Yes, it is true: the Kia Optima is dead. But it’s not what you may think.
Despite the new name, the all-new 2021 K5, which brings North America in line with a global naming convention, occupies the same spot in the lineup as the Optima, with similar size and pricing. It’s even classified as a fifth-generation model, so a shared lineage remains intact.
The K5 is built on the new Hyundai Motor Group N3 platform that underpins other family vehicles such as the Hyundai Sonata, which means its powertrains are also shared. Its 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (180 hp / 195 lb-ft) and 2.5-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder (290 hp / 311 lb-ft) are paired with either an eight-speed automatic or eight-speed dual-clutch transmission that are found in other Hyundai / Kia / Genesis cars, Sonata included.
For now, the K5 is a gas-only car, but electrified models will likely show up eventually. The four Canadian grades are LX, EX, GT-Line and GT. The first three are powered by the 1.6 turbo paired with the eight-speed autobox, while the GT receives the 2.5 turbo mated to an eight-speed DCT. A differentiator worth noting between new and old regards drive layout. Unlike the Optima, which was only front-wheel drive, the bottom three K5 grades are all-wheel drive only, but the GT is strictly FWD.
Essentially, the K5 GT is FWD due to the presence of the Stinger in Kia’s lineup. Because the Stinger, which was just refreshed for 2022, comes standard with a 368-horsepower twin-turbo V6 and AWD in Canada for just over $50K, Kia wanted to further differentiate the K5 GT.
True, the K5 GT has more power (+45 hp / + 51 lb-ft) than the old Optima SX and it also has a new wet-clutch DCT, but I think the real reason for FWD is cost. I think Kia product planners wanted to keep the K5 GT under $40K and they’ve managed to do that (narrowly) in Canada.
Opting for AWD would have certainly pushed the MSRP past that threshold and put the K5 GT within shouting distance of the Stinger. The added weight of an AWD system would have hurt final fuel consumption numbers, too. So, FWD keeps the gap at about $10K and improves the K5 GT’s fuel efficiency. From those perspectives the move makes sense.
At any rate, on to the car itself. My test vehicle is finished in Pacific Blue with a Black Sofino synthetic leather interior. As one might expect, the K5 GT comes loaded with content. Included on its long list of standard kit are 19-inch wheels, heated and cooled front seats, heated steering wheel, 10.25-inch multimedia display, 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, heads-up display, Bose premium audio system and a lot more.
On the looks front, the K5 departs significantly from the Optima, as the photos make clear. While the basic silhouette is similar and the K5 is roughly the same size as its predecessor – slightly longer (+51 mm) with a lower roofline (– 23 mm) – its styling is more aggressive and high-tech than the old car.
Most striking to these eyes is the LED lighting signature. The angled and recessed headlights, which include dramatic ‘heartbeat’ shaped daytime running lights that double as amber turn signal indicators make the Optima look staid by comparison. It’s a similar story at the rear where LED ‘dashes’ run the width of the deck lid to give the K5 a more emotional appeal, particularly at night.
Other notable design elements include Kia’s modernized ‘tiger face’ grille with a shark skin-inspired mesh design, chrome trim that runs from the A-pillars and wraps around the base of the rear window, and chrome-tipped quad exhaust outlets integrated into a prominent rear diffuser.
The K5’s interior, at least as far as the GT is concerned, is dominated by large digital screens in the instrument cluster and the multimedia interface. Both offer pin-sharp resolution, a broad range of customization, and are feature-rich. I especially like how the gauge cluster appearance changes with the drive mode selector setting. Of note, the GT is the only grade for which both are standard kit. Other models receive smaller screens (4.2-inch instrument cluster, 8-inch multimedia), except for GT Line which also comes with the 10.25-incher. Embedded navigation is only offered with the bigger multimedia screen, but all grades come with standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Apart from the screens, the K5’s interior is fairly conventional. I don’t mean that as a slight, because I really do like many of the trim finishes and the aesthetic they create. The synthetic leather seating is comfortable, feels good to the touch and the red contrast stitching is a sharp finishing detail. Cheap, hard plastic is mostly in the margins, but it is present in the lower dash panel, door trims and centre console, which is somewhat disappointing for a $40K car.
Overall, I think there’s a lot to like here. The cabin is spacious, loads of content abound and it all looks fine, but nothing really stands out as particularly fresh or innovative. And it must be said that big digital screens are being jammed into a lot of new cars these days. While they look great and work fine in the K5, their deployment is starting to feel a bit rote at this point.
Okay, but how does it drive?
Quite well overall. While I can only imagine how a rear biased AWD system might improve handling, the set-up on offer here is solid. Again, as with all of my road tests, my impressions are drawn from driving on public roads. The K5 GT is one that I really would love to push hard on a closed course, but that will have to wait for another time.
What I can say is the 2.5-litre turbo offers plenty of pull from rest, especially in sport and sport plus modes, with the latter setting disabling the traction control. I detected some lag at times, but it’s nothing that modulating throttle application can’t fix. Put it this way, with 290 hp / 311 lb-ft resting under your right foot, quick getaways come easy. On that front, Kia says the GT has a 0-60 mph (97 km/h) time of 5.8 seconds.
Dial it into sport or sport plus, use the rev bump and re-mapped wet-clutch DCT to liven up the drive home either with or without paddle shifters, and it makes for an engaging experience for a car in the family sedan class. I did this a few times during my test and thought it to be quite engaging. The steering feels light and responsive and general handling is poised and sharp. But if that’s not your game, other modes (normal, smart, custom) are there for regular daily driving, with fuel saving gains to boot.
Overall, the K5 GT’s value for money proposition is high. The new name will take some getting used to, but it’s fitting given the high degree of change. The K5 certainly represents a new chapter, especially on the outside. A more ambitious interior design would be nice as would optional (or standard) AWD, but they are not deal breakers for me.
Big picture, I’m thankful sedans are still with us. Even though their numbers decline with each passing year, we are blessed that a car as compelling as the K5 GT is among those that remain.
The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.