Name games dilute a fine follow-up act

The sedan formerly known as the Kia Optima gets a new look this year, but the change hardly stops at the body. It gets a new name too. 

The question we still have, after hundreds of miles spent in it—is the mid-size 2021 Kia K5 different enough to earn the new K5 badge?

The Optima and K5 have as much or more in common than just about any other pair of generation-changing cars. They differ mainly at the margins. The Optima tapped 4-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions for performance, while the K5 goes turbo-only and offers all-wheel drive to boot. The Optima seated up to five people, same for the K5 with a bit more rear-seat room. The Optima came with hybrid and plug-in hybrid options; so far, the K5’s turbo-4 only. If the name has you puzzled, well…same.

 

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

 

Whether it’s a base LX or LXS, one of the duo I drove (GT-Line and EX), or the coming high-output GT, the 2021 Kia K5 gets it, from a styling perspective. Call it tense and sharp, or even predatorial—the K5’s new front end rakes ahead with a hawklike stare blunted by an electric-razor grille and charged by lightning-bolt LED signature lights. It flows into a chrome strip that sails down its exaggerated roofline, where it still echoes the Optima, and ends in a strip of taillights that wouldn’t look out of place on a Charger. Choose a GT-Line with blacked-out trim and wheels, flat gray paint, and you’ll look for a Dodge badge.

That impression cuts short inside where the red synthetic leather insets in GT-Line cars pair with some hard plastic door panels. I gravitated immediately toward the GT-Line’s exterior, but the K5 EX won me over in less than a minute with its more substantial finishes, like woodgrain trim and thin fillets of chrome. It’s a business-class look on a budget of about $30,000—like a well-tailored off-the-rack suit.

With identical drivetrains and only slightly different tuning, the K5 GT-Line and EX I drove could hardly be distinguished from each other. That’s not to say they’re undistinguished: The K5’s big departure from the Optima comes in its road manners. A sturdy new structure, a standard 8-speed automatic with faultless timing, and a base 1.6-liter turbo-4 with 180 horsepower tack with a performance wind. No more naturally aspirated sighs as it gradually builds to speed; the turbo-4’s eager throttle pulls the K5 to highway limits easily. 

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

2021 Kia K5

Kia’s refined the ride in the K5, and while it’s better than that of the Optima I last drove, it’s not as utterly composed as a Subaru Legacy at low speeds. The K5 comes into its own in the mid-range, where the combination of 18-inch wheels and independent suspension filter off the low-speed bumps and thumps that could be damped better, to amplify its luxury tilt. The steering’s something of a one-note affair, without much feeling at any angle of input but with much reaction, like a high-school band’s cymbalist. 

The K5’s cabin specs out with more space, but some specs gain more than others. The front seats on both cars I drove had the thick bolsters and firm cushions inspired by the German cars of another era. Just don’t tick the cooled-seats option: It makes the seat bottoms hard and less comfortable for long trips. I fit easily into the rear seat without complaint, and all my cargo found a home in the trunk’s 16.0-cubic-foot space.

Family four-doors are so well-done as a class, they can fog the brains of new-car shoppers. The K5 may not have the low-set stance of the Honda Accord, or the sky-high mileage of a Toyota Camry Hybrid—but in features, it obliterates those rivals. Every 2021 K5 gets automatic emergency braking, 5 years or 60,000 miles of warranty coverage, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. We wouldn’t spend much more, but Kia sells a wider touchscreen, premium audio, a panoramic roof, and adaptive cruise control.

We give the 2021 Kia K5 a TCC Rating of 7.2 out of 10. (Read more about how we rate cars.) Our pick: the EX, with its fancy cockpit and no-excuses features. No matter which model you choose, there’s a lot gone right with the 2021 Kia K5, and very little gone wrong.

On that note, one of the few things gone wrong is the name. It’s a mistake. This would have been a perfectly fine successor to the last Optima—and alphanumeric names seem cold and aloof, while “Optima” bristles with the hope sorely lacking at this moment. 

The K5 bristles with personality, too. It deserves a name that has one.

Kia delivered a pair of K5s to my driveway so that I could bring you this story.

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