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2021 Kia K5 EX Review

With a new name and a bold design, the Kia K5 sets out to disrupt the midsize sedan establishment once again.

The 2021 Kia K5 competes in the midsize sedan segment. Formerly known as the Optima in the North American market, the K5 adopts a name change and injects an already good-looking sedan with even more style and technology.


  • Toyota Camry
  • Honda Accord
  • Hyundai Sonata
  • Mazda Mazda6
  • Nissan Altima
  • Volkswagen Passat
  • Subaru Legacy

Disclosure: Kia provided a 2021 Kia K5 EX to evaluate for a week.

Quick specs:

  • Starting MSRP excluding destination: LX FWD $23,490, LXS FWD $24,490, GT-Line FWD $25,390, EX FWD $27,990
  • As tested price: $32,355
  • 1.6L 4 cyl turbocharged engine 180 horsepower/195 lb-ft torque
  • 8-speed automatic transmission
  • 235/45R18 all-season tires, 18” painted alloy wheels
  • 1st row/2nd row Headroom w/Sunroof (Inches): 38.4/37.4
  • 1st row/2nd row Legroom (Inches): 46.1/35.2
  • Cargo volume rear seats up (CU.FT.): 16.0
  • Fuel Tank (Gals): 14.8
  • Fuel Economy (City/Highway/Combined MPG): 27/37/31
  • NHTSA Overall Safety Rating: 5 Stars

While most auto manufacturers are focusing their efforts on pumping out more and more new or redesigned SUVs, Kia has still dedicated some of its time to redesigning their ever-popular midsize sedan. This is not to say that Kia has forgotten to make SUVs, because the Kia lineup is bristling with excellent SUVs of all sizes. You can read about our thoughts on the Telluride and Seltos, but we're focusing on Kia's newest product this time around. While the Stinger grabs most headlines with its aggressive-sounding name and gut-punching performance, the majority of Kia's sedans are quietly competent and represent sensible commuter vehicles.

The newest member of the Kia sedan family is the mid-sized K5, taking over the position formerly occupied by the Optima. Most American buyers won't be familiar with the K5 nameplate, but it's one that the Optima has worn in various international markets for close to a decade. In any case, the K5 competes in a hotly-contested segment with stalwarts such as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord - but there's a catch. With the exponential growth of crossovers and car-based SUVs in recent years, even dominant players like the Camry and Accord have been struggling with sales cannibalization from within their own respective lineups. In an attempt to give the K5 its biggest chance at success, Kia came out swinging in a field where many perfectly good competitors are fading into irrelevance.

For starters, the K5 stands out with its premium design that further refines the overall language that defined the Optima since 2010. With a long hood and sloping, short trunk, the K5 adopts many of the styling cues found on pricier automobiles and benefits from rear-drive proportions as a result. The new vehicle is wider, longer, and lower than its predecessor, which all add up to its standout appeal. Even the base LX cars come equipped with sharp-looking alloy wheels and LED headlights, making sure that all K5 buyers are rewarded with a great-looking car. Take the badges off the car and you might be able to fool some luxury car owners; the same can't be said for the Camry or Accord. Not that we had complaints about the way the previous Optimas looked, but the K5 is a design knockout from any angle.

The K5 boasts a number of mechanical refinements as well. None of the previous engines carry over; instead, the K5 is equipped exclusively with turbocharged variants of the company's new Smartstream engine family (shared with corporate sibling Hyundai) that represent a clean-sheet design. The standard engine for every K5 (except for the not-yet-available GT - more on that in a bit) is a 1.6L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that produces a competitive 180 horsepower and - more importantly - 195 lb-ft of torque from a low 1,500 RPM. Kia once again bucks the trend by mating this engine to an 8-speed automatic transmission, as opposed to equipping it with a CVT that's becoming increasingly commonplace in this category. This particular combination is downright invisible in everyday driving, with the 8-speed transmission always finding the right gear while the engine produces effortless torque without drawing attention to itself. Even under spirited driving, the transmission shifts deftly and makes the most of the engine's output. More power is almost always welcome, but the K5 never feels wanting for horsepower. AWD is available with the LXS and GT-Line trim levels; the LX and EX (as tested) are available exclusively with front-wheel drive.

As satisfying as the base engine is, Kia recognizes that some buyers will always demand more performance. The K5 GT was developed in response, and the on-sale date is scheduled for the very end of 2020. The GT trim replaces the former Optima SX Turbo, and the enhancements consist of much more than a simple cosmetic package. A 2.5L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine replaces the standard 1.6L mill, and the larger engine produces a stout 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque; the latter from just 1,650 RPM. An 8-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission replaces the 8-speed torque converter automatic unit, with correspondingly faster shift times and quicker reactions all-around. The GT will be available with front-wheel drive only, and AWD is not in the cards. While we haven't driven this particular model yet, the specs alone show that it will be more than competitive with the Camry V6 and the Accord 2.0T.

Looking past the styling and spec sheet, the K5 continues to impress. Once again, Kia proves they genuinely know what real value looks like. As is the trend with modern vehicles, the K5 comes with a long list of standard driver assist features like forward collision avoidance with pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, lane keep and follow assist, and a backup camera that incorporates rear-cross traffic avoidance. Blind spot monitoring is standard in all but the base LX trim. Our EX-level tester adds rear parking sensors to the standard equipment list, but selecting the K5 GT-Line or higher opens up a "Premium Package" that includes even more active safety features to the already generous list. The forward collision avoidance is upgraded to a smarter system that detects cyclists whether travelling forward or turning at an intersection, avoiding the dreaded "right hook" hit that happens way too frequently in city centers. The Premium Package also nets adaptive cruise control with stop and go functionality in the GT-Line model. The EX Premium Package ups the ante with Kia's full highway driving assist that can accelerate, brake, and keep the car centered in the lane with minimal driver input. It also includes a parking collision avoidance system that can automatically jam the brakes on if a collision is imminent, preventing further inconvenience, repair bills, or headache-inducing insurance claims.

The interior of the K5 EX is a pleasant space all around - no excuses required. The exterior design writes checks that the interior is more than capable of cashing, and then some. The front seats wouldn't look out of place in an Audi or BMW; they're trimmed in leatherette, not that anyone would guess otherwise. The K5 EX includes a power driver seat with lumbar support as standard equipment, and both front seats enjoy a 3-stage heat and ventilation function without checking any additional option boxes. Every K5 also comes equipped with dual-zone automatic climate control, though only the top-spec EX and GT models get rear air vents. A bright panoramic sunroof is also a part of the EX trim level; unlike certain cars, the K5 includes a power shade that can reduce the amount of sun glare coming in from above. The center stack is canted towards the driver and is topped by a standard 8.0-inch touch screen in all K5s; a 10.25-inch unit with embedded navigation is optional in the GT-Line and above. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay is standard across the board, in case you prefer your phone's interface over Kia's otherwise excellent system.

Our K5 EX tester was equipped with the sole option package available on this trim level - the aforementioned EX Premium Package that takes an already well-equipped car into near-luxury territory. In addition to the extras mentioned above, the EX Premium Package bestowed our tester with niceties such as a Bose 12-speaker audio system, 10-way power adjustable front seats with driver memory, a heated steering wheel, and LED exterior lighting with mirror-mounted turn signal repeaters. With an MSRP of $32,355, the K5 EX Premium has all the technology and luxury features you could ask for at an amazingly affordable price.

Kia's efforts extend beyond the spec and equipment sheets, and the K5 proves to be a solid commuting companion thanks to its excellent road manners and predictable handling. Both the GT-Line and the EX receive 18-inch wheels with Pirelli P-Zero All-Season tires, though the designs are different between the two. The LX and LXS models come with 16-inch alloy wheels with narrower rubber, while the upcoming K5 GT gets 19-inch wheels to support its performance-oriented mission. The wider (compared to the base trims) Pirelli tires undoubtedly contribute to enhanced level of grip and satisfyingly direct response, but it comes at the cost of a harsher ride than an equivalent Camry or Accord. It's not unpleasant by any means, but it's noticeably stiffer than what you might expect from an everyday commuter car. That said, the K5 LX/LXS should deliver a cushier ride thanks to its 16-inch wheels with more rubber to cushion the impacts from less-than-perfect roads.

Ride quality aside, the K5 makes a compelling case in day-to-day driving - especially when it comes to traffic-packed commutes. As traffic volume slowly returns to normal during the ongoing pandemic, Kia's expertise in smart cruise functionality shines through. The K5 manages to center itself in the middle of the lane while its direct competitors tend to wander between the markings, and is able to maintain its set following distance without panic-inducing brake applications or exhibiting the "rubber band" effect in unpredictable conditions. Even when other less-than-polite drivers abruptly cut in front, the K5 gently puts on the brakes in the same manner as an experienced commuter would. Even stop-and-go transitions are handled without drama - the K5 smoothly brings itself to a halt when traffic stops, and will roll forward once the car in front starts moving. This is one case where other manufacturers could stand to learn a thing or two from Kia's execution.

Despite losing market share to the unstoppable popularity of crossovers and SUVs, the Kia K5 is an attention-grabbing attempt at drawing consumers' eyes that would otherwise focus on the company's taller-roofed offerings. The only notable drawback is its borderline jarring ride quality for the class, but even that's not enough to keep it from earning our recommendation. Between its swoopy, dramatic exterior lines, generous heapings of convenience and assistance technologies, and an upscale, high-quality interior with outstanding ergonomics, the K5 is a Bestcovery top pick in the midsize sedan segment. It remains puzzling to us why Kia decided to throw out the well-known Optima moniker in favor of the altogether more generic-sounding "K5" badge, but the newest generation furthers the attribues that put the Optima on the map and will undoubtedly give competitors pause. One way or another, it's a win-win for anyone shopping for a new midsize sedan.

Bestcovery Staff
Our research team searches out the best of everything so that you can confidently pick the perfect products and services for your needs.
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