buyers continue to find what they need at Kia dealers, even in the mid-size segment. For 2021, the Korean automaker even comprehensively renewed the model it has been offering for more than 20 years, under a few different names. Remember the Magentis (2002-2010)? It became the Optima (2011-2020), and now it has been transformed again. Meet the K5.

Our goal in test-driving it was to determine if all the good things being said about it since its launch are justified.

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2021 Kia K5 GT, profile
2021 Kia K5 GT, profile
Photo: D.Rufiange

Bold styling
There was a time when a sedan could be ugly as heck and still dominate sales charts in North America. The Toyota Camry of yore comes to mind, for one. Today, though any manufacturer still committed to the sedan genre has to give their model a little something that will make it stand out, or risk it being a dud on the market.

The K5 has inherited a few highly distinctive features, including an original headlight design, a grille that’s anything but plain jane, and a strikingly cut rear end. It's bold, that’s for sure. But beautiful? Well that’s in the eye of the beholder. But there’s no denying the model looks different, and that alone will be enough to attract at least some few buyers initially. Beyond that, however, in the medium and long terms, more is needed than originality.

2021 Kia K5 GT, front
2021 Kia K5 GT, front
Photo: D.Rufiange

Familiar formula
After all these years and decades, it’s hard to reinvent things totally when overhauling a model, but frankly those intent on producing a winning car need to go bold or go home, for the reasons stated above. For now, Kia only gets part way there with the K5 if you compare the new edition to last year’s Optima. On the one hand, you do now get all-wheel drive, but on the other there’s no hybrid option in sight. For now, it’s not part of the offering. We say for now, because it’s worth noting that this Kia is a fairly close cousin of the Hyundai Sonata... which comes in a hybrid configuration.

Now let’s push the thought a little further: how about a plug-in hybrid version, while we await the slew of all-electric models still to come and which will carry different names?

2021 Kia K5 GT, front grille
2021 Kia K5 GT, front grille
Photo: D.Rufiange

Two engines
For now, the choice for the 2021 K5 is between two engines. Actually, no, you don't really have a choice. With the first three variants, EX, LX and GT-Line, you get the 1.6L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine (180 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque). Then the GT model, which we tested, gets a 2.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder (290 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque). An 8-speed automatic transmission sends power to the wheels, the front ones in the case of our tester.

The offer starts at $31,460 (including fees) and tops out at $42,110. That's a pretty steep price to pay, at both extremes; in our view, a sales pitch starting around $25,000 would have been appropriate here, if only as a way of hitting hard on the market. Fortunately, the equipment level is generous all around.

Our GT version certainly didn't lack for anything, equipped as it is with 19-inch alloy wheels, panoramic roof, LED fog lights, Bose audio system, head-up display, wireless charging for cellular devices, heated and ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel and heated rear seats.

2021 Kia K5 GT, interior
2021 Kia K5 GT, interior
Photo: D.Rufiange

Behind the wheel
The best way to sum up the new K5's driving experience is to say that it's compelling, but not exceptional. Considering the precarious status of sedans on the market, we would have liked something a little more convincing as a way to lure buyers back to the format

Let's be clear, the ride is solid. The steering communicates road feel well, power is more than sufficient with this GT version and the weight balance makes you feel confident behind the wheel. However, for a more dynamic feel, it would have been interesting to give the K5 a limited slip differential, which would help the front wheels stick to the road better when getting aggressive with the gas pedal, as well as a torque vectoring system to be able to attack corners with more confidence.

If sporty driving isn't your thing, you won't see the need for those. However, if you like to experience some thrills behind the wheel, in the present setup of the K5 you'll be treated to a different kind of thrill, such as a strong torque effect if you're unfortunate enough to hit the gas pedal when the steering wheel isn't straight (like when exiting a curve).

All this to say that more could have been done. Maybe Kia wants to subtly steer those buyers for whom dynamism matters towards the Stinger...

2021 Kia K5 GT, trunk, spoiler
2021 Kia K5 GT, trunk, spoiler
Photo: D.Rufiange

Standard
For the rest, the K5 delivers what you'd expect from a sedan: comfort and space, both inside and in the trunk. Kia didn't miss its mark here. As far as connectivity is concerned, the necessities were of course present with our model, the sticker price for which sits at $42,095, including shipping costs and other gizmos.

The K5 GT is also comprehensively equipped with safety features and functions. As has become the norm with too many carmakers’ suites of systems, there are intrusive features that might compel you to dig through the owner's manual to learn how to disable them... when possible.

As for the fuel consumption of the engine under the hood of our model, officially it’s 9.9L/100 km city, 7.3L/100 km highway and 8.7L/100 km combined. Most of my driving was on highways and country roads, which explains the excellent rating of 7.1L/100 km I tallied after covering some 350 km.

And I didn't spare the throttle.

2021 Kia K5 GT, three-quarters rear
2021 Kia K5 GT, three-quarters rear
Photo: D.Rufiange

Conclusion
The K5 is a solid evolution of the Optima, but it doesn’t represent as big of a leap forward as when the Optima replaced the Magentis. Yet now is precisely the time when the car needs to make a big splash if it wants to grab a big piece of the shrunken pie that is its segment.

This is not really to criticize Kia's work with this vehicle – this is a quality product. It's just that it would have taken a little more to break through in a segment that's losing momentum.

Of course, the verdict that matters will be rendered by consumers. We'll see how the model does at Kia dealers over the next few months and years.

2021 Kia K5 GT, rear light, badging
2021 Kia K5 GT, rear light, badging
Photo: D.Rufiange

We like

Bold and beautiful lines
Interesting driving feel
Tasteful interior design

We like less

Too much torque effect
Recent history of turbo engines at Kia
Nothing really amazing to help it dominate a shrunken segment

The competition

Chevrolet Malibu (for now)
Honda Accord
Hyundai Sonata
Nissan Altima
Subaru Legacy
Toyota Camry
Volkswagen Passat

2021 Kia K5 GT, rear
2021 Kia K5 GT, rear
Photo: D.Rufiange

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Photos:D.Rufiange
2021 Kia K5 GT pictures
Daniel Rufiange
Daniel Rufiange
Automotive expert
  • Over 17 years' experience as an automotive journalist
  • More than 75 test drives in the past year
  • Participation in over 250 new vehicle launches in the presence of the brand's technical specialists