The 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD: A Sweet Little Sedan

kia logo new 2021I’ve been driving a number of different Kia vehicles this year, and each is an impressive entrant in its category. There’s no question, Kia Motors has quickly evolved to be a somewhat underrated A-list player. I suspect that most car buyers still think of the brand as being a step down in performance and luxury when compared to the premium manufacturers, but that’s no longer accurate. Get behind the wheel of a Kia and your opinion will quickly change, as was reinforced for me when I spent a week driving the fun, zippy, and scarce 2021 Kia Sorento X-Line a few weeks ago. When I had the chance to try the rebranded and redesigned 2021 Kia K5 GT-Line AWD sedan (formerly known as the Kia Optima, if you’re keeping track, though it’s also been sold overseas as the Magentis and the Lotze too), I quickly agreed, curious to experience the evolution of this popular vehicle.

My personal car is a Mazda CX-5 which, I admit, has biased me towards SUVs and their compact CUV brethren, but sedans are really a classic car design, though far, far behind SUVs in overall sales. In the USA, 45% of vehicles sold in 2021 have been “crossovers”, 18% pickup trucks,  12% small cars, 10% midsize cars, 9% larger SUVs, 5% luxury cars, and 5% vans, large cars, and others. Crossovers include the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, and Kia Sportage. In the EU, 41% of the cars sold (in 2020) were SUVs and crossovers, 19% subcompacts, 18% compact, 7% “city mini” vehicles, and so on.

Anyway, it’s always a nice experience to slip into a sedan, the style of car my parents drove throughout their lives and that I have owned for about half of my driving life. For my folks, no SUVs, no trucks, no vans. Ah, the good old days. 🙂

2021 KIA K5 GT-LINE AWD EXTERIOR LINES AND APPEARANCE

But let’s get to the Kia, shall we? Here’s the K5, in its sleek Wolf Gray exterior paint:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - exterior front

That’s a fine-looking automobile, no question, and I was stopped a couple of times by people asking about it and especially its sticker price, which consistently surprised them. I’ll talk more about price in a bit, but for now, I’ll just say that the base MSRP for this model is under $30K.

In terms of design, the lighting designer definitely deserves a shout-out; that’s one really cool zag of yellow running lights on the front, giving the entire car sporty and aggressive appearance.

Swinging around to the back it’s still sporty, but not quite as dramatic, other than the low exhaust pipes and air scoops:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - exterior rear

The loaner car was well-appointed. The side mirrors swung in when the car was turned off and swung back out when the driver was nearby, thanks to the magic of an RFID sensor in the keyfob. Speaking of which, the Kia sports a cool key fob too:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - key fob

What I appreciated about this design was that it’s easy to identify and push the lock button – or unlock button – sight unseen, as your hand orients on the unit immediately. Surprising how many key fobs don’t have that benefit but instead are just a little box with a bunch of undifferentiated buttons on one of the wide edges. Boring, really.

Here’s another angle on the sleek front design:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - front exterior 2

Notice that there’s no front license plate, but there was a place to affix it centered on the lower black grill. Car designers would definitely appreciate it if front license plates weren’t necessary (as would many car aficionados), but sometimes we just gotta deal with the law and get on with things, right?

The interior color of the K5 was really striking, the GT-Line Red Interior Package. It’s made out of what Kia calls “SynTex Seating Material”, but it definitely felt like plush leather. Definitely added a luxurious feel to the interior of the K5.

If I switch to showing the legroom for the back seat, you can see more of this seat material and sporty black and red color scheme:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - rear legroom

Legroom itself was pretty average; adults could manage it, but only if the driver and front passenger’s seats were at least partway forward from the backmost spot. Otherwise, it’s plenty for youngsters, but for people with adult-sized lower torsos, it might be a bit scrunched.

I’m used to a hatch on my SUV, but I really appreciate the greater security of a trunk. Once closed, no one can see what’s stored within short of prying it open, which means it’s a lot safer for computers and other expensive gear than the back of most other vehicles. The Kia K5 was no slouch in its back storage space either:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - trunk

It’s hard to see, but notice that you can fold down the back seats and create a hole in the trunk for longer items, though it’s only about 70% of the back wall. That flexibility can be useful for the occasional longer item, but it’s not going to be storing your cross-country skis or 10′ lumber from the hardware store. Then again, how often do you need to transport items like that, and if you do, there’s always an optional Kia roof rack for the K5…

2021 KIA K5 GT-LINE AWD INTERIOR DESIGN

Moving inside the car, here’s the main dash layout:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - main dash layout driver

Nothing exceptional, but an entirely functional layout with a full-size gear shift and sleek (tiny) paddle shifters for the 0.01% who might use them at some point in their driving adventures. Notice the non-circular shape of the steering wheel too. The flat bottom seems very “sportscar” to me, and I liked that it was even easier to feel the straight-ahead position when steering in the mountains or going through a parking lot.

The main gauge display, was also mostly a utilitarian design, entirely functional but without much verve:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - main gauge

The 3D bar graph of fuel efficiency was pretty cool, but from a design perspective, I kept asking “why is this 3D? What’s the third axis showing me?”. The answer is “chill out, dude, it just looks more cool, ok?”

You’ll also notice the reasonable fuel efficiency. A smaller sedan like this should probably get over 30mpg in my estimation, but I came very close with my mix of city and highway driving. This 2021 K5 GT-Line is EPA rated for 26/34 but at no time did I get above 30 even while on the highway looking at the instantaneous mileage readout. Your mileage will, quite literally, vary.

The climate controls are pretty straightforward and likely haven’t changed for years. What’s new, of course, are charging plugs, and the Kia K5 features a 12V “cigarette” plug and two USB plugs, one for CarPlay / Android Auto, the other just for charging:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - climate controls usb plugs

As is common with the Kia lineup, the K5 includes a three-speed AUTO climate control setting, which is just fantastic in practice. It’s been a hot summer, and it’s really helpful to have the AC start out slow until it gets cool, then jump to high for the big cooldown of the interior cabin, then down to low again so you can talk more easily or listen to music or a favorite audiobook.

I also have to give Kia props for the amusing elements of its design too. What other car manufacturers include an environmental sounds feature in its infotainment system? Yes, you can drive down the highway to the soothing sound of ocean waves or rainfall in a forest. This same sly humor comes out in some of the visual design too, like this radio channel display in Sirius XM:

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - radio

Tubes? Tubes. Ya gotta love this design aesthetic!

Slightly more staid, the center console is entirely functional and hides a terrific feature: The Qi Wireless Charging slot. Can you see it below?

2021 kia k5 gt-line awd - center console

It’s the slot on the lowest portion and you push your phone down into the charging slot. This turns out to be a splendid design because it avoids the problem of 99% of other wireless vehicle chargers which is when your phone slips and moves off the “sweet spot” and then doesn’t actually charge. Kia solved it and now I’ll wait for other car companies to mimic this design in their vehicles.

2021 KIA K5 GT-LINE AWD DRIVING EXPERIENCE

A lovely car overall, but what about the drive experience? Turns out it is a GT and offered plenty of pep, a zippy ride that was fun to control, particularly behind the wheel. While starting from a stop had the standard hesitation of automatics nowadays, once you were rolling it was a matter of moments to speed up, whether on a city street or merging onto the highway. Handling was tight even as the ride itself was pleasant and comfortable, without too much road noise. All in all, and particularly at the price, a sport little sedan for a young family or someone who wants the lines of a luxury auto but without the price.

Speaking of which, fully decked out with the GT-Line accessories, the vehicle prices out at a remarkable $31,300. I’m typically surprised at how expensive cars are when I look at their Monroney, but the K5 surprised me with how affordable it was. Definitely a big plus for many car owners who find the idea of spending $80K or more ridiculous for a mode of transportation. The K5 GT-Line AWD is definitely one to check out if you can pull yourself away from the siren song of SUVs, pickup trucks, and crossovers.

CONFIGURATION: 2021 Kia K5 GT-LINE AWD in Wolf Gray with GT-Line Red Interior Package. Powered by a 1.6: Turbo 4-cylinder engine and 8-speed automatic transmission. MSRP: $29.090. OPTIONS: Wolf Gray Paint, GT-Line AWD Special Edition. AS DRIVEN: $31,300.

Disclosure: Kia Motors loaned me the K5 for a week in return for this writeup. Thanks, Kia!

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