“What is in a name?” asked Shakespeare. When it comes to an automotive nameplate, the answer is: a lot. Manufacturers invest tidy fortunes to build up recognition for a brand or model, and don’t walk away from a good one without a very good reason.
So, we were surprised when word leaked out that the automaker’s time-tested Optima badge was going to be dropped in favor of the K5 nomenclature. True, it’s a name used in a variety of markets – and hints that the replacement for the little Forte may eventually be redubbed the K3 – but Kia had to have good reason to want to effectively start all over again the costly process of building awareness for the newly renamed midsize sedan.
Overview: In this era of SUVs, some manufacturers have decided to walk away from the sedan segment. That’s just fine, at least as far as Korea’s smaller mainstream brand is concerned. If anything, it is intent on capturing a growing share of a shrinking but still huge market. And the new 2021 Kia K5 would seem to be precisely the car to pull it off.
The midsize model builds on what was already an attractively styled Optima, while adding plenty of new features – including, for the first time, all-wheel-drive – and enhancing the familiar Kia value equation. Equally significant, the K5 moves a big step forward when it comes to ride and handling, a traditional weakness for the brand.
Exterior: Kia fans won’t be shocked by the looks of the new K5 which, if anything, builds on the best of the brand’s styling details. Up front, for example, there’s now a broader, lower-profile take on the familiar “tiger nose” grille that enhances the car’s perceived width and gives it a more solid and planted feel. The look is enhanced by the new, slit-like, multi-element headlamps and Z-shaped running lights framing the grille.
… The overall look clearly borrows from the striking Kia Stinger, with a steeply raked windshield flowing into a coupe-like roofline …
Subtle details provide a more upscale appearance than the price tag might suggest, including the curvaceous accent line that follows the doors, carrying through to the rear decklid. The look is completed by a well-appointed cross-bar taillight set up.
Kia dropped off two different trim levels of the 2021 K5 for us to drive: the GT and more mainstream EX. Each features a handful of distinctive detailing, such as the GT’s more sporty grille and faux front air intakes.
Interior: As with the exterior, there are some notable differences, depending upon trim levels. The GT, for example, gets a unique, flat-bottomed steering wheel. Our tester complemented the piano black dominating the instrument panel with a textured gray finish where our EX opted for faux wood trim.
With both, however, the Kia K5 is clearly an upgrade from the outgoing Optima. Both testers had the upgraded 10.3-inch touchscreen display available for 2021. The base screen measures 8 inches.
Despite the sweeping roofline, there is plenty of headroom, both front and back, and the seating is more than comfortable enough for extended driving. Meanwhile, dual-zone climate controls enhance the driving experience for driver and passenger.
Powertrain: Kia cut back with K5. Where there were three options with the old Optima, the new sedan starts with an updated version of the outgoing model’s 1.6-liter turbo-four. It now makes 180 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque and is paired with a new eight speed automatic normally driving the front wheels. But there’s also a new all-wheel-drive system that clearly is meant to keep buyers in cold weather climes from migrating to SUVs and CUVs.
The 2021 Kia K5 GT will feature the most significant upgrade on the powertrain front. Where the old Optima offered a turbo-2.0-liter package making 245 hp and 260 lb-ft, the GT gets an exclusive 2.5-liter turbo-four bumping the numbers to 290 and 311, respectively.
Technology and Safety: One of the odder moves with the new K5 was not the use of two different-sized touchscreens but the fact that only the 8-inch display makes use of the new, wireless versions of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
… Bring a cable if you have the larger display – though its size alone is a plus and it does get the next-generation version of UVO, Kia’s connected car system …
Meanwhile, there are plenty of USB ports scattered around the vehicle. Qi wireless charging is available on some trim levels, standard on the EX line.
On the safety front, the K5 offers a reasonable level of standard equipment, depending on trim level. That starts with forward collision warning with automated emergency braking and lane keeping assist, though blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alert are optional on the base LX trim.
There are a number of intriguing options, such as adaptive cruise control with lane tracing. Oddly, the GT is the only model offered with stop-and-go capabilities added to its adaptive cruise. That system also will adjust speed as you enter a corner based on data from the navigation system.
Like so many automakers, Kia is moving towards an autonomous future, and its optional system does a reasonably good job of maintaining both speed and lane position without bouncing back and forth off the white lines. It is certainly not a hands-free technology but compares well to what some other carmakers have come up with.
Drive Impressions: There’s no question the 2021 Kia K5 is a big improvement over the old Optima. The car’s upgraded suspension largely soaks up the bumps and yet holds reasonably flat in corners. That stable ride is all the more noticeable with the GT model which also has the advantage of the new 2.5-liter engine.
If we have any single complaint about the K5, however, it’s steering. The system is itself an improvement over the Optima, reasonably precise with a good on-center feel. But it is significantly over-boosted. That might be acceptable to EX-trim customers, but it is downright disappointing on the K5 GT. We really want less boost and more road feel. It is by no means a deal-breaker but it should be much more like the sporty Stinger than what Kia came up with.
Wrap Up: With a base price of $24,455 – including delivery fees – the 2021 Kia K5 is, on the whole, an impressive successor to the old Optima. It offers lots of features and, even with a fully loaded EX or GT, with the price tag pushing above $30,000, you get a great deal for the money.
The new AWD system should appeal to buyers who prefer sedan styling to a boxy SUV, and the GT offers good power with its bigger engine.
We wish the new K5 offered a bit more of a dynamic driving experience, its over-boosted steering the car’s single big flaw. But, on the whole, we think the new offering will find a ready place in the sedan segment.