This is certainly one of the fresher-looking sedans in the segment.
If a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, would the Kia Optima by any other name be just as attractive and compelling? In a nutshell, yes: the Korean automaker may want you to call its bread-and-butter midsize sedan the Kia K5 from now on, but this 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD is still the attractive, lively, and value-packed four-door that punches in well above its weight we’ve come to expect.
Before we go on, though, I need to climb onto my soap box for a second and talk about the new name. Officially, Kia says the name change was meant to keep it consistent with markets outside of North America. I suppose the move makes sense; in South Korea, for instance, Kia’s called it the K5 since pretty much the beginning. And even then, it’s not like Kia has sheer decades of name recognition riding on the Optima/K5’s shoulders; by comparison, Toyota renaming the Camry would be marketing suicide.
But it’s a bit annoying that Kia would ditch a real word and succumb to the bowl of alphabet soup other automakers use to name their vehicles, especially considering Kia’s penchant for neat names like Carnival, Telluride, Picanto, and of course, Stinger.
OK, rant over. I’m stepping off the soap box now, grabbing an axe, and turning the soap box into kindling. The 2021 Optima – damn it, I mean the K5 – remains the mechanical near-twin to the Hyundai Sonata. That means a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder is standard fare, putting out 180 horsepower and 195 lb.-ft. of torque, and paired to an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The feather in the K5’s cap, however, is the standard all-wheel-drive system, which will surely steal some buyers from the FWD-only Sonata.
In theory, it’s a solid combination, but in practice, it’s a bit of a letdown. Most buyers will find the K5 sufficient and with peak torque available between 1,500 and 4,500 rpm, it’s pretty punchy around town. But AWD generally means more weight, and with identical power numbers to the Sonata, the K5 just doesn’t feel quite as snappy as its cousin. Moreover, while I’d certainly take a dual-clutch automatic over a CVT, it still lacks low-speed smoothness from time to time – though it certainly isn’t as jerky as the seven-speed found in the Seltos. Those looking for a more spirited drive will have to look elsewhere.
Thankfully, if you find yourself in that camp, you don’t have to look too far outside a Kia showroom. If the 1.6 four-cylinder doesn’t cut it, Kia lets you step up to the K5 GT and its 2.5L turbo-four, shared with the Sonata N-Line. Like the spicy Sonata, it’s good for a stout 290 horsepower and 311 lb.-ft. of torque. Consider yourself warned, though: where the more pedestrian K5 comes standard with AWD, the performance-oriented K5 GT is FWD-only.
Where the base powertrain is a bit of a letdown, the K5 redeems itself with its chassis. It’s comfortable when you need it to be, soaking up bumps and potholes extremely well, yet it’s also a surprisingly willing dance partner on tight on-ramps. Steering is absolutely lifeless but responsive, and you can dial in some more weight in Sport mode. The top-trim K5 GT is still the enthusiast’s choice here, though, thanks to its more aggressive chassis bits and tuning.
The K5 makes a stellar first impression. It’s certainly one of the fresher-looking sedans in the segment, up there with the Sonata and the Mazda6. The thin grille follows Kia’s so-called “tiger nose” motif, flowing into zig-zagging amber daytime running lights. Down the side, the K5 bears more than a passing resemblance to the Stinger thanks to its sloping roofline. Around the back, the connected tail lights are accented with a dash pattern, but while we can (barely) live with the fake vents, the fake exhaust tips have to go. Minus those questionably tasteful accents, the K5 is certainly a looker.
Inside, the K5 isn’t the home run we expected, which honestly comes as a surprise. The good? Fit-and-finish is excellent, the restyled infotainment system looks great, and the faux wood and metal accents look convincing and slick. The not-so-good? Although the back seats and trunk are competitively roomy, front-seat headroom might be a bit tight – at five-foot-nine, I’m definitely not tall, yet my noggin was right up against the headliner despite the driver’s seat being all the way to the floor. Furthermore, while Kia generally does infotainment well, the lack of a tuning knob in the K5 can be frustrating and distracting.
Fortunately, the K5 certainly delivers the value we’d expect from Kia. Starting at $29,595 – pretty much on par with the base Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry with AWD – the base K5 comes well-equipped with goodies such as blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist, a heated steering wheel, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and of course, all-wheel-drive. It’s worth noting the Subaru Legacy starts at $26,695, a hefty chunk of change less than the K5, though it’s missing out on a few bells-and-whistles.
Stepping up to the mid-level $32,595 EX adds the headroom-sucking panoramic sunroof, adaptive cruise control, and interestingly enough, a heated windshield – something you’d expect to find on far more expensive vehicles – to name just a few of the goodies. Our tester is the almost-fully-loaded K5 GT-Line, which for $35,995, includes heated rear seats, cooled front seats, the larger 10.25-inch infotainment display, and a more aggressive front fascia, among other bits. The $39,995 K5 GT rounds out the lineup, and regardless of the trim you pick, colour is your only option – though you still have to pay $250 for anything that isn’t black.
As long as you aren’t that tall, or you’re cool with keeping the sunshade open all the time, the 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD makes a strong case for itself as a family hauler that isn’t an SUV. It’s stylish, extremely well-equipped, and comes standard with four-season traction. Just don’t call it an Optima.