1. home
  2. news
  3. The 2021 Kia K5 is One of the Sharpest Four-Doors Under $30,000

The 2021 Kia K5 is One of the Sharpest Four-Doors Under $30,000

Our first test drive of the new K5 shows it has the goods, inside and out.

Conner GoldenwriterBrandon LimPhotographer

It has happened again, people! Big Car is coming for your car names! For 2021, Kia redesigned its midsized sedan both in physical and nomenclatural terms; what was once the Optima is now known as the K5, another dagger in the side of vehicular onomastics. How could this happen? Now, when we are stuck in traffic staring at the keister of Kia's finest, instead of summoning up mental images of an office laserjet printer or Gundam mecha, we're bombarded with mental imagery of a lifted, muddy Chevy Blazer or the organizational sequence of the early portions of the American educational system.

2021 Kia K5: What's in a Name?

Or, it reminds us automotive anoraks of the K5's South Korean roots; since the third generation in 2010, Optimas sold on its home turf have worn the K5 badge. Kia hasn't said why the Optima badge was nixed in the States, but my hunch is market research and focus groups revealed there's still a bit of schmutz attached to the Optima name left from the first two generations of less-than-stellar product. There's a good chance I'm projecting here, but I can't think of any other reason for a company to give up name recognition and brand equity, unless said recognition is less than ideal, especially as sedans continue to take a beating from crossovers and SUVs.

It's a shame if that baseless assumption holds any truth, considering the prior two generations of Kia's midsize sedan were great cars for their time, regardless of name. Unsurprisingly, the all-new K5 follows in the tracks of both the Optima and the recently reworked (and related) Hyundai Sonata, the N3 platform delivering impressively good looks and smart packaging across the board.

2021 Kia K5: What a Looker!

Kia's been on a bit of a stylistic roll as of late, and the K5 stands out as not only as one of the best-looking cars of the segment, but one of the shapeliest four-doors available under $50,000. Much like the redesigned Sonata, the K5 sports a tapered fastback-esque rear end evocative of something much more expensive and performance-oriented. Elsewhere, portions of the front fascia and rear profile are cribbed from the larger and more aggressive Stinger, giving even the basest-of-base K5s (in this case, the LX trim) inherent style not found on bottom-rung Accords or Camrys. Tape over the badging and park every midsize sedan sold in the U.S. side-by-side, and I reckon the K5 would garner the most attention.

Inside, it's more good news. As Kia is positioned to be the sporty alter ego of Hyundai, it's best to think of the K5's cabin as based on the cockpit found in the new Sonatas, only given a year-long membership at Soul Cycle and a hefty gift card to Nike and Lululemon. The Sonata's distinctive quad-spoked steering wheel is replaced with a more traditional and a bit more aggressive three-spoke design, while an aircraft-inspired T-handle shifter for the automatic transmission is pulled straight from the lower-rent trims of the Stinger. Lesser K5 variants receive a standard eight-inch touchscreen, but the available 10.25-inch touchscreen appears as an extension of the gauge cluster and floats toward the driver and slightly away from the dash. Very chic.

2021 Kia K5: As Nice Inside as It Is Outside

It's genuinely a nice place to spend a few hours, even if you don't spring for the loaded EX models with niceties like leather and the aforementioned screen. It's clear Kia positions the K5 as an entry point into a more upscale driving experience, even without offering a heap of extra equipment or premium materials when compared to segment leaders like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The top-level of the K5 lineup—the EX—does its best impression of a Genesis, albeit with a few hard-plastic holdouts and faux wood trim that is pleasant but can cheapen the experience for a certain subset of buyers. Aside from the sleek design and packaging, there are plenty of toys to mess around with if you work the options list, including a trick wireless phone charging slot in front of the center console armrest that incorporates a cooling vent to help remove the heat generated by inductive power transfer.

As is fast becoming a priority in non-premium segments, the K5 incorporates a suite of standard active safety and driver assist systems, along with an extensive reserve of optionally available systems as well. Forward collision warning and avoidance are standard, as is driver attention warning and lane keep assist, but you'll have to pay extra for advanced systems like blind spot collision avoidance, rear-traffic collision, navigation-based cruise control, highway driving assist, and parking collision avoidance.

2021 Kia K5: Engines, AWD, and More

This premium-esque attitude extends to the driving experience as well. Along with the switch to the K5 name, Kia consolidated the Optima's tri-level powertrain hierarchy down to just two engine options, a change we'd normally be a bit ruffled about if the standard 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder weren't as good as it is. The smallish turbo four's 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque are channeled into Hyundai/Kia's new eight-speed automatic transmission, with power routed, for now, to just the front wheels.

An all-wheel drive K5 variant is coming later this year, as is a hotter K5 GT for those missing the prior Optima SX Turbo. Likely mechanically similar to the announced Sonata N-Line, the GT promises to be more than just a big-engine package, though the 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder is one of the GT's greatest selling points, offering a hearty 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque and a dual-clutch automatic transmission that sources at least some of its componentry from the new DCT found in the Veloster N. Elsewhere, expect upgrades to the suspension, brakes, tires, interior, and exterior.

The only option until the K5 GT arrives is the 1.6-liter turbo, but it's more than punchy enough for anything you might encounter during your daily slog, unless you happen to live trackside at the Nürburgring. Dynamically, the K5 isn't as thrilling to drive as that raked rear end and furrowed face might suggest, but let's be honest—neither are the similarly sleek Volkswagen Arteon or BMW 430i Gran Coupe, and those cost a whole lot more. Around the eternally craggy and broken network of roads crisscrossing Los Angeles, the K5 dampens potholes and shakes off expansion joints admirably. It's quiet, shifts are handled smoothly and reasonably quickly, and steering is devoid of any feel whatsoever, but this likely makes no difference to the K5's target audience.

2021 Kia K5: Better Than It Needs to Be

Furthermore, if for some strange reason you decide to thrash the K5 on some viciously curvy mountain roads—as I did—the K5 holds up remarkably well for its intended purpose. I'm not about to break into a soliloquy on how amazingly the K5 takes to canyon carving because again, this is absolutely not what the car was designed to do, but on that once-a-year trip to your uncle's mountain cabin, the route through the switchbacks will be all the more pleasant. Just don't push it too hard—these brakes are made for traffic, not Angeles Crest.

I'm not so sure it has the gumption to take the class throne from the excellent Accord, nor the built-in brand equity to upset the Camry's ultra-star sales status, but for the hundred-thousand-plus customers who do pick up a K5 each year, the 2021 Kia K5 should far exceed the expectations set by the Optimas that came before.

2021 Kia K5 Quick Read

  • One of the best looking four-doors under $50,000
  • Looks just as great inside
  • New name, same direction
  • If you like the Sonata, you'll like the K5
  • Want more speed? Wait for the K5 GT
 2021 Kia K5 Specifications
ON SALE Fall 2020
PRICE $24,455 (base)/$30,055 (as tested)
ENGINE 1.6L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4/180 hp @ 5,500 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE  29/39 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 193.1 x 73.2 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 112.2 in
WEIGHT 3,115 lb
0-60 MPH 8.2 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph (est)