2021 Kia K5 Review

2021 Kia K5 - Kia renames and reimagines mid-size sedan


It's out with Optima and in with K5

South Korean automaker Kia debuts a next-generation platform along with a worldly identifier surrounding its comprehensive mid-size sedan.  

Back in 2001, Kia debuted, a value-driven mid-size sedan; Optima. It sold well and spawned several fuel-extending hybrid counterparts through its esteemed career.

While Optima is a name commonly recognized throughout the U.S. and Canada, in other corners of the world, Kia's mid-size sedan identifies as K5.  In fact, the K prefix and numerical suffix adorn a sufficient number of its product outside of North American (and now, a couple inside).  To celebrate its impressive fourth generation, Kia rebrands Optima as the K5 in all world markets.

Kia's marketing and brand department may be just starting to tinker with a new phase of product identifiers and updates.  Kia remains poised to recast its Sedona minivan as the Carnival here in the U.S. for a next-generation redesign in the upcoming 2022 model year.  Carnival is Kia's name of choice for the minivan elsewhere. Interestingly, the mid-size Sorento crossover remained a name unchanged during its next-generation 2021 model year makeover.

During a worldwide pandemic, Kia also found time to draw up a new corporate logo to replace the aging, san-serif bold-face (but still proudly displayed throughout our 2021 K5 tester).  The new cursive logo with twists, turns and angles celebrates a new look and symbolically turns the corner, speeding away from a pandemic plagued 2020.

While domestic automakers General Motors and Ford have ended production of the once-popular four-door sedan in the U.S., Kia doubles down with the K5 debut.

In fact, K5 counts as one of four distinct traditional sedans in Kia's lineup joining the compact Forte and a pair of slightly larger choices in the form of the luxurious K900 and sport-tinged Stinger.

The revamped K5 includes a multitude of firsts.  Sure-grip, upper-Midwest friendly all-wheel drive is available as an option in two trims (LXS and G-Line).  This keeps pace with rivals including the segments top-seller, Toyota Camry, and a solid recommendation for Chicagoland drivers. Two new turbocharged four-cylinder engines also join the lineup.

Wheelbase (distance between front and rear axle) grows by approximately two inches contributing improved balance while overall length increases by a similar inch count. Overall width grows about an inch, all part of Kia's in-house third-generation 'N3' platform.

The GT 2.5T apex trim offers a larger engine (2.5-liter, 290 horsepower four cylinder) compared with four lower trims (LX, LXS, EX, GT-Line). Both four-cylinder engines feature turbocharging; a departure from the outgoing Optima's naturally aspirated (non turbo) base engine.  Conventional turbochargers run off of recycled exhaust gases spinning a pinwheel-inspired turbine  pumping concentrated air into the engine, increasing horsepower output. The K5 follows an industry trend of dropping six-cylinders in favor of fuel efficient four-cylinder turbos.

The 1.6-liter includes four drive modes (normal, sport, smart and custom) selectable via a chrome dial aft of a stubby T-bar vertical transmission shifter between front buckets.  The 2.5 turbo four adds one additional mode (sport plus).

Both engines utilize regular, 87-octane fuel. Our front-drive 1.6-liter generated 27 miles per gallon city and 37 mpg highway,  average for a four-cylinder internal combustion (IC) engine circa 2021.

An improved eight-speed automatic transmission replaces an outgoing six-speed utilized in the previous generation.  The up-level GT 2.5T goes one better with an advanced dual clutch automatic transmission with lightning quick automatic gear shifting.

A decade ago, Optima began offering a gas-electric hybrid engine (the self-charging, non-plug-in type) during its third-generation debut.  The fourth-generation 2017 Optima added its first plug-in hybrid electric version (PHEV) necessitating nightly plug-ins and introduced at the 2016 Chicago Auto Show. While the 2021 five-seat K5 currently is sans a gas-electric hybrid, plug-in hybrid electric vehicle or pure electric vehicle (EV) variant, expect reemergence in the not too distant future.  

One perk unchanged from Optima days, a class-leading powertrain warranty: 10-year/100,000-mile one of the longest-duration engine warranties for original owners. Coupled with competitive pricing and liberal dosing of safety features, K5 appeals to growing families.

Starting price for K5 sits at $23,590. Our mid-level, front-wheel drive EX arrived at $27,900 and added one option, a $3,400 EX Premium Package bringing the bottom line to $32,355 including a $965 destination charge.

Kia simplifies the purchasing process. For example, lower LX and LXS trims have no factory option packages with the only factory a-la-carte decision relegated to premium exterior paints.  Even so, both lower trims come decently equipped.  The GT-line, EX and GT 2.5T trims each offer one specific option group.

Our EX Premium Package added a larger center multi-function touch screen, premium sound system, power front passenger seat, heated steering wheel and cruise control with radar-enhanced acceleration and deceleration dependent upon the vehicle ahead.

In road testing, K5 welcomes athletic vibes superior to the Toyota Camry but not to the heights of the Mazda 6. Within the passenger cabin, an acoustic-laminated windshield now comes standard, increasing the indoor quiet quotient along with additional sound deadening materials.

Visually, K5 offers a very narrow back deck lid made seemingly smaller with chrome framing initiating way up front at the base of each "A" pillar.  Framing tops side door windows before curving down towards and rounding onto the trunk lid (with gloss black filler/applique mimicking an extension), although the window itself ends well before the lid; a well-executed visual slight-of-hand. Inside, the trunk welcomes 16.0 cubic feet of room, slightly above average for this family-friendly segment.

An amber-colored, swashbuckling Mark of Zorro "Z" underscores the bottom portion of four narrow, inline LED bulbs before Z-folding its way up towards the side crease separating the hood from the fender. The old-school bold-face Kia oval logo sits atop the front hood with a narrow, stretched 'tiger face' front grille extending across the front, including end points underneath the Z light.

Both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a must have for audiophiles demanding Smartphone interplay, come standard.  The K5 offers wireless Smartphone interaction and charging in many trims, something Optima skipped. An eight-inch screen size comes standard with a larger 10.25-inch size available. Interacting with the screen and touch commands is not quite as intuitive as other recently tested vehicles.

It's a true five seater with three average-sized adults able to exist in relative harmony in the back row.  Despite the long sloping roof line, head room remains adequate for those stretching to approximately six-feet two inches. Rear seatbacks fold with a 60/40 split save for the fixed back found in base LX.

Leatherette materials and simulated wood look the part, but only mimic real deal leather and wood. Front buckets provided a supportive, not overly subtle experience. GT-line and GT trims include a flat-bottom steering wheel, a design popular with track-specific vehicles.

The easily interpreted instrument panel includes two large circular analog gauges (left-side tachometer, right-side odometer) with smaller circular inserts along the bottom.  A digital message window between gauges showcases a variety of useful data panels selectable via a right-side steering wheel button.

A horizontal panel below the touch screen houses ventilation functions with dials at each end controlling dual-zone front temperatures and push-buttons between for fan direction and speed. Below resides a 12-volt power outlet and two USB plug ports (one data, one charge).

Assembly happens in West Point Georgia along with the three-row Telluride crossover and slightly smaller next-generation 2021 three-row Sorento crossover.  

2021 Kia K5 EX

Price as tested: $32,335

Engine:  1.6-liter turbo four

Horsepower:  180

Wheelbase:  112.2 inches

Length:  193.1 inches

Width:  73.2 inches

Height: 56.9 inches

Powertrain warranty:  10 years/100,000 miles

City/Highway economy:  27 mpg city/37 mpg highway

Assembly:  West Point, Georgia

Dave Boe

Dave Boe, a lifetime Chicago area resident, worked at the Daily Herald, Illinois' third-largest daily newspaper, for 24 years. In 1989, the Daily Herald began a weekly Saturday Auto Section and he was shortly appointed editor. The product quickly grew into one of the largest weekend sections in the paper thanks to his locally-written auto reviews, the introduction of a local automotive question-and-answer column, a new colorful format and news happenings from Chicago area new-car dealerships.

Five years later, a second weekly auto section debuted on Mondays with Boe adding an industry insight column and introducing a "Love Affair with Your Car" column where readers sent in their own automotive memories for publication. During the next 10 years, the number of weekly auto sections Boe edited and coordinated grew to five and featured expanded NASCAR racing coverage, a dealer spotlight/profile feature and a Car Club Calendar where grass-roots automobile clubs could publish upcoming events for free. Boe also introduced more local automotive columnists into the pages of the sections, all of whom were seasoned members of the well respected Midwest Automotive Media Association. In 1997, Boe earned the Employee of the Year award from the Daily Herald.

Boe is a founding member and current president of the Midwest Automotive Media Association. He has degrees in Journalism and Business Administration from Northern Illinois University.