Facts matter. Not much these days in America, or in the soundproof confines of our personal echo chambers, or, generally speaking, in the fallow intellectual fields spreading across the internet in 2020. But they do matter—even at this moment, there are these immutable aspects of reality even the most fervent beliefs cannot change. The sky is blue. The earth is indeed round. And a Kia can out-perform a BMW.
I should be more specific, because this isn’t a story dealing out half-truths in pursuit of a delicious, delicious take. Just the facts, ma’am. Ergo: The front-wheel-drive 2021 Kia K5 GT, the Korean automaker’s edgy Optima reboot with a 290-hp turbo four and a DCT, has a quicker 0-60 mph time, better cornering and better overall handling performance than the rear-wheel-drive 2020 BMW 330i.
These are now basic facts in the automotive canon, sure as the difference in cargo space between a Mini and a Suburban or the maximum speed you can take that corner up ahead without crashing. The acceleration gap does make sense given the horsepower difference (the BMW has a 255-hp turbo-four) and dual-clutch box—but cornering? Handling performance? In its base form, at least, the Ultimate Driving Machine is bested by a newcomer with the FWD bones of a budget midsize sedan that’s $10,000 cheaper. 2020, you continue to delight in surprises.
Already, I know I’ve lost some of you. That’s one hell of a claim to make, especially if you’re reading this while sitting in your new M340i, wearing your BMW-branded hat, ping-ponging down the turnpike when you really should be paying attention to the road. I kid, Bimmer friends. I myself own an E46 3 Series wagon whose ludicrous maintenance costs I justify by telling myself how smart I am for driving a driver’s car. Hell, the driver’s car.
Thing is, I’m but a humble messenger. We know the Kia K5 GT can out-perform a BMW 330i in 2020 not because Kia pulled a fast one, or because some random YouTuber slid one off a cliff, but because an obscure yet vital company called AMCI Testing proved it beyond a doubt.
Facts are its core product, the truth its target audience. Automakers are certainly capable of measuring their own… sticks, let’s say, but when they want to come out swinging in an ad campaign and say “We beat the hell out of that guy right there” in public without getting sued or discredited, they call AMCI for a comprehensive, impartial comparison test first.
Because it works in the background of the industry, often with preproduction cars and extensive NDAs, AMCI Testing’s small team rarely gets the chance to open up about its processes for evaluating cars and its mission to safeguard the objective truth. But earlier this fall, as it was wrapping up testing the Kia against the BMW, The Drive had the chance to visit its facility on a decommissioned military airstrip in southern California to see exactly how it proved the K5 GT’s superiority.
Want us to get specific? And scientific? Gladly. All tests were performed on the stock tires for each trim—245-width Pirelli P-Zero all-seasons on the Kia, and 225-width Bridgestone Turanza all-season run-flats on the BMW. They’re not on the same tires because this is an evaluation of how the cars are equipped from the factory, and OEM tire choice is part of that package. (And despite what you may have read elsewhere, the K5 GT does not come with summer performance tires.)
For acceleration: With traction control off and no rollout, the 2021 Kia K5 GT scoots from 0 to 60 mph in 5.70 seconds while the 2020 BMW 330i does it in 5.98. Moving along, that gives the Kia a quarter-mile time and trap speed of 14.21 seconds and 103.3 mph, respectively. The BMW is there in 14.41 seconds at 99.5 mph.
In a highway merging test, the K5 GT needed less tarmac than the 330i to get from 20 to 65 mph, 327 feet to 374 feet. That 50-ish foot margin or victory for Kia endured on AMCI’s highway passing test of 40-70 mph.
For handling—where, it should be noted, the Kia’s stability control can’t be shut all the way off, while the BMW’s can—the K5 GT pulled 0.947 g in a fast 180-degree corner versus the BMW’s 0.920 g and managed the slalom 1 mph faster (60.27 mph to 59.05 mph). The difference between 59.05 mph and 60.27 mph may be almost impossible to perceive when you’re traveling in a straight line, but it’ll become a lot more clear when suddenly the BMW is in a spin and the Kia is carrying on.
The World Of Car Testing You Don’t Know About
On paper and in practice, AMCI Testing is a consultancy that offers independent competitive testing to automakers who want to make a clean, unambiguous, public statement that their car is in fact better than the other guy’s car in some key way—handling, acceleration, comfort, etc. End the discussion there, and so what? So it’s a rubber stamp outfit to put the shine on any turd that rolls in?
Wrong. You may have never heard of it before this moment, but AMCI Testing is one of the last truly impartial referees in the game and a critical check on an industry driven by marketing promises and subjective reviews. Its business is to assist with marketing, yes—Automotive Marketing Consultants, Inc—but its goal is to ensure that what you as the consumer read or see or hear or absorb through cultural osmosis about a car is the truth.
There is a 100 percent chance they’ve affected your understanding of the automotive world, either by validating a bold claim that’s lodged in your mind somewhere or, and here’s where it gets interesting, preventing an automaker from running with some bullshit that might eventually find its way into your feed.
Sometimes automakers approach AMCI early on in a new car’s development, as much as three or four years prior to launch, for a gut check on their own engineering. Other times, companies send over the finished vehicle just before it hits dealer lots with the goal of finding a competitor to nail to the wall in the town square.
Sometimes they win, like the Kia K5 GT. Sometimes they lose, like the unnamed American client a decade ago who paid AMCI for a comprehensive report that concluded the car’s single positive quality was the speed of its power window lifts.
This is high-stakes stuff. Billions of dollars go into creating a single new model, with potentially billions more riding on its success or failure. Ditto for the unwitting competitor being used as the heel for a (truthful) marketing campaign. Add in the complicated pressures of today’s market, and it’s hardly a shock to hear AMCI’s work testing hundreds and hundreds of vehicles from nearly every mainstream automaker has generated a blizzard of lawsuit threats over the last 35 years.
What is remarkable is that an AMCI Testing-certified statement has never been successfully challenged, in court or otherwise. The data simply doesn’t lie.
Professional Driver, Closed Course
Sprawling across the dusty flats at the Los Angeles Basin’s southeastern edge, Marine Corps Air Station El Toro is a magnificent ruin, a 4,700-acre former military complex that began as a World War II-era blimp base and served as the U.S. Marines’ main West Coast aviation hub for much of the 20th century before it was decommissioned in 1999.
Since then, AMCI’s leased space on its four massive, crumbling runways for closed-course testing, though the company’s dominion has shrunk as developers reclaim more and more of the land.
It’s a hot, early-fall morning as I pull into a satellite parking lot at El Toro and ring Guy Mangiamele, AMCI’s director of vehicle testing and ideation, to come out lead me into the lair. Mangiamele shows up in—well, he asked me not to mention any of the cars the team owns to avoid any appearance of favoritism, but let’s just say it’s a delightful 20-year-old econobox—so he shows up in a car and guides me down some access roads to the section of runway where a 2020 BMW 330i and a pre-production 2021 Kia K5 GT are staged.
Also sprung for the day are testing manager George Doganis and chief test driver Gary Thomason, who, fun fact, have 28 SCCA national autocross championships between them; keep that in mind as they talk about the cars. We’re all standing around outside a small office trailer they’ve got parked in the middle of the concrete plain, with a few testing apparatuses resting on a folding table when I realize, this is pretty much it.
AMCI Testing is not a big, flashy company trading in slick presentations, which might explain why they fly so under the radar when you’d think the automotive res publica should line up their eminently useful conclusions.
They’re a fun, affable group. Good banter, too. Decades of experience have left them confident about a lot of things and surprised by very little. That level-headed nature extends to the way they perceive their responsibilities and larger place in the industry. Because in the end, cars are not philosophical. They are not Schrödinger’s cat, this unknowable thing that will only reveal itself to you the consumer upon purchase. Empirically, even in subjective-sounding areas like comfort, one is always going to be better than the other, and AMCI aims to determine what’s what.
“Maybe the media brings some of their biases, but you know, we don’t care. We’re comparing cars with the same attitude, always. I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s the fastest, or the one that rides the best,” Doganis says.
But it’s more involved than playing judge and jury for juicy marketing claims so people don’t get dragged into court, or worse, forced to issue a public retraction. The way Mangiamele sees it, they’re helping you as a consumer or an enthusiast build an accurate understanding of your own choices.
“A BMW is always an easy purchase. You don’t have to explain it to anybody, because everybody thinks by the reputation, it’s probably the best car. Sometimes that’s true, sometimes it’s not. But if you opt for something more problematic, you have some more explaining to do, to your friends, to the guys at the bar, to whoever. You better have a good story,” he says with a wry smile.
“So if someone’s giving you a story that encouraged you to take the test drive and feel the same thing and fall in love and buy it, then you make that story your own. The stories we tell, we hope help in that. Because they really are honest.”
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Poach ‘Em
So what’s the story playing out here? For those of you just joining us, Hyundai and Kia have had a major glow up in the last five years. Through a series of smart product decisions, the strategic poaching of executives and two of the most successful design language shifts in recent memory, the Korean siblings are in the midst of transforming their image from one of cheap and staid blandmobiles to an exciting, risk-taking venture that can truly compete on a global scale—particularly with the Germans and the Japanese. Over the past two decades, both companies have grown immeasurably in build quality and technology. Now they’re attempting to do the same for performance.
In 2015, Hyundai lured Albert Biermann away from his perch as the vice president of engineering for BMW’s M division to come shore up its hi-po operations and launch the similar Hyundai N brand. Biermann helped set in motion many of the new or revived cars that have made headlines since—the Kia Stinger, the Genesis G70, the darling Hyundai Veloster N—before taking over future model R&D entirely for Hyundai and Kia in 2018.
His influence is all over the new Hyundai Elantra and Sonata sedans, both of which will offer genuine performance editions on a new platform in 2020. The Kia K5 is the kissing cousin of the Sonata, and the GT is Kia’s answer to the Sonata N.
Match these exciting developments with a healthy lineup of American-friendly crossovers; an impressive range of hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles and pure EVs; and prices that still undercut its competition by thousands of bucks, and you should have a classic bildungsroman where Hyundai and Kia have become respected forces. But it’s a hard thing to change the minds of hundreds of millions of people, especially people who remember the utterly mediocre cars the two were making less than a decade ago. So Hyundai Motor Group’s path is still an asymptote, forever curving toward parity but never quite achieving it.
It’s probably extremely frustrating. You can make some truly great cars—arguably the most enthusiast-friendly cars on the market right now—but because the Kia Spectra was a thing, people keep dismissing you out of hand.
You know you’ve got BMW’s number, so what next? You ring AMCI Testing to prove it.
“We have a lot of manufacturers who come to us and say we want a rubric of every potential advantage we have against these five cars, or these three cars,” Mangiamele says. “Or a client may come to us and say, and this was the case with Kia, they say it’s a sports sedan, and we’re looking for a sports sedan comparison so what we really want you to focus on is handling and acceleration. Because that’s where our engineers are telling us we’ve made really great strides.”
Once an automaker hires AMCI for a comparison test, the team does some preliminary, unscientific shakedowns with the client’s car and its intended (or speculative) competition to get a baseline picture of its performance. Cars are bought or leased at local dealerships without the automaker’s direct involvement to avoid any goosing of test vehicles (or in the case of a pre-production car like the K5 GT, provided with a signed affidavit attesting to the production nature of any relevant systems). Critically, tires are spec’d as they should be according to the trim being tested.
If it’s immediately apparent the client isn’t going to get its desired result, Mangiamele says as much and the whole shebang quietly ends. If it seems like the client’s car could win, AMCI pushes ahead with a full test. The automaker paying tens of thousands of dollars for all this could still end up losing, of course, though Doganis says Kia had good reason to be confident in the K5 GT.
“High up people at these companies rely to some degree on their engineers [to tell them what’s possible], and they have some ideas,” Doganis says. “Like in this case, the guy designing this car is Albert Biermann. He knows all about BMWs. So he can honestly say you know what, I think we have a chance.”
The Tech to Prove It
What gives AMCI Testing the kind of reputation that can be stamped on an unassailable result, more so than the legions of independent reviewers on YouTube and elsewhere, is its sophisticated testing equipment and methodology. Long the province of OEMs, consulting firms like AMCI and legacy car magazines, basic instrumented testing tech like VBOX, discrete accelerometers and laser timers have trickled down to anyone with a camera and a couple of cars.
But AMCI Testing also has more advanced stuff; for example, Doganis highlighted their optical timing system for acceleration tests that uses a super high definition camera suctioned to the side of the car to take pictures of the ground a thousand times a second and measure the distance individual pixels move.
For basic acceleration and handling performance tests like the ones performed on the Kia and the BMW, a simple timing system is all that’s needed. The thing AMCI’s really built a 35-year testing business on is the precision with which they employ it. Mangiamele has a whole playbook of different testing routines, some on public roads, to do whatever’s needed to find an answer. Here, AMCI put the two cars through seven trials on temporary cone courses on the runway:
- 0-60 mph
- Quarter mile time and trap speed
- 20-65 mph highway merging
- 40-70 mph highway passing
- Dry/Wet slalom
- Dry/Wet 180-degree corner
- Dry/Wet double lane change (evasive maneuver)
Let’s take the 40-70 mph test as an example. How hard could that be, right? Watch the speedometer, hit the timer, and floor it.
First, time is the wrong metric to track when you’re talking about a passing test that matters to real-world use. Time is already fluid when you’re driving at highway speeds. Distance—space—is what matters. To accurately measure it, Doganis, Thomason or another one of AMCI’s accomplished test drivers use a separate speedometer to track the car’s speed all the way up to 39.8 or 39.9 mph before stomping on the gas to start the timing. Doganis says it can be an excruciating process, but the accurate, relevant data that results is worth it.
“Where the magazines are universally setting the equipment to start at their start speed. So if that’s 40 mph, they floor it at 30 and set the equipment to start at 40 and go to whatever, 75,” Thomason says. “We’re using a switch, so we’re measuring downshift, boost build time, they’re ignoring all that. So I have to get it to 39.7 mph, which is displayed on there, and then floor it, so that it captures all that.”
Another thing those damn magazines always screw up is measuring the 0-60 time, in Mangiamele’s book. There’s no rollout, no correction necessary if you do it right, he says, because that push stemmed from people using substandard equipment that just wasn’t good at measuring the 0-5 mph bit of a launch. What AMCI Testing measures using that fancy downward-facing camera is a true 0-60 time. “Plus, they’re all in their own battle to post the best number,” he says.
AMCI take the same methodical approach with the corner, slalom and evasive tests, ticking up entry speeds into the various cone courses in tiny increments until they find the absolute limit (a repeatable result across multiple runs by their professional drivers). And that really is what it’s all about—handling performance doesn’t take into account what “feels” better or any sort of subjective judgment about FWD versus RWD.
As Doganis says about the BMW’s slalom speed of 59.05 mph: “If you try it at 60 mph in the BMW, you are out in the weeds. The difference is just one mph, but it’s huge. There’s no way it can make it.”
Running down the full results with the three professional testers is a lot of fun, because that’s how I’m able to tease a little subjective excitement out of them. Acknowledging that they were paid a good sum of money by Kia to run this experiment in the first place, Thomason and Doganis have nothing but good things to say about the K5 GT—how torquey the motor is, how it spins the tires at half throttle in second gear, how it corners flatter than you’d think possible and how the DCT shines. The BMW? Doganis says in his view the chassis balance has improved in the G20, but the steering still lacks.
(The diverging views on both here might raise an obvious assumption: AMCI was paid by Kia, so of course they’re going to say some nice things. I ask them if they’ve ever done any testing for BMW and if they had other conclusions about different models, but they’re unable to speak on the record about any past clients or tests because of NDAs and the fact that the automaker owns the data once the test is complete.)
Behind the Wheel, the Data Doesn’t Lie
But I’m not just here to learn. At Mangiamele’s insistence, I hop into both cars with Thomason to re-run the handling and acceleration tests, first with him driving before I take over to see for myself. Thomason is disarmingly nice, but I can tell from the first corner in the Kia that he’s fast as hell. What looked like a long, wide 180-degree corner from outside the car is a narrow, precarious chute when you enter at 60 mph with the goal of not hitting any cones but going as fast as physically possible. I’m sure frequent autocrossers are rolling their eyes right now.
As advertised, the K5 GT is extremely flat through the corner with just the barest hint of understeer—stability control is off, but there’s absolutely zero drama. That modern front-wheel-drive sedans can move like this is a reminder that there’s no real excuse for boring, bad cars, just a lack of will.
There’s something else going on, too—according to Thomason, the always-lurking stability control is watching how quickly you’re twirling the steering wheel. “On the slalom, if you came in really quickly—the faster you come in, the faster you gotta spin the wheel—it’s watching how fast you’re doing that. So I would get a little brake at every cone, the nose would drop just a little at every cone if I did it right. Those were my best runs, because it’s not really slowing the car, it’s thinking about it.”
He’s right. You can saw away at the wheel in the Kia, and it simply follows along. It is nigh impossible to upset the tail. I’m still hitting cones, but that’s because I’m not a 22-time national autocross champion. Not yet, anyway.
The one test where the K5 GT didn’t actually beat the 330i is the wet evasive/double lane change course—unlike the famous moose test, the pendulum-like swing back around the second set of cones here favors the oversteering BMW. The Kia was faster by 0.26 mph in the dry test, though AMCI Testing doesn’t consider that difference significant enough to count as a win. Still, for a car that used to be a complete afterthought, the K5 GT is a machine to be reckoned with. Somewhere, Biermann just broke into a wide grin.
Your Move, BMW
“I don’t care how much a car costs, there are compromises. Everything mechanical is a compromise,” Mangiamele says. I’ve finally gotten him to get a little deep.
“This is the other part,” he says. “To be as blunt as possible, everybody tries to do the best they can with what they’re given in their jobs, right? So the engineers are always very well… they’re extremely competent, at all manufacturers. They all have a lot of talent, a lot of ability. But they’re dealing with a lot of other issues. They’re not just given a blank check to do whatever they want, unless they’re at a place like, you know, Koenigsegg.”
“So in many ways, a car that does a lot of things well, where you’re just surprised at how good it is, it’s a testament to that internal mechanism, how those people worked together, what those compromises were, and how good the whole process is.”
So what now? Kia owns the results of these tests, and it’s already started to boast about the K5 GT’s superiority over the BMW in commercials and on social media. Visit the K5 model page on kia.com, and you’ll see a section dedicated to bragging about the AMCI Testing-certified results. It’d do well to make a much bigger deal out of it, in my opinion. Then again, it’s all part of a longer game.
The renaissance we’re seeing at Hyundai and Kia is not the result of chance. Maybe a midsize Kia sedan still doesn’t tickle your fancy after reading all this. But you can’t deny this fact: it can out-handle a BMW at a $10,000 discount, and that says something pretty good about what’s going on at Kia these days.
You also can’t deny this—it sure would be useful to have an AMCI Testing for the world outside of cars, a methodical, earnest crew of nerds keeping the facts straight for all of us. Maybe we’d buy fewer lies.
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