When not slaving for PH I spent a fair amount of my professional time writing for American publications. I often report for them on the sort of cool European machinery that doesn’t get to the ‘States due to homologation problems or limited demand. But this time I’m doing it in reverse. Because the Kia K5 GT is an interesting, quick and well-priced car which is sold in the U.S., but which we’re never going to get the chance to buy over here.
This is understandable. Kia hasn’t released any CO2 figures for the GT, but it’s a fair bet that it would emerge from European testing clutching a g/km score that would make it an unlikely choice in any of the parts of the continent that tax by emissions, and it would doubtless do all kinds of harm to Kia’s all-important fleet average. Yet it is also a shame because, as a week in California with one proved, the K5 GT has a laid-back athleticism it’s very easy to live with.
If you’re squinting and wondering where you’ve seen it before, the K5 is effectively an updated version of the Optima, the bland saloon that was quietly killed over here in 2019. But while Euro-spec Optimas were diesels or a rarely-bought PHEV, Kia has opted to sharpen the K5’s case with a pair of punchy four-cylinder engines. The base 1.6-litre makes a respectable 180hp and can dispatch the 0-60mph dash in 7-secs, while the punchier 2.5-litre engine in the GT makes the full 290hp and gets a standard eight speed twin-clutch transmission in place of the 1.6’s torque converter auto. The factory claim for a 0-60mph time is 5.7-sec, but one of the U.S. magazines has already taken half a second off that.
Not that off-the-line urge is something the GT excels at. Other manufacturers have attempted to tame the combination of front-wheel drive, big output and turbocharged punch with clever geometry-tweaking suspension like Ford’s Revo Knuckle and Vauxhall’s HiPerStrut. Kia has opted for the simpler solution once favoured by Saab - basically staging a dogfight between the front tyres. The decision to only offer the GT on all-season tyres doubtless doesn’t help, but even with the stability systems fully on it would judder and squeal when launched hard. Selecting the ‘Sport’ dynamic mode fully deactivates the traction control and gives the K5 the ability to vaporise its front tyres - even when you don’t want to.
Once rolling, discipline is far better. There is little torque steer even over bumpy surfaces, and while the steering has all the chatty feedback of a Trappist monk, responses are keen and - with throttle discipline - the K5 resists understeer impressively well. I took the car I borrowed to the Angeles Crest Highway north of LA, a spectacular and very crashable road which acts as a magnet for SoCal’s performance car owners. I hit it at 7:30 in the morning to miss traffic, but still encountered everything from battered hot hatches to a brand new 911 GT3.
Beyond the limitations imposed by its slidey rubber - not what you want when every corner ends in either a cliff face or a vertiginous air drop - the GT put in a credible performance. The basic chassis balance is good, the brakes took a frying without fading and behind its numbness the steering is precise enough for confidence to quickly build. The gearbox isn’t the snappiest twin-clutcher, but manual changes were delivered crisply enough; the engine’s thrashy soundtrack and the quantity of mid-range puff means there is little point in trying to find the redline anyway. The biggest issue after a 30-minute stint on twisties was the lack of lateral support in the alleged sports seat, the bolsters looking substantial but being too far apart to give proper location.
While the K5 GT is only decent at being a performance car, its case improves rapidly on the ‘everything else’ bit. It’s seriously spacious, as you’d hope given a 4,905mm length which makes it barely shorter than a Volvo S90, and slightly longer than the rear-drive Kia Stinger. The GT covered more than 1,000 miles four up without any complaints the back about legroom. Although the K5’s gently falling roofline makes it look like a hatchback it is actually a saloon, while the similarly profiled Stinger is a hatch. The GT’s boot managed a proper TARDIS impression, somehow absorbing the same number of bags that had filled the loadspace of a Skoda Superb estate to beyond the windowline on the trip to the airport in the UK. Cruising refinement is good, too - even on California’s frequently dreadful road surfaces.
Equipment is also generous. Even the unadorned GT has plenty of standard kit, but the GT1 package - which is pretty much the only option bar colour - adds the full toyshop. So equipped the GT gets active cruise with lane assist, heated and cooled power front seats, LED headlights, a camera view system, a panoramic roof and a banging BOSE audio system. While the sliding pound-to-dollar exchange rate makes a direct price comparison fairly irrelevant, especially as U.S. pricing is without the sales tax that varies state to state, the GT still looks like a performance bargain.
The basic MSRP of $32,285 - including the compulsory ‘destination’ charge - makes the K5 GT $2,500 less than the closely related Hyundai Sonata N Line, which shares its 290hp powertrain - and it is also slightly cheaper than the Volkswagen Jetta GLI which is smaller and only has 228hp. The supposedly posher but much dinkier 188hp Mercedes A220 has a $35,000 base price in the States, and is set to die in a couple of months. Even with the $4,200 GT1 package added the K5 still looks like serious value, although with the proviso that the rapid decline of what the U.S. calls the mid-sized sedan market means there isn’t actually that much left to compare it to.
Which is probably the nub of why cars like the K5 are dying out on both sides of the Atlantic. America’s changing tastes were most obvious during long stints on the freeway network where the Kia’s lowness felt like a real hindrance when pretty much everything else - from cheap crossovers to XL pickup trucks, seemed to be towering over it. Conventional cars are already a minority in southern California, one that is likely soon to be sliding to extinction. And it’s not as if the UK is far behind when it comes to a growing affection for SUVs and higher seating positions.
Most of our favourite cars at PH have been those that deliver more thrills than frills, and the K5 GT deserves to go on that list. The world will be a little bit duller when stuff like this just doesn’t exist.
Specification | Kia K5 GT
Engine: 2487cc four-cylinder, turbocharged
Transmission: Eight-speed twin-clutch, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 290 @ 5800rpm
Torque (lb ft): 311 @ 1650rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
MPG: 24 (US) city, 32 (US) highway (EPA)
Price: $32,285 (MSRP, before tax), $36,485 (before tax) as tested
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