2021 Kia K5 GT Review: My Kingdom for Some Horsepower

Kia’s 2021 K5 is a sharp sedan that stands out in a competitive segment. It’s comfortable, well-equipped, and offers excellent driver assistance technology. I should know – I took one from Washington, D.C. to Charlotte, North Carolina and back last October. My biggest wish while driving the 2021 K5 EX was for more power. Most K5s come with Kia’s 1.6 liter turbo four, which sips fuel but isn’t exactly hair-raising. Thankfully, Kia’s got an answer for us enthusiasts in the form of the 2021 Kia K5 GT.

Kia compares the K5 GT to a BMW 330i in both acceleration and handling. Naturally, I asked to sample this hot-rod Kia to see if those claims really held much water.

2021 Kia K5 GT

What Is It?

This is a 2021 Kia K5 GT. It’s the fastest variant in the K5 lineup, and sits as the “approachable” sport sedan offering from Kia, with the rear-drive Stinger still the brand’s top-dog enthusiast offering. The K5 GT takes everything I enjoyed about the K5 EX, and swaps out the 1.6 and torque-converter automatic for a punchier 2.5 liter engine paired to a dual-clutch transmission. This 2.5 turbo four puts out 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 110 and 116 over the 1.6-powered K5s.

Adding to the fun, Kia also upsizes the brake rotors by 1.6″ on both axles, for a 13.6″ rotor in the front and 12.8″ out back. Calipers are marked “GT” but don’t appear to be any larger. Fixed-rate sport suspension, quad-tip exhaust, and unique 19″ wheels round out the performance touches. Kia also throws in unique front seats and a flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters to control the DCT.

2021 Kia K5 GT interior

Though the K5 GT’s upgrades introduce a 300 pound weight penalty over the K5 EX, the 3,534 pound sedan can still convert all the power and torque into good forward motion. Sixty miles per hour is achieved in 5.8 seconds, and the quarter mile comes in 14.3 seconds. And it does all of this on 87 octane gasoline.

MSRP of my Sapphire Blue 2021 Kia K5 GT was $35,705.

More Power is More Better… Right?

My commentary on the 1.6-powered K5 EX last fall indicated it produced “adequate” acceleration and was gruff at low RPM. The 2.5 in the K5 GT is worlds better, with linear power delivery all the way to redline and totally-fast-enough acceleration. The 2021 Kia K5 GT never feels lacking in the power department, even with four adults onboard. The 311 lb-ft of torque comes in low, around 1,600 rpm, and the torque band is fairly fat.

Even in relaxed driving, the K5 GT is deceptively quick. Around town, the DCT is unobtrusive and does very well in city driving – something many dual-clutch transmissions struggle with. Kia is using an in-house transmission design, shared with parent-company Hyundai’s Veloster N and Sonata N-Line, which uses wet clutches bathed in transmission fluid for better torque-holding and durability.

2021 Kia K5 GT engine

Of course, my favorite moments with the K5 GT came when I slid the shifter to the left, twisted the drive mode dial to Sport+ (traction control be damned) and really stood on the throttle. Here, the K5 GT comes alive, the 2.5 eager to rev and making decent noises while doing so. The DCT listens to your paddle-shifted inputs and responds quickly.

I found the non-adjustable suspension to be both mild enough for comfortable highway travel yet adequately damped for back-roads. Corner entry and exit were both just fine, though any power application mid-corner or on exit required attention, lest you induce some understeer. Braking was confidence-inspiring thanks to the upsized rotors.

Granted, all of this comes with a caveat. The K5 GT is fun enough if you can put the power down in the first place.

2021 Kia K5 GT

“Never Skimp on What’s Between You and the Ground”

Someone gave me that advice when I was fresh out of college and new to the notion of both having a salary and spending it on things. Spending good money on what separates you from the ground is sage wisdom, and applies to things like shoes and mattresses. It also applies to the four itty-bitty patches of rubber that take your inputs and translate them to action on a car – your tires.

Kia equips the K5 GT with a set of Pirelli P-Zero tires, which they mention as a performance benefit of the GT. It’s strange, really, as the P-Zero is a 500-treadwear all-season tire that doesn’t impress when pushed. The 2021 Kia K5 GT solves for the “power” equation but doesn’t do enough with traction to be genuinely fun. Between the open differential, front-wheel drive and all-season tires, the K5 GT can’t quite pull it off, laying some epic one-wheel peels away from stoplights and getting all sorts of confused if you unload the inside front tire through a sweeping corner.

Most surprising is Kia’s decision to only offer all-wheel drive on the lower-powered LXS and GT-Line trims. It’d be hugely beneficial here, assuming a real limited-slip differential was too costly.

2021 Kia K5 GT

The saving grace, of course, is software. Left in Normal or Sport drive modes, the K5 GT’s traction control generally keeps up and puts power down, though windows-down driving reveals the front tires lightly scrabbling for grip as computers rein them in. A delicate right foot is required in the rain. Even with traction control enabled, I had the party shut down entirely several times on my back-road testing, with power cut nearly fully until the car could catch up with my inputs. Through all of this, torque steer was somehow minimal.

What’s most interesting is that my opinions of the K5 GT’s handling prowess aren’t shared by my colleague Tyler. Tyler recently tested the 2021 Kia K5 GT’s sibling, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line, and couldn’t stop gushing about how well it handled and put power down. We spent some time discussing the two sedans to understand why we’d had such different experiences.

As it turns out, where Kia equips the K5 GT with long-life Pirelli all-seasons, Hyundai uses a 240-treadwear Continental summer tire. Otherwise, the two cars are mechanically identical. Should your mildly-spicy sedan preferences lead you to the K5 GT, budget for some better rubber.

2021 Kia K5 GT

Final Thoughts

The K5 GT takes my biggest complaint – if you can even call it that – about the lower-trim K5 models and fixes it. Power-hungry enthusiasts will be more than satisfied with how quick the K5 GT feels in daily driving compared to the 1.6T models, and how well the engine and transmission work together.

Most of the 2021 Kia K5 GT is really well-done, and it tries to please the driver so much, only to be let down by a lack of grip. I see what Tyler was on about with the Sonata N-Line in theory, but in practice, it doesn’t pan out with the twin sibling K5 GT as-delivered by Kia. Thankfully, replacement rubber is easy to source. With a bit more grip up front, the K5 GT would absolutely be a well-equipped sedan worthy of the “sport” moniker.

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