This one snuck up on me. Not too many years ago, I might drive a Chevrolet SS one week and then a Ford Fusion the next, followed by a Dodge Dart or maybe a Buick Regal. Some of those were (much) better than others, but it never occurred to me to question the existence of the entire genre. Sedans weren’t like wagons or minivans, perpetually floating on the edge of unironic dweeb status. Sedans were the BMW M5 and Mercedes S-class and Ford Taurus SHO. Not all sedans were cool, but the sedan itself, the three-box format, was an agreed-upon foundation for practical coolness. Until it wasn’t.
These days, you can build an unremarkable crossover and sell it by tens—if not hundreds—of thousands, so that’s what companies do. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler gave up on sedans (with the notable exception of the immortal Dodge Charger and Chrysler 300) because you have to try a lot harder with a sedan. You have to convince somebody not to buy a crossover. So, the companies that are still committed to the mainstream-sedan game are completely serious. The wounded Chrysler 200s of the world were long since stalked down and dispatched by a ravenous pack of CR-Vs.
Kia, as a purveyor of crossovers that we like a whole lot, knows the headwinds facing sedans. But instead of quitting, it rolled out the K5, a car that might help you understand why the domestic manufacturers gave up. Most recent domestic sedans carried a faint stench of the rental lot, that unmistakable, “We built this for Avis, but we’ll sell it to you!” half-checked-out sadness. The K5 is trying very hard, which is important, because today’s Would You Rather? puts it up against a very real adversary: the Toyota RAV4, a juggernaut of the crossover world. If you want a five-passenger, all-wheel-drive family car in the $30,000-something price range, these are two possibilities vying for your dollar. Let’s see how they compare.
Our RAV4, a Hybrid XSE, had plenty of goodies: all-wheel drive, stop-and-go adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, heated steering wheel and front seats, panoramic glass roof, LED headlights, 18-inch wheels, and wireless phone charging. It cost $38,760. The Kia K5 had all of those things, too. It cost $31,300. Now, it’s true that the RAV4 was a hybrid. But if you optioned a non-hybrid RAV4 XLE Premium in a similar manner, it would still cost more than $35,000. Call that the crossover tax—and also maybe the Toyota brand-equity tax. But other than a fancier stereo (JBL, 11 speakers with subwoofer), the Kia matched the Toyota’s goodies in most areas and exceeded it in a few.
For instance, both cars had synthetic upholstery, but Kia’s was undoubtedly sharper. Toyota’s material, SofTex, was black with blue stripes and reminded me of the neoprene seat covers you get from Body Glove. It seems like it would be durable and stain-resistant, but it’s not exactly inviting. The Kia was trimmed in red SynTex, which so convincingly imitates leather that I didn’t know the difference until I looked at the spec sheet. It reminds me of a BMW E46 interior color scheme, which is certainly no bad thing, and presents a confident counterpoint to the Wolf Gray exterior (which also evokes a German forebear, namely Audi’s Nardo Grey). On a side note, both SofTex and SynTex sound like products from a company that will eventually build out-of-control Terminators.
Overall? It’s a draw, except for price. We’ll return to that subject momentarily.
Here’s where you expect the crossover to dominate, right? People buy crossovers because they could really use a wagon or minivan but are too insecure for those and too rational for a big, dumb SUV. Well, here’s the simplest way to explain this: The sedan has more room for people, and the crossover has more room for stuff.
With the 112.2-inch wheelbase, the K5 has significantly more room between the wheel wells than the RAV4 (105.9 inches). Its passenger volume, 105.3 cubic feet, is consequently quite a bit more capacious than the RAV4’s 98.8 cubic feet—and it feels like it, too. But the Toyota has more than double the cargo capacity, 37.6 cubic feet to the K5’s 16.0. One caveat there, however. The RAV4’s cargo capacity is predicated on piling your gear to the roof—which A) means your rearview mirror becomes useless, and B) said cargo must consist of reasonably cube-shaped, stackable items. If you’re thinking the RAV4 would be better for hauling, say, your kid’s bike, I can verify that it is not. My kid’s Nishiki Pueblo was equally annoying to stuff into either vehicle. But in both cases, it fit. I call that a surprise moral victory for the sedan.
However, if you tow anything or go off-road, the RAV4 is the easy victor. The hybrid is good for 1750 pounds of towing, which is 1750 pounds more than the K5’s rating. And while I didn’t take the XSE off-road, earlier this year I had a little adventure with a TRD model that proved the RAV4’s fundamental abilities are pretty decent. Advantage: crossover.
The RAV4 seems to have an advantage on paper here, too, with its 2.5-liter inline-four and three electric motors teaming up to produce 219 horsepower. The K5, with its 1.6-liter turbocharged four, makes 180 horsepower. But the Kia, at 3233 pounds, weighs 588 pounds fewer than the RAV4. And it has a torque-converter automatic transmission with eight honest-to-goodness gears, as opposed to the RAV4’s continuously variable automatic (CVT). So, despite its horsepower discrepancy, the Kia nips the crossover from zero to 60 mph, 7.0 seconds to 7.6 seconds.
The svelte sedan also corners harder (.85 g to .81 g) and brakes harder (172 feet from 70 mph versus 182 feet). If you plan to enter your family car in the Silver State Classic Challenge (and some people do), the Kia’s 128-mph top speed smokes the Toyota’s 117 mph.
If your mind wandered a bit amongst all those numbers, here’s what they mean: The K5 is better to drive. The RAV4 feels heavy because it is, and its CVT exhibits the usual disconnect between rpm and speed. The payoff, though, is fuel economy. The RAV4 Hybrid earns a 40-mpg EPA combined rating. The K5’s figure is 29 mpg.
I Would Rather …
OK, so the RAV4 has more cargo capacity, more off-road ability, and better fuel economy. I’ll take the K5. If you can have all the same luxuries and gadgets—plus some unique ones such as the Kia’s “open-air cafe” relaxation soundtrack—for less money, in a better-looking package with better performance, why not go for that? I admit I’m also a glutton for attention, and multiple people complimented the Kia’s looks, while absolutely nobody noticed the RAV4. Yeah, I’d rather have the sedan. Somehow, that feels like a contrarian stance: Hey folks, check out a sedan. You might like it.
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