The good news: The fifth generation of the Kia Optima is a big leap forward in looks and tech. The bad news, potentially, is that the changes are radical enough to warrant a name change to K5, the name used in Korea and other parts of the world.
We traveled to Korea for the first drive of the midsize sedan that is the best-known nameplate in the Kia lineup in the U.S. after the funky Soul.
The K5 is going on sale in Korea now. For the U.S., we have to wait until summer for the car to hit dealers. There should be some on lots by July. The performance GT will follow later in the year.
Which means there is still time to decide on the name, but not much. It is K5 in Korea and China and has traditionally been Optima in North America. The sedan is no longer sold in Europe. We are told that even in the U.S., the sentiment is split. Some feel the vehicle deserves a whole new moniker. Others feel there is enough equity in the Optima name to keep it. For some, K5 will conjure images of the 1969–1994 Chevy Blazer that preceded the Tahoe.
North American executives have the most clout in the final decision, but the parent company’s naming committee has sway, as well, and could decide it wants harmonization of names globally. Automakers who opt for alphanumeric names usually strive for some consistency, but it doesn’t always work. For example, the Kia K900 was originally supposed to be the K9, but the name was changed in North America, where K9 is a term for a police dog.
Either way, the Korean-spec K5 that we drove through Seoul to the Hyundai Kia Motors Namyang Technological Research Center is impressive in its evolution.
Much like its Hyundai cousin, the Sonata, the 2011 Optima was a game changer and helped put the brand on buyers’ radars. But the fourth generation, introduced in the 2016 model year, was a conservative refresh that fell a little flat.
For the fifth generation, the 2020 Sonata and 2021 K5/Optima have gone big and bodacious again. The Sonata raised eyebrows with its sexy lines and innovative headlights that extend up the hood.
The K5 does not embed lights in the hood, but it does introduce what it calls heartbeat lighting at both ends of the car. The term refers to the jagged bars or squiggles of LED lights that look like the readout on an EKG heart rate monitor. In the front, a large and dramatic swirl feeds into the daytime running lights. The rear LEDs provide an even more accurate replica of a heartbeat with spikes at each end and a flat line in the middle that is a series of dashes that grow smaller where they meet in the center.
The K5 has the latest evolution of Kia’s tiger nose grille, a muscular hood, short overhang, wider air intakes, and an elegant side profile with a chrome window line that starts at the A-pillar and runs the length of the car to the spoiler, accentuating the fastback silhouette. Don’t look too hard at the rear exhaust tips; they are only real on the GT. But this is still the sportiest Kia we have seen to date.
A new architecture begat the Sonata and now the K5/Optima. More front-drive midsize cars and crossovers will come from this platform developed under Albert Biermann, head of R&D and testing for the Hyundai Motor Group and the man who has injected performance into the Korea brands. The K5/Optima was designed with more aggressive variants in mind. It also now has all-wheel drive.
The 2021 K5 is an inch wider, 2.0 inches longer, and 0.8 inch lower than its predecessor. Kia claims its 112.2-inch wheelbase is the longest in the segment. It means ample headroom and legroom in both the front and rear seats.
The platform provides a stiffer body and chassis in a vehicle that has dropped some weight with greater use of high-strength, lightweight steel.
The chassis was extremely forgiving as evidenced by the car’s ability to handle the myriad speed bumps in the country. The expectation is the suspension will be tightened up for the U.S. We can’t comment much on the handling as our drive time was in heavy traffic or on highways with no curves beyond ramps to assess handling or body roll. But MotorTrend’s review of the new Sonata suggests drivers will be delighted.
The K5s we drove had 18-inch wheels with Pirelli P Zero all-season tires. The U.S. models are expected to get 18- and 19-inch wheels with a choice off all-season or summer tires.
Globally, the K5 will be offered with the new 1.6-liter Smartstream turbocharged I-4 and, depending on the market, a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder, 2.5-liter turbo, and high-performance version of the 2.5-liter for the GT. (Sonata has the 1.6-liter and a 191-hp, 181-lb-ft 2.5-liter naturally aspirated I-4.)
Korea gets a hybrid with the 2.0-liter. Although hybrid options are available, we are told there are no immediate plans for a hybrid or plug-in hybrid for the U.S., where the Kia Niro fills this gap.
We were only able to drive cars with the 1.6-liter that generates 180 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, paired with the new eight-speed automatic transmission, which is a first for Kia. It proved to be a powerful little combo. Acceleration was swift and smooth. Changing drive modes did not produce vastly different experiences with the exception of Sport, which brings an artificially enhanced exhaust note that turns up the volume noticeably.
The upgrade from a six-speed provided seamless shifting, and the car has a new rotary dial electronic gear shift. The K5 in some markets will still get a six-speed.
The GT, which the U.S. will get later in 2020, will have the high-performance 2.5-liter Smartstream turbocharged engine that gets 290-hp and 310-lb-ft of torque and Kia’s new eight-speed wet dual-clutch automatic. Kia says the GT will go from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.6 seconds. The Smartstream engine family will also expand to include a 3.5-liter for larger vehicles.
The 1.6-liter will be available at launch in the U.S., but timing of other engines is still being determined for the U.S. We also don’t know which engines will have the option of AWD. It has not even been confirmed that the U.S. models will get AWD, but we would be shocked if it were not available given that competitors such as the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima offer it.
The 1.6-liter is the first engine with the Korean-developed CVVD, which stands for continuously variable valve duration, and adjusts how long the valve is open. It made its debut on the Sonata, and the K5 is the first Kia to incorporate the technology. Engineers say the valve timing of their system differs from others on the market and can accommodate Miller, Atkinson, and Otto cycles to cover the gamut from hybrids to turbos. Perfect timing is designed to provide high torque when needed for performance as well as efficiency by maximizing fuel economy during low-rpm driving. The result is a 4 percent improvement in performance and 5 percent greater fuel efficiency while reducing emissions by 12 percent.
One area where we expect improvement by the time the car comes to market in the U.S. is the brakes, which bite too hard, making it almost impossible to apply them gently.
The K5 has a meaty flat-bottomed steering wheel, and although the steering was perfectly adequate, this is another area where we expect further tuning for U.S. models to make it feel even more precise. Final tuning of the car for this market is being done at Hyundai’s proving ground in California.
Much care was taken in the interior. The cabin is quiet, with little road noise filtering in. Material choices include one of the nicer wood trims on an affordable sedan. The cars we were in had a cabin of two-tone black and tan leather with contrast stitching. Cloth will also be available in the K5. Light bars on the dash and doors change color with drive modes: purple for Comfort, green for Eco, red for Sport, blue for Smart. There is also a Custom drive mode.
A glossy black finlike handle near your fingertips on the armrest is an additional handle to grab the door. It was a bit controversial during development. Some worried it would look odd or bang against knees. But it blends innocently into the door, and my knee rested comfortably against it.
Our Korea-spec vehicle has controls on the side of the passenger seat so the driver can adjust it. In some Asian cultures it is referred to as the “make-out seat.” But don’t get too excited—it is not a feature that will make it to North America.
The 12.3-inch cluster in front of the driver has mood themes that vary with the weather. The background was gray during our foggy day of driving but turned blue when the sun came out the next day, and it will show showers if it’s raining. It’s not known whether the U.S. will get this feature.
The wide infotainment screen is attached to the instrument cluster, a shape you will see in future Kia models. The larger 10.25-inch infotainment screen is optional. The system is bright and intuitive and covers functions from navigation and stereo to heating and cooling controls. There is an optional 8.0-inch head-up display. Kia strategically placed USB and power outlets near the wireless charging pad up front, and there are more outlets for the rear passengers.
We were highly entertained by the Korean navigation system, which provides an abundance of information. Not only does it give directions complete with which lane to be in and upcoming changes in speed limits, but it also warns of speed bumps ahead, tells drivers to stay alert for jaywalkers, and notifies drivers of a collision warning zone, which seems to occur when there are multiple lanes or a particularly crazy intersection. We also got warnings of falling rocks and notification we were in a wildlife preservation area—presumably the animals were also dodging the rocks.
The U.S. will get a different navigation system, which might be a good thing as we were sent to a wrong waypoint and the system got hung up trying to recalculate. These are preproduction vehicles, and there is always the possibility that whoever set the guidance made a fat-fingered mistake, so we cannot judge too harshly. The system responds to voice controls, but our K5 spoke Korean, so this was not an option; we dialed handlers for help.
On the K5, a smartphone and app can act as a digital key to start the engine, unlock and open the vehicle, and even autonomously pull the car out of a tight parking spot. These features might not be available at launch, but as they are in the Sonata in the U.S. using the Hyundai Blue Link app, we expect them to eventually be offered in the Optima here.
The K5 can tie navigation to cruise control so that the car speeds up or slows down in accordance with speed limits, but the system will not be offered in the U.S.
North American models are expected to have a complete suite of driver assist technologies to detect vehicles in a blind spot, avoid collisions, and adjust speed, braking, and steering to stay in the lane and at proper speeds based on traffic.
The K5 is made in Korea for that market. North America will source the sedan from the Kia plant in West Point, Georgia, which also makes the Sonata and the hot new Kia Telluride SUV that is taking more than its share of plant capacity right now as Kia struggles to meet demand for the MotorTrend SUV of the Year. Kia has been selling about 90,000 Optimas annually in recent years.
We may not yet know the name or if the new sedan will be the first to sport a new Kia logo, but our drive of the Korea-spec sedan has us convinced there is a future for cars that are well done.
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