The year 2019 will stand out for the number of impressive vehicles that went on sale. The 2020 Kia Telluride was one of the surprises, arriving – almost certainly – as the best mainstream three-row crossover money can buy. And there's a very real chance 2020 will be another hit for the South Korean brand, thanks to the 2021 Kia Optima.

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 U.S.-market Optima is still a way out – North American media won't even test it until June 2020, at the earliest – and as such, it's difficult to judge a car with different hardware and software tuning or features that won't survive the trip across the Pacific.

While this is far from an authoritative first drive on the 2021 Optima, our test between South Korea's capital city, Seoul, and Hyundai's Namyang research-and-development center was the latest reminder that South Korean automakers are building excellent family vehicles.

2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima

It's What's Inside That Counts

While much will change before the K5 crosses the Pacific Ocean and becomes the Optima, the design is final. This is the mid-size sedan Americans will see later in 2020, and that's just fine. Kia hasn't hit a home run with this exterior design, although like the Telluride, consumers will still find it generally attractive.

That's thanks in no small part to the Optima's now more rakish profile. Kia minimized the three-box design typical of sedans – the three boxes are the trunk, cabin, and engine bay – in favor of a sleeker tail. The company even goes so far as to call it a “fastback sedan,” which I'll note is an immeasurably cooler and more accurate name for this body style than the contradictory four-door coupe.

The new shape works alongside an overall longer, lower, and wider body, although those changes are all under two inches compared to the current Optima, which means a familiar footprint on the road. Sprinkled across the car are a number of interesting styling details, although I suspect they may prove a bit more polarizing to general consumers. I adore the jagged LED running lights that, according to Kia, were inspired by the line on an electrocardiogram (I think it looks more like a reading indicating a heart problem, though…). These slimmer headlights flank a revised “tiger nose” grille that helps identify the more assertive Optima as a member of the Kia clan. That said, the sleek styling may not jive with every consumer's idea of a mid-size sedan.

Kia Optima
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The cabin, though, should receive universal praise from consumers specifically because it doesn't feel like something you'd find in this class. Like the insides of the Mazda6, Kia covers the Optima’s cabin in high-quality, attractive materials. But the Kia avoids the Mazda's conservative, minimalist styling. A handsome strip of matte faux wood and leather dominates the dash and isn't abnormal in today's market, but like the exterior, little touches – both in terms of style and design – help the Optima's interior stand out.

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.

The cabin should receive universal praise from consumers.

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 (not a bad thing).

Functionally, 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.

2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima

Technically Talented

The Optima's move to an all-touchscreen display might rankle traditionalists that prefer buttons for navigating the primary infotainment screens, but it really shouldn't. The display is snappy in its responses and features attractive graphics. But I expect this sort of thing from Kia. What I don't expect are the kind of touches that give the system charm and character.

For example, instead of merely displaying the frequency of the radio, the screen shows the numbers in old-timey nixie tubes (shown above). It looks incredibly cool, as evidenced by me and my co-driver immediately and simultaneously geeking out as soon as we saw it. There's also a selection of nature sounds that came on and lent a sense of ambiance to our drive. From the sounds of a forest to waves lapping against a beach to a crackling fire, there's more than music or talk to entertain the Optima's driver. Even the nav system gets a touch of character, ditching normal colors for the different map shades and instead naming the three selections after coffee.

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.

2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima
2021 Kia Optima

Optima, On Road

On the congested urban roads of Seoul, the Optima was easy to place despite growing ever so slightly. It responds well to such tight confines, too, with predictable, quick steering. But less than 100 feet after setting off from our hotel in the Itaewon neighborhood, we encountered an immediate drivability problem: exceptionally grabby brakes.

The left pedal is far too difficult to modulate and was inarguably the most common complaint among the American journalists in attendance. Thankfully, Kia was very receptive regarding the issue, and I doubt this particular problem will survive the trip across the Pacific. And if it does, well, you read it here first.

Beyond that particular qualm, the Optima feels like a smooth, pleasant commuter, with controlled body motions and little road or wind noise. We're not sure if these qualities will make it to American roads, though. The reality is that Korea's roads are, by and large, quite good. Combine that with a frightening number of speed cameras – Europe has nothing on Korea's army of cameras – and it was hard to get a feel for how the Optima behaves at higher speeds. We rarely cracked 60 miles per hour on our drive, and aside from some rural sections, drove on smooth, newer pavement. Combine that with tuning of the adaptive dampers that could change for the US market, and I can only say I'm cautiously optimistic that the Optima will be as comfortable on this side of the world.

2021 Kia Optima

It should be suitably quick, though, if you select the optional turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder. This was the only engine available for testing, and it offers up 177 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. The Optima shares both this engine and its eight-speed automatic transmission with the redesigned Hyundai Sonata. Much as my colleague Clint Simone found during his first drive of the Sonata, this powertrain is a pleasant companion thanks to adequate low and mid-range punch. The 1.6-liter packs more than enough twist to squeal its front tires off the line, although that performance fades at higher speeds, with a buzzy, unpleasant engine note replacing it. A naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine will also make its way to the US, although performance figures aren't yet available. And while our handler from Kia Motors America wouldn't confirm it, an Optima GT will almost certainly arrive packing a turbocharged 2.5-liter with nearly 300 hp.

The K5 has the style and character midsize sedans need to stand out among a sea of increasingly popular SUVs.

We're still several months away from testing the 2021 Optima, and even after a few hours driving the K5 in Korea, it's hard to render a firm verdict about this sedan. We're also missing pricing and fuel economy figures (although this should mimic the 1.6-liter Sonata). But what I do know is that the K5 has the style and character midsize sedans need to stand out among a sea of increasingly popular SUVs, and that's not likely to change when the Optima goes on sale next year.

2021 Kia K5 1.6T-GDI

Engine Turbocharged 1.6-liter I4
Output 177 Horsepower / 195 Pound-Feet
Transmission Eight-Speed Automatic
Speed 0-60 MPH Front-Wheel Drive
Efficiency 27 City / 36 Highway / 31 Combined (est)
Weight 3,300 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 16 Cubic-Feet (est)
Base Price $24,000 (est)
As-Tested Price $34,000 (est)
On Sale Summer 2020
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