Kia tackles the high-end luxury market

Posted: February 23, 2014

In South Korea, Kia calls its first full-blown luxury car the K9.

That name just wouldn't do in the United States, allowed a faintly smiling Michael Sprague, the automaker's high priest of American marketing. So, when it makes its imminent debut in this country, it will be known as the K900.

Good move. Who wants the most expensive car the company ever made to evoke Lassie? How many prospective buyers would welcome the vision of their friends leaving little packets of Purina Dog Chow under their wiper blades?

Perhaps a little more heavyosity is appropriate here. This is, after all, a play as risky as it is expensive. Kia, which 20 years ago was building forgettable subcompacts, is climbing into the ring with the cream of automotive luxury. It is going to go head-to-head with a tradition-rich royalty, a small coterie of car builders with names synonymous with luxury and prestige - such names as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, and Lexus.

Kia has made a quantum leap in quality and technology over the last two decades, and enjoyed the related sales success. Now, it's time to see whether it can prosper in perhaps the toughest arena of them all: the U.S luxury market.

A day of driving the K900 at a recent regional press preview would suggest the machinery is good enough to spar with the good old boys. You'd certainly be hard-pressed to find a quieter large sedan. Indeed, one publication's test found less than 2 percent difference between the K900's cabin noise level at 65 m.p.h. and that of the Rolls-Royce Ghost.

From its quietude to its peppy V-8, the K900 seems to have enough weaponry for the fray. It also has a plausible marketing approach.

Part of that approach is the timing of its U.S. debut. This is not a spanking new car. It went on sale in Korea in May 2012, and has since gone on to a number of foreign markets. The K900 V-8 won't debut here for several weeks, and the V-6 model is months away. Obviously, Kia wanted to make sure this guy was right before bringing it into the most important market.

Also, Kia will try to price its full-size luxury sedan at a point between the competitors' full and midsize offerings. Thus, the $50,000 K900 V-6 and the $60,400 V-8 would be slotted between such cars as the BMW 5 and 7 series, the Audi 6 and 8, and the Mercedes E and S Classes.

Since the Kia flagship can't play the tradition card, its marketing strategy goes elsewhere. The K900, says Scott McKee, Kia's communications director, "is more about product than provenance. It's an edgier, more modern take on luxury."

The K900 is not quite the styling home run the current Kia Optima is, but it is still attractive business, particularly up front. The interior is very tailored and quite handsome, sporting premium leather, wood trim, and a 16-way driver's seat. The rear seat legroom suggests a chauffeur-driven limousine.

Like other Kias, the K900 has a structural and mechanical kinship with a Hyundai, in this case, the Equus. And, like other Kias, it has been well-differentiated from its corporate kin. As Kia product planner Orth Hedrick put it: "Everything the customer sees, touches, and feels is different."

The K900 proved a comfortable as well as quiet ride, thanks, in part, to its long 120-inch wheelbase. The 420-horsepower, 5-liter V-8 I drove was snappy business, getting from 0 to 60 in a scant 5.5 seconds. The transmission, Kia's first eight-speed, was a quick shifter, nicely matched to the engine.

Handling wasn't exactly sport-sedan, but it was competent and confidence building.

All-wheel drive is not available at this point.


2015 Kia K900 (V-8 model)

Base price: $60,400.

As tested: N/A.

Standard equipment: 5-liter V-8, eight-speed automatic transmission, rear-drive, and a generous supply of luxury appointments.

Options: A VIP package that includes such goodies as power rear seats.

Fuel economy: 15 city and 23 highway.

Engine performance: Very quick.

Handling: Fine.

Styling: Attractive.

Ride comfort: Exceptional.

Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles.

The Ben key: four bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.

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