Having hit several automotive home runs in the last couple of years, Korean manufacturer Kia is most definitely on a roll right about now. Products such as the Telluride three-row sport utility have captured the attention of the car-buying public, and supply can’t keep up with demand. The Stinger sports sedan (four-door coupe?!) is also another fun and well-designed car, and lets people know that the lacklustre Kia of yesteryear is long gone. This week, the 2021 Kia K5 GT sedan found its way into the Daddy’s Digest garage for a week of testing, and the common theme between the K5, Stinger, and Telluride? All three made it onto the annual awards list for the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (yours truly is a juror who gets to vote on who wins!). Surely, that has to mean that Kia knows what they’re doing, right?
While the more sedate K5 with the base engine was enough to give it distinction amongst AJAC, the hopped-up GT model was a later addition to the lineup for the 2021 model year. While the cheapest K5 LX starts at $29,595, the GT tops the range at an as-tested $39,995 Canadian. The single biggest change is an upgrade from a 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine to a 2.5-litre unit, which bumps horsepower from 180 to 290, and torque from 195 to 311 lb-ft. However, for those who live in colder and snowier climates, it should be noted that the flagship K5 engine comes with front-wheel drive only instead of the all-wheel drive across the board for 1.6-litre turbo cars.
With only two wheels being driven, the massive increase in horsepower and torque does mean that the K5 GT struggles for traction when giving it the beans, but that doesn’t necessarily detract from the fun. The transmission in the GT is a quick-shifting upgraded eight-speed dual-clutch (DCT) unit, as opposed to a conventional eight-speed automatic transmission in lower trims. If making a comparison, the powertrain has the sense of urgency and feel one might find in a Volkswagen Golf R, but in the front-wheel drive setup of the Golf GTI.
There’s a ridiculous amount of power available at low revs, which makes city driving, passing, and merging a ton of fun. Compared to the up-level Stinger (whose GT model is north of $50,000 Canadian), the K5 GT doesn’t have as much power but consumes 25 percent less fuel, in addition to needing only regular octane. In the end, this means drivers save at least a third in fuel over the Stinger GT’s turbocharged V6 and all-wheel drive when including the cost of premium gasoline – so don’t automatically discount the K5 GT in favour of the Stinger, especially when it comes to running costs.
Compared to the Golf, the mid-size K5 comes with more legroom and longer rear cargo space and doesn’t skimp on the styling, either. While Kia does tend to pull many styling cues from other competitors from around the world, it’s probably better to call it following best practices as opposed to being derivative. The overall shape, sexy headlights, and LED taillights make the K5 one of the better-looking mainstream cars on the market today.
The GT isn’t a slouch in the rest of its performance and handling aspects, either. Compared to lower trims, the electric power steering system moves to being mounted directly to the rack as opposed to being on the column. This translates to better (adjustable) weighting and overall feeling of being connected to the road. While it does have relatively low-performance all-season tires, it’s one rubber upgrade away from delivering great handling for a family sedan. Despite the performance, ride quality is firm but not too harsh, and the cabin is a quiet place to be at both low and high speeds.
The interior of the 2021 K5 GT stays pretty consistent with other newer Kia products: it’s a modern cockpit with great material selection and fit and finish. While there’s copious use of easy-to-scratch piano black plastic trim, the switchgear and touchpoints otherwise feel like high-quality pieces, and the 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and head-up display are also very good. Seating comfort was decent during a weekend out of town with family and kid in tow, with minimal fatigue and enough adjustability to afford a comfortable seating position amongst various different body types.
Technology-wise, Bose premium audio is coupled with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone connectivity, on top of a relatively easy-to-use infotainment interface. While the 10.25-inch central touch screen is flanked by touch buttons as opposed to more ergonomic physical buttons, the dual-zone automatic climate control still has real buttons that aren’t as distracting for drivers to use. For telematics, Kia offers their UVO Intelligence app and connectivity, which allows remote features such as door locking/unlocking, remote start for climate control pre-conditioning, vehicle location, and emergency service assists following a collision.
Across all trim levels, sensor-based driver assists are standard equipment on the K5. This includes lane-keeping steering assist, lane-following assist, forward collision warning with automatic braking, blind-spot monitor and collision avoidance, and rear cross-traffic alert with automatic braking. The GT takes things up a notch and adds forward collision pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, rear parking sensors, and automatic braking at parking speeds, including reverse.
Utilizing the navigation system, adaptive cruise control, and lane following assist systems, Kia’s excellent Highway Driving Assist (HDA) feature is also one of the highlights of the K5, and it practically becomes a Level 2 autonomous car at highway speeds. Bottom line – drivers still need to have their hands on the wheel and must pay attention at all times – but the Kia will happily maintain speed and automatically steer into gentler curves when on the open road. While it doesn’t remove the human element of driving, it does help to reduce fatigue on longer trips.
Compared to competitors like the Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, the 2021 Kia K5 GT undercuts the Japanese slightly in terms of price but still brings a very potent package to the table. While the Camry and Accord will be a bit more comfortable and still handle quite well, the K5 GT’s stump-pulling turbocharged 2.5-litre engine and eight-speed dual-clutch are a wonderful pairing. For those who missed the departure of 1990s and 2000s cars such as the Pontiac Grand Prix GTP or Bonneville SSEi, the K5 GT is your ticket – except this time, you get a much nicer interior (let’s not talk too much about pre-recession GM interiors) and all of the modern gadgets. Most of all, you get a powertrain that gives you an ear-to-ear grin!
Jerry Vo cut his teeth in writing as an automotive journalist and is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC). Having reviewed cars since 2015, he takes pride in providing relevant and technically savvy consumer advice, and is extending that over into reviews in various other categories at Daddy's Digest. He is a proud dad of one and is letting the wonderful journey of parenthood teach him new things every day.