Review: 2011 Kia K5 (Optima) Korean-Spec

Walter Foreman
by Walter Foreman

The Korean word for ‘five’ sounds like “oh,” as in, “Oh, Snap!” or “OMG.” So in Korea, that makes Kia’s new K5 a “K.O.,” at least in name. But does Kia’s new Camccord fighter actually land a knockout on the all-important D-Segment, or is it a mere win by decision?

One thing is certain: this doesn’t look like any Optima we’ve seen before. From a distance, the K5 cuts a distinctively aggressive and appealing profile. On closer inspection however, the exterior design begins to display a certain amount of visual discord. Consider the K5 an automotive Monet: gorgeous from a distance, but more than a little muddled at close quarters.

One of the biggest visual distractions is the chrome accent that runs along the top of the side windows. When that strip passes through the rear door and trunk lid openings, it creates a cacophony of cut lines that make it look a little like Chucky from the Child’s Play movies.

A little further rearward, the design disarray continues. The Audi-inspired tail lights conspire with the trunk opening and rear bumper to create an overhang that gives the K5 an unpleasant bucktooth appearance.

The front of the car displays more design non sequitur elements. The in-vogue-for-the-moment LED positioning lights look jarring against the incandescent fog lights. The bright white light of the LEDs overpowers the yellowish light of the incandescent bulbs. Also, the positioning lights do not follow the contour of the fog lights and therefore look like an afterthought. What’s worse, lower trim level models without the positioning lights are left with a vast expanse of black plastic in their place that wouldn’t look inappropriate in a Tic Tac factory.

Speaking of lights, another element that misses its mark is the “eyebrow” light near the back of the headlamp assembly. Perhaps this piece is meant to mimic the gorgeous light treatment on the K7 (Cadenza), but on the K5 it looks disjointed and incomplete.The final piece of the K5’s exterior design puzzle is the faux air intake on the fender. On some models it illuminates, which does help to give it some visual appeal, but on most models it’s as superfluous as Krusty the Clown’s third nipple.

The K5’s interior recalls an apartment I recently considered buying. Promotional literature for this apartment made much of the fact that the kitchen, living room, bathrooms and bedrooms had each been designed and decorated by a different world-class architect or designer. On paper, the idea of having a dream team of top architects and designers working on one project sounded like a good one; in reality, it failed miserably. The result was a hodgepodge of rooms with different shapes, colors, textures, and designs that looked as though each had been crafted without any consideration of the other. The finished product was completely incongruous and lacked both cohesion and coherence. The interior of the K5 seems to have suffered a similar fate. One good example is the way the dashboard meets the door panels.

It seems as though nobody considered that these two areas might someday appear together in the same space. There is a complete lack of unity or flow between the two elements, as if the doors had been designed by one person and the dashboard by another and neither person knew what the other was doing. The door panels themselves are another example of the interior’s lack of design rhythm. The speakers appear to have been added as an afterthought as they protrude tumor-like from the door, giving the whole affair a lopsided, front-heavy look . Finally, the gear selector, with its leather boot, faux-wood trim, high-gloss center point, and chrome release button, also exhibits the K5’s Frankenstein approach to interior design.

If this sounds overly-harsh, consider the K5’s own in-house competition. By comparison, the K5’s kissing cousin, the Hyundai Sonata, has an overall interior design concept that is much more cohesive; lines flow together in unbroken harmony with a sense of balance and unity. It’s a night-and-day difference from the design-by-committee look of the K5’s interior.

Sitting behind the wheel of the K5, the first thing you notice is that the steering wheel is smaller than you might expect. On the road, the wheel feels even smaller as its four spokes are crowded by no less than a dozen buttons. On the plus side, three of those buttons belong to the K5’s cruise control, a feature not commonly found on midsize cars in Korea. Across the street at the Hyundai dealership, both the Sonata and Grandeur (Azera) are green with envy as cruise control is unavailable on either.

Another nice trick hiding up the K5’s sleeve is its heated steering wheel. Hiding is the appropriate word here however, as the switch is completely obscured by the steering wheel and is nearly impossible to locate and just as hard to activate. It’s worth noting however, that this feature is unavailable on other cars in this class (at least in Korea), so kudos to the K5 for having it.

Speaking of heat, both the front and rear seats are heated with special antibacterial polymer heating elements called Heatex. Kia claims that Heatex provides more uniform heating and uses infrared waves to stimulate drivers’ and passengers’ internal organs. The car I drove included cooled front seats which delete the Heatex option in favor of conventional heating elements. This, plus the 95-degree heat the day I drove the car, meant that my internal organs didn’t have a chance to experience Heatex in action. I can report, however, that the cooled seats work quickly and effectively, despite being a little too loud for my liking. At stop lights, the constant drone of the cooling units had me wishing that they had an automatic start-stop system. In fact, I often turned them off manually while idling at red lights. However, the vertical layout of the switches seemed counterintuitive and I often ended up activating the passenger’s heated seat. I’d prefer a side-by-side switch layout.

Several first-drive reports from the Korean media have suggested that the K5’s seats are hard and uncomfortable. In the 90 minutes I spent with a KDM version, I found the seats to be comfortable but a little too flat for my liking, especially the bottom cushion. In addition, the driving position was noticeably low (lower than the Sonata) and the center console was noticeably high (higher than the Sonata) which combined to give the cockpit a cocoon-like feel. Interestingly, and somewhat uncommonly these days, Kia spent the extra nickel to include pictograms on the power seat control buttons. It’s a nice touch, but seemingly unnecessary as the only time anyone will see them is when the door is open. Front-seat legroom in the K5 is excellent as the seats offer extensive fore and aft adjustment. With the front seats in their furthest rearward position (a position they are likely never to be in, but that’s the way Kia measures legroom), the K5 has nearly three-quarters-of-an-inch more legroom than the Camry and a staggering 3.2 inches more than the Accord.

Front-seat headroom is a slightly different story, at least numerically. Interior headroom in the front is only three-quarters-of-an-inch more than in a Camry and is almost 1.5 inches less than an in an Accord. In the real world however, the interior at the front of the K5 feels roomy, perhaps due in part to the noticeably low seating position.

In the back seat, headroom is both numerically and realistically tight. At 57.3 inches, the K5’s roofline is lower than that of the Sonata (57.9), Camry (57.9), and Accord (58.1), and it feels that way! The K5 has the least rear-seat headroom of any of its three competitors; nearly a full inch less than the Accord, slightly more than half-an-inch less than the Sonata, and nearly a quarter inch less than the Camry. In addition, outward visibility while sitting in the back of the K5 is somewhat restricted because the side windows sweep upward. This upward sweep gives the exterior a fastback-esque appearance but combined with the low sloping roofline, makes the backseat feel somewhat claustrophobic. On the plus side, rear legroom is good. The K5 has nearly an inch more legroom than the Camry and about a quarter inch more than the Accord (again measured in the Kia way with the front seats positioned all the way rearward). Rear seat passengers can also enjoy their own air vents, but (strangely) only on vehicles equipped with an automatic transmission. The vents are a nice touch, but they cannot be opened and closed independently of each other as on the Sonata.

Overall, the K5’s interior is comfortable, roomy, well-equipped, and quiet. Kia engineers went to great lengths to make the K5 quiet. In fact, it has more sound insulation than both the Sonata and the larger more upscale K7 (Cadenza). That being said, its interior looks and feels somewhat bargain basement, especially in the lower trim levels and lacks design coherence and continuity across all levels.

Under the hood, the K5 uses the same 2.4-liter GDI engine as the Sonata. However, a keen eye will notice a few subtle differences in the engine bay. First, the K5 uses just a single gas strut fixed to the inside of the front wheel arch, whereas the Sonata uses two struts mounted to the outside. Cost savings for Kia and weight savings for the K5, perhaps?Also, the K5’s air intake is wider, lower, and better integrated than that of the Sonata’s.

Finally, the area near the firewall also differs between the K5 and the Sonata. The Kia has more insulation and a larger differently-shaped cowling near the windshield wipers, both of which are designed to reduce noise in the cabin.

Undoubtedly the K5 will be a hit for Kia, and it should be. It’s a quiet, well-equipped, affordable, and generally speaking, an attractive automobile. Unfortunately, it lacks the refinement necessary to compete against the likes of the Accord, Camry, and even its stablemate the Sonata. Had the K5 been given more of a sporting mission to match its extroverted exterior, it would make a stronger case for itself. Instead, the driving impression is extremely close to the Sonata only with less refinement. It throws a lot of punches, some of which hit and others of which miss, but at the end of the fight, the K5 falls short of being a K.O.

Walter Foreman
Walter Foreman

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  • Mzim2000 Mzim2000 on Sep 01, 2011

    I have a US spec Optima SX and read this review with mixed feelings. Obviuosly, I liked the car enough to buy one, while it is not perfect, it is a value for the price. I personally really like the styling especially when compared to the Accord, Camry and to a lesser degree the Mazda 6. I like it MUCH better than the new Sonata which I already find to be growing old on me. Inside, I like the design elements as well. The dash and the door do line up unlike the reviewer noted, not as smoothly as most modern cars but I fail to see what is the big deal. Sure, the seat warmer buttons are not ideally placed, the computer screen fades out when sun hits it directly but overall the cabin is a nice place to spend time. I find the seats comfortable, lack of side bolsters taken into consideration but really, this is a 4 door sedan not a sports car, taken into consideration when I bought it. Love the dual sunroof (the reason for the black roof some complain about is for the panaramic sunroof by the way). The engine runs nice, the 6 spd tranny shifts smoothly, it is quick while not fast (6.5 0-60). The ride is firm but not overly harsh and it handles well, not doing slaoms in it anyway. Mileage? On a recent 250 mile trip I averaged 32.3 mph going 70 mph, in "eco" mode I was at 33.9 ppg. City driving I am right around 21 mpg and thats with me sticking my right foot down from time to time. Overall, it is a very pleasant automobile. Stylish, quick, quite and reasonably comfortable. A bit pricey I think, the Koreans are quickly catching up to some tough competition in this price range but I felt it had good value.

  • Jdmcomp Jdmcomp on Oct 17, 2011

    Dealer has no brochures for the 2012 Optima, the website for Kia has nothing at all for the 2012 model and refuses to allow a request for any brochure due to poor programming of the site. An attempt to contact Kia customer service via the website fails due to programming in the site. A call to Kia customer service results in a 10 minute wait to be answered and even they do not have a brochure. Nowhere can you find the official specs for the 2012 Kia. Some websites purport to have them, but they must be taken with a grain of kimchi. How can anyone have much faith in a company that fails so badly in communicating with the buying public? Do you really want to spend up to $30 large with a company that cannot manage a simple website? I have cash to buy the car, but no information. I am quickly losing faith that Kia is a car maker rather than just another throw-away appliance maker. Have others had this experience?

  • Golden2husky Have to say he did an excellent job on the C7, especially considering the limited budget he was given. I am very happy with my purchase.
  • Marty The problem isn't range; it's lack of electricity in multi-unit building parking. All you need is level 1 - a standard 120v wall socket - and if you're plugged in 10 hours overnight you get 280 miles per week or more. That's enough for most folks but you can use public charging to supplement when needed. Installing conduit circuits and outlets is simple and cheap; no charge stations needed.
  • 2manyvettes Tadge was at the Corvette Corral at the Rolex 24 hour sports car race at the end of January 2023. During the Q&A after his remarks someone stood up and told him "I will never buy an electric Corvette." His response? "I will never sell you an electric Corvette." Take that Fwiw.
  • Socrates77 They're pinching pennies for the investors like always, greed has turned GM into a joke of an old corporate American greed.
  • Analoggrotto looking at this takes me right back to the year when “CD-ROM” first entered public lexicon