2021 Kia K5 GT is a step up from the Optima

he 2021 Kia K5 GT proves a bad name can’t torpedo a good car. Sure, Studebaker Dictator, Ford Probe and Toyota Estima Lucida G Luxury Joyful Canopy are all far worse monikers than K5, but this four-door -- especially in pinnacle GT trim -- is so pleasant, capable, stylish and swift, you won’t care what it’s called.

Even if it doesn’t necessarily stand head and shoulders above the midsize-sedan crowd, the new K5 is near the top of its segment in nearly every category. This Kia feels fresher than the gracefully aging Honda Accord, is far more interesting than the dowdy Subaru Legacy, and it’s swankier inside and out than Toyota’s popular Camry. In short, the K5 is as well-rounded as a beach ball.

Spicing things up, this sedan serves up plenty of visual pizzazz. Front and center, the K5 wears a reimagined version of Kia’s signature tiger-nose grille. The main opening is filled with a geometric mesh pattern and flanked by a pair of leering LED headlamp assemblies with pronounced tails that flow along the front fenders. This example’s Sapphire Blue paint is just about the perfect color. In profile, the K5 resembles a mashup of Volkswagen’s Arteon and an Audi A7; ahead of the A-pillars it’s shockingly similar to the former, aft of them, it’s the latter’s spittin’ image.

That gracefully curving roofline terminates in a curt backside that’s nearly as intricately designed as the car’s front end. The trunk lid is shockingly short, but the opening is plenty large, so loading freight shouldn’t be an exercise in playing cargo Tetris. The space itself measures 16 cubic feet, a whisker less than you get in an Accord but a skosh more than provided by a Camry. The rear backrests fold flat for toting longer items, though the passthrough opening isn’t particularly large.

As with other redesigned Kias, the K5′s interior wows, being both fashion-forward and functional. The dashboard is strongly horizontal and deeply sculpted, plus the materials on display are all of excellent quality. The front door panels are wrapped in supple plastics that are handsomely grained, the frosty-silver accents sprinkled throughout look great and don’t cause annoying glare in bright sunlight, and in the places where hard polymers are used, none of them reek of pinched pennies. About the only thing I don’t care for is the piano-black trim, which isn’t all that premium.

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Enhancing usability, the car’s center stack is ever so slightly angled toward the driver, so the infotainment screen and climate controls are easier to reach. Unlike many vehicles these days, the K5 comes with a traditional mechanical shifter. With a meaty T-handle, this gear selector looks cool and is super satisfying to use. And so are this car’s seats, which are wrapped in a decent-feeling leatherette material (genuine cow hides are not available, at least not on the seating surfaces). The front chairs get the job done and there’s a surprising amount of space in the back. Lanky passengers will have plenty of room for their heads and legs in this Kia.

Two infotainment systems are available, one with an 8-inch display and an uplevel offering with a 10.3-inch touchscreen. Curiously, both multimedia arrays support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, though only the base system offers wireless connectivity for these smartphone-mirroring systems. If you opt for the big screen -- which is lovely and comes with embedded navigation -- make sure to bring a charging cable.

When it comes to usability, Kia’s latest infotainment system is a winner. The upgraded system on the 10.3-inch screen is not only dead simple to use and blazingly responsive, never stuttering or lagging. It’s easy on the eyes, too. Home-screen icons look like little purple neon signs, and the radio tuner is displayed as a series of nixie tubes for a touch of whimsy, something we could all use a little more of these days.

Differentiating them from lesser K5s, sporty GT models feature a burly 2.5-liter turbocharged engine. This four-cylinder firebreather delivers 290 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels, far more of each than the base 1.6-liter turbo provides. Why all-wheel drive is only available with the smaller engine is anyone’s guess, but as you might imagine, the K5 GT has no trouble squealing its tires when you give it the spurs. This sedan pulls ferociously from about 2,250 rpm on up, though it’s plenty punchy below that speed. In use, some powertrain vibration can be felt in the cabin (remember, 2.5 liters is a big four-cylinder), but the engine is quiet and generally well-mannered.

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Making the most of that mountain of torque is an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Once the K5 is rolling, this gearbox shifts imperceptibly and about as quickly as a brain synapse, helping the car hit 60 mph in as little as 5.8 seconds. The performance here is impressive, except at low speeds. Unfortunately, as with nearly all dual-clutch transmissions, taking off from a standstill is never as smooth as with a torque converter. At times, faint but noticeable judders can be felt and while creeping along at idle, such as in heavy traffic, the car seems to surge, to move inconsistently as you modulate the speed, something that gets annoying.

At the pump, expect 24 mpg around town and 32 mpg on highway drives. Combined, the 2021 Kia K5 GT should return 27 mpg.

Aside from that all-you-can-eat buffet of torque, there’s nothing particularly magical about the way this sedan drives. Dynamically, it’s entirely competent, with middle-of-the-road steering, brake-pedal feel and chassis performance. Several driving modes are offered, but really, they only change the steering weight and transmission shift schedule. This example’s ride is absolutely on the firm side, no doubt enhanced (or degraded?) by its 19-inch wheels wrapped in relatively low-profile 245/40 Pirelli P Zero all-season tires. The K5 GT isn’t stiff enough to shatter spines or cause heads to toss when you hit larger bumps, but you certainly feel the road.

When it comes to driver aids, this Kia offers plenty. Features like forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist, lane-departure warning, a driver attention monitor and automatic high beams are standard across the K5 range. Pretty typical stuff. Naturally, all kinds of other amenities are offered, too, from rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive cruise control to parking sensors and blind-spot monitoring. For the most part, these technologies work perfectly, though the automatic high beams can be a bit spastic, and the lane-centering system does weird things in certain corners. While navigating moderate turns, the system will annoyingly and rather forcefully tug at the steering wheel, fighting your grip as you work to keep the car on your intended line. On straight asphalt and through lesser corners the lane-centering feature works beautifully. It just gets a little wonky when pushed.

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As it sits, the K5 GT I’m testing here checks out for $35,705 including $965 in delivery fees. A $95 cargo protector and $155 in carpeted floor mats pad the base price, as does the $4,000 GT1 Package. This pricey add-on includes a bunch of amenities like the larger touchscreen, a premium Bose audio system, power front seats with heating and ventilation plus a slew of safety tech. Still, this car is reasonably priced considering how nice it feels and quickly it moves.

Despite its questionable name, the 2021 Kia K5 GT is one of the most pleasant mainstream sedans you can buy today, especially if you want something with a sporting edge and lots of power.

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