About a week ago, I had a relatively long-haul drive to make: Washington, D.C. to Charlotte, North Carolina for the sake of racetrack seat time with Ford’s new Shelby GT500. A flight to Charlotte would have been faster, but I’m still uneasy about flying amid an unchecked pandemic. Besides, a six hour drive (at most) isn’t that bad to make in one day. I already had a 2021 Kia K5 EX on the books, and thankfully, the kind folks at Kia agreed to the extra highway mileage compared to a more standard loan. So, we loaded up the 2021 K5 and hit the highway.

What Is It?

This is a 2021 Kia K5 EX, Kia’s all-new fifth-generation of midsize sedan. Though other markets have known this car as “K5” since its first introduction in 2000, the United States has called this car the Kia Optima. Now, Kia has consolidated names and the car is a K5 anywhere you might buy it. For 2021, the K5-née-Optima is on an all-new platform and features new drivetrains, interior, and so on. Kia claims the K5 will “make you fall in love with driving again” and compares its handling to the current BMW 330i sedan.

My K5 EX came with Kia’s 1.6 liter “Smartstream” turbocharged four-cylinder. This 1.6 produces 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. As with the 2021 Kia Seltos I reviewed earlier this year, Kia leads with the torque figure in advertising – smart, given torque is what most people feel and what gets you off the line anyway. This Smartstream 1.6 is not only turbocharged, but features continuously-variable valve duration to help with performance and fuel economy while reducing emissions. Kia pairs this little four-cylinder to an eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.

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The K5 EX that I was sent included the Premium package, which added a 10.25″ touchscreen, Bose audio, and Kia’s full “Drivewise” suite of driver assistance technology. While some elements of Drivewise are available without the Premium package, the full suite adds forward collision warning for both junction turns and cyclists – great for city driving. The Premium package also adds Kia’s Highway Driving Assist, which can control the K5’s acceleration, braking and steering on highways. More on that in a minute.

The Sapphire Blue K5 EX Premium I drove carried an MSRP of $32,355. Buyers could save about $3,400 by passing on that Premium package, but those pulling a lot of highway miles should consider it for Highway Driving Assist alone.

Road-Tripping in the 2021 Kia K5

Kia claims the sportier K5 GT will out-handle a BMW 330i. By association, then, the “regular” K5 must handle pretty well, right? I truly have no idea, as my time with the K5 EX never saw much in the way of exciting steering wheel movement. In any case, road-tripping on some interstates was the perfect chance to sample the rest of the K5’s impressive list of features.

Though not very fast in straight-line acceleration, I found the 1.6 liter Smartstream four to be entirely adequate, hustling the K5 to highway speeds from a stoplight or down an on-ramp with ease. Around town, the laggy throttle tip-in was annoying and the transmission was eager to upshift, which exacerbated the engine’s gruff character at low RPM. But on the move, gears were given more leeway before upshifts and with a bit of revving, the 1.6 was just fine. Even traveling at Autobahn-esque speeds on I-85 (seriously, North Carolina, what is IN your sweet tea?), the Kia K5 produced highway fuel economy that hovered around 37 miles per gallon – exceptional for a car of this size.

Kia seemed to have taken a cue from old-school Mercedes-Benz when building the front seats in the K5. They’re firm yet supportive, something I didn’t mind but my passenger couldn’t stand. Both driver and passenger seat have adjustable lumbar and are heated and ventilated on the EX Premium. The heated steering wheel was also a nice touch for the cold mornings we faced. Visibility all around was pretty good, with a low dashboard and small “vent window”-esque pieces of glass in the front doors.

Perhaps the most oddly-disappointing part of the K5 EX as a road-tripper was the Bose audio system, included as part of that $3,400 Premium package. Some music was relatively well-represented in the K5, with fairly solid clarity and appropriate low-end punch. In other cases, though, the system came across as very flat and almost muddy in sound quality. Bose’s Centerpoint surround-sound processing didn’t help (or hurt) here, and the disparity was strange given the sound quality didn’t vary based on recording year or genre.

2021 Kia K5 EX rear

‘Look Ma, No Hands, Sort Of’ – Highway Driving Assist

Included in the 2021 Kia K5 EX Premium package is Kia’s penultimate form of their Drivewise driver assistance technology, called Highway Driving Assist (HDA). Highway Driving Assist uses information provided by the K5’s navigation system to determine if the car is on a highway, and can control the car’s acceleration, braking, and steering to reduce driver fatigue.

Though the system relies on the built-in navigation, directions don’t have to be set on the system if you prefer Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Merely knowing which road you’re on is enough for the K5. If you’re comfortable going the exact speed limit, HDA will maintain the car’s speed based on posted speed limit signs, changing as the signs change. Should you find yourself on I-85, where speed limits are made up and the points don’t matter, HDA will work at whatever speed you choose.

A lot of cars I sample have some form of radar-guided cruise control. Kia’s HDA isn’t very unique in how it operates if you set the road speed yourself. Where it stands apart, though, is in the lane centering abilities. The K5 stayed in the middle of my lane throughout the road trip, even guiding itself through sweeping curves. This is by far the best system I’ve sampled so far in terms of lane centering.

Yes, you have to keep at least one hand on the wheel. Kia doesn’t use any other form of driver monitoring to ensure you’re not staring at Tinder or Instagram while ignoring your surroundings at 80 miles per hour. Your phone should be in the nifty wireless charging slot, really. This is not “self-driving” and there are no self-driving cars on the market today, but Kia’s system is pretty damn good, especially at the K5’s price point.

And should you not want to enable any of this driver assistance tomfoolery, it’s easily disabled with a button or two on the well-laid-out set of steering wheel controls.

2021 Kia K5 EX Parker and Otis Durham

More Power, More Traction, or Take the K5 As-Is?

Kia’s got two more cards to play with the new K5 – all-wheel drive and a punchier engine. The all-wheel drive system can only be had on K5 LX-S and GT-Line – not the “fully loaded” EX. The K5 GT, coming this fall and not to be confused with the appearance-only GT-Line, will have a 2.0 liter turbo-four making 295 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. That power will be sent through a dual-clutch automatic but somehow only through the front wheels. I find it strange that the powerful K5 can’t be had with a way to spin all four wheels, but Kia’s undoubtedly run a bunch of modeling to estimate what will sell in various quantities and made some decisions as a result.

The 2021 K5 EX wasn’t without fault. Beyond the seats and sound system, the auto-opening trunk dumped an entire cup of poorly-placed coffee down the side of the car one early morning. That’s on me, though. In any case, there’s plenty to like about the K5. It’s a high-value offering with aggressive (yet clean) styling and some really impressive technology. There will be a more exciting K5 in the near future, and a more grippy K5 for those who feel all-wheel traction is required for dew-heavy mornings. And yet for most buyers, this K5 EX is be a competitive vehicle to cross-shop against rivals Camry and Accord.

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