2021 Kia K5 First Test Review: Base Engine Blues

Judging from its looks alone, you’d think the Kia K5 is the most athletic midsize sedan on the market. The chiseled creases across its low-slung hood, mesh grille, and thin LED daytime running lights give the front end of the K5 a sense of motion, while the rear stands out with sleek taillights connected by LED dashes. In some ways, it looks more like a sport sedan than the Kia Stinger.

The new look is part of a complete overhaul for Kia’s family sedan. New for 2021, the K5 replaces the much tamer-looking Optima, a middling competitor in the segment. Fresh new looks alone, however, won’t convince us the K5 is a better car—it also needs to improve upon the Optima’s mediocre driving dynamics.

We won’t hide our preference for the K5’s step-up engine offering, a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that pumps out 290 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque. When equipped with this mill, the K5’s athletic prowess matches its looks. This time, though, we tested the entry-level 1.6-liter turbo-four. It’s not nearly as potent, with 180 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque.

Power Move

The 1.6-liter has enough gumption for city and highway duty, and its acceleration feels plenty eager, although the tires’ lack of grip made quick starts difficult. The Kia’s 0-60-mph run trails several competitors in its class. In our tests, the K5 EX reached 60 mph in 7.8 seconds. That’s behind the base-engine Honda Accord (7.2 seconds), our long-term Hyundai Sonata (7.4 seconds), and the Toyota Camry SE (7.5 seconds). The Kia did beat the base-engine Subaru Legacy, which sauntered to 60 in 8.3 seconds.

This K5 isn’t quite as sporty as it looks, but acceleration isn’t the culprit. More so, it’s the K5’s dull steering, which brings to mind the large sedans of yesteryear. The Sonata, which features the same engine and is built on the same platform, feels lighter and nimbler. Our figure-eight tests confirmed this Kia isn’t the strongest competitor when it comes to handling. The K5 rounded the bends in 27.4 seconds at an average 0.62 g, matching the Camry’s time exactly. But its performance trailed the Sonata (26.6 seconds at 0.66 g), Accord (27.1 seconds at 0.63 g), and Legacy (27.1 seconds at 0.62 g).

Most drivers will be satisfied with the K5’s fuel economy. The base trim is the most efficient at 29/38 mpg city/highway, whereas estimates for the EX are 27/37 mpg. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the front-wheel K5 with the base engine can travel between 459 miles and 474 miles on a tank of gas depending on the trim.

Big on Comfort

Practical design reigns inside the cabin. Although the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry both have more rear legroom, the back seat of the Kia K5 feels plenty spacious, and the leatherette trim feels luxurious to the touch. Our K5 came with two handy rear USB ports in addition to the three up front. With 16.0 cubic feet of space, the trunk has plenty of room to fit groceries for the whole family. That’s the same amount of cargo space as the Hyundai Sonata and more than the Camry (15.1 cubic feet) if not quite as much as the Accord (16.7 cubic feet).

Tasteful faux wood trim, a chunky shifter, and a large central screen make a positive impression. Our tester had a 10.3-inch touchscreen, although an 8.0-inch unit comes standard. This large screen features sharp graphics and is pretty straightforward to use. Touch controls take the place of physical buttons with the exception of a volume knob. One hidden delight: The Sounds of Nature icon transports you to the forest or ocean, among other relaxing destinations with soothing soundtracks. Unfortunately, the K5 doesn’t offer a fully digital instrument cluster like its Sonata sibling.

A Safe Choice

Kia has you covered with a strong arsenal of safety features in the K5 EX. This includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keep assist, automatic high-beam headlights, and leading vehicle departure alert, which lets you know when the vehicle in front of you has started moving. Our test car also came with Kia’s competent Highway Driving Assist, which combines stop-and-go adaptive cruise control with lane centering tech to make it easier to drive in traffic. Boasting strong crash scores, the Kia K5 earned a 2021 Top Safety Pick+ award, the highest honor from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS).

Our EX test car came with plenty of features for its sub-$33,000 price tag: heated and ventilated seats, navigation, a wireless phone charger, and a panoramic sunroof in addition to the generous safety equipment. On a feature-per-dollar basis, the K5 offers good value. But when measuring value in terms of projected five-year ownership costs, it falls behind. Taking into account factors such as depreciation, insurance, repairs, and fees, our colleagues at IntelliChoice give the 2021 K5 a Poor overall value rating.

The base-engine Kia K5 doesn’t set many benchmarks in the crowded, competitive midsize sedan segment. Despite what its appearance may suggest, its primary strength isn’t performance but comfort, safety, and design. For the 2022 model year, the K5 adds key technologies such as a handy 360-degree-view camera, but this sedan still doesn’t make it to the top of our list.

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