The 2015 Kia K900 is South Korea’s version of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. It’s a display of automotive breeding that takes the most expensive luxury sedan from its Hyundai sister company — the Equus — and tweaks it for an even more value-oriented buyer.
Offered as Kia’s best in show, the K900 is a premium five-seat sedan that is also its first to be driven with a V-8 engine and rear-wheel drive, the math being that power + performance = luxury. It’s an equation that has long worked for the Germans. But a $60,400-plus Kia is quite the departure.
Kia is South Korea’s oldest car company. Founded 70 years ago as a bicycle maker, it began building cars in 1974 and selling them in the U.S. in 1994, at which point the brand quickly became synonymous with cheap. It’s a reputation Kia has struggled to shed ever since, despite offering increasingly higher-end vehicles, such as its Optima sedan.
So the K900 is a huge leap. Costing almost twice as much as its previously most premium offering, the $35,100 Cadenza sedan introduced last year, the K900 may be a celebration of Kia’s 20 years in the U.S. market, but it is also a grand experiment to test the idea that a luxury experience trumps brand status.
Kia spent much of last week wooing the automotive press with the highest-end version of its highest-end car at a high-end event based at the swanky Pelican Hill resort in Newport Coast, Calif. For a day, I spent almost 200 miles in its $66,400 V-8 K900 equipped with a VIP package that adds power reclining and ventilation to the rear seats and various technological firsts for Kia. That includes a head-up display in the driver’s windshield, a surround-view monitor that displays all four corners of the car on the center console screen to help with parking, and advanced smart cruise control that not only maintains the car’s following distance but can bring it to a full stop as well as re-accelerate.
The VIP package offers a lot for its $6,000 premium, but even stock, the K900’s standard equipment is jaw-dropping. Adaptive LED headlights that adjust to follow the road even when it curves, a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated seats, a panoramic roof, park-assist sensors and cameras, blind-spot and lane-departure warnings and Bentley-esque sunshades on the rear and side windows are all included in the base model.
Having spent about six hours in the car, as both a driver and a passenger, if the Kia badging were absent from the steering wheel I would’ve guessed I was driving a Lexus LS460. Its steering is slightly soft, its ride quality confident and comfortable without being especially sporty. If it had been any more quiet, spacious and spalike, I would’ve been inspired to take a nap.
The rear seat is especially comfort-oriented with terrific leg room and a control panel in the center armrest that can operate the rear window sunshade, turn on the heated seats — even move the front passenger seat forward at the touch of a button.
The K900 shares the same basic platform and powertrain as the $61,250 Hyundai Equus, except its overall length is slightly shorter to give the car a more modern stance. Its inside space has, however, manned up with more head and leg room added to the front seats and subtracted from the rear, which is still plenty roomy.
The K900 doesn’t strive for European athleticism, though its 5-liter V-8 offers a satisfying amount of off-the-line performance as it shifts through its eight gears smoothly and automatically. The gear shift can be operated as a semimanual, but the steering wheel lacks paddle shifters.
Like many cars these days, the K900 can be operated in three drive modes — normal, sport and eco — that moderately affect its acceleration and suspension settings. But the true goal of the K900 is comfort and luxury.
While every other automaker is making their engines smaller and more efficient, Kia is confident that V-8 power is the best connotation of luxury, even if it yields a mere 15 mpg city, 23 mpg highway.
The V-8 K900 will be available later this month. Kia will offer a $50,000-ish, 311-horsepower V-6 option by summer.
Overall, the K900 looks more like its price tag from the inside than from out. Its silhouette is sleek without being truly striking. While the vents on its front quarter panels and its trapezoidal taillights and matchy-matchy exhaust from the rear are attractive, the front end is a train wreck. Observing the K900 from my rear view mirror, the odd-shaped grille looked more busy than elegant, especially in combination with the dots of LED running lights.
But throw open the doors and slide inside, and it’s a very different story. It truly is well done, with soft leather seats and a dashboard inlaid with shiny wood. From the tactile microsuede headliner and pillars to the offset stitching of its leather to the door-mounted seat adjustment that is clearly copped from Mercedes, it feels Germanic. The same week I drove the K900 I was also testing out the new Audi A6 TDI, the cockpit of which looks shockingly similar, with a thoughtfully laid-out center console to operate its audio, navigation and telematics.
The Koreans, it seems, are even better copycats than the Chinese.
Unlike every other Kia, which comes with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, the K900 includes a three-year, 37,500-mile scheduled maintenance program that covers the first five service visits, but not wear and tear fixes to brakes and tires.
That could well suffice, since 90 percent of luxury vehicle drivers aren’t, in fact, owners. They lease.