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. This new midsize sedan sold in Korea as the K5 will challenge the Mazda6 for best interior and the Honda Accord for all-around competence. We say “challenge” only because every Optima involved in our first drive represented the now-on-sale Korean-market K5.
The grille has a three-dimensional look, headlights integrated into it, and a pattern modeled to look like shark skin. Like its predecessors, the low-slung coupe-like roofline remains and the rear deck lid has been shortened, giving it a silhouette similar to the rear-drive Stinger. The Optima’s signature chrome strip now wraps around the rear window instead of ending at the beginning of the decklid. Full-width taillights and Z-shaped LED daytime running lights that are supposed to mimic heartbeats round out the exterior styling updates on the redesigned 2021 Optima.
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.
Kia smartly avoided overdoing the design and opted for an uncomplicated layout with rich-looking materials. The dash is dominated by a piano-black bezel that houses a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and a 10.3-inch touchscreen. Seriously, the instrument panel has beautiful displays, including a vista-like background or gauges that transform with the drive modes. The infotainment system is also gorgeous, and its menus are generally easy to navigate. If there’s anything to complain about inside the Optima, it’s the lack of tactile controls. While the audio system has a volume knob, everything else is controlled via steering-wheel buttons or touch-sensitive zones around the screen. The same goes for the HVAC system. Kia claims these functions are more intuitive than traditional switchgear, but we prefer the more dependable and less distracting physical stuff.
The 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system angles ever so slightly toward the driver, and along with a relatively high transmission tunnel, gives the cabin more of a cockpit-like feel than anything else in this segment. Kia’s decision to ditch the traditional buttons and go all-touch for the Optima’s primary controls will receive mixed reactions, although thankfully, the climate controls are all button-based. A flat-bottom steering wheel with plenty of padding and nice sprinkles of silver plastic feels like the kind of thing you’d find on a cut-rate Mercedes-AMG.
Attractive and generously padded leather door panels feature coarse stitching that feels suitably premium, while the liberal use of piano black trim helps hide the plasticky buttons. Silver painted plastic surrounds the climate control vents and looks and feels far nicer than it has any business being. The piano black on the doors and the plastic on the vents feature subtle slats that improve the overall sense of quality, and in the case of the doors, hide ambient lights that change based on drive mode.
Complementing the 10.3-inch touchscreen is a 12.3-inch all-digital instrument cluster, and it even adopts one significant touch that matches the touchscreen’s operating system’s character. A minimalist display ditches the dials for the tachometer and speedometer and simply shows an image of the Optima alone on a road that cuts through a field. The sky in the display changes based on conditions, getting dark at night or in inclement weather. It’s a nice, relaxing touch that I spent a fair chunk of my drive enjoying.
The front seats feel a little tight in terms of headroom, although Kia says the sloping roofline shouldn’t impact rear headroom. Legroom in back is adequate for the class, while both the front seats and rear bench offer ample support. I’d happily cover longer distances in these front chairs.
It makes 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque, which should apply to the Kia, too. Our Optima also turned the front wheels through a dutiful eight-speed automatic gearbox. 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 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.
What we do know is that the all-new Optima or K5 or whatever Kia decides to call it will be a great car and a great value when it hits U.S. showrooms in the second half of next year with a price tag that should start around $25,000.