2015 Kia K900 First Drive

Kia has kept climbing, but is this peak too high?

What It Is
Kia's assault—yes, assault—on the established full-size luxury sedan class.
Best Thing
Quieter and more comfortable than a Lexus LS. Better steering, too.
Worst Thing
Floppy suspension, and we still can't wrap our heads around that price tag.
Snap Judgment
Born of sound logic from an illogical place, lack of brand prestige is going to be the K900's toughest selling point.


For the first time, going to a Kia press event felt like I was going to one of Buick's. No, there were no Geritol samplers or fairs to shop around for Medicare Part B. That was Buick of the past anyway—like 1990s past. But there was plenty of déjà vu about the language used: Casual, smart luxury, upscale taste without pretension, and so on.

Except this wasn't the brand of Tiger Woods—er, Peyton Manning and Shaq—we were talking about; it was the brand of Blake Griffin; anthropomorphic, hip-hopping rodents; and Lawrence Fisburne. And the car in question didn't have a long history of luxury lineage to go off; its panache came from the fact that Kia wanted a slice of the lux-car game and put us into a $66,400 car to prove why it deserved to be there. In the eyes of Kia's product people, the car should sell itself to sensible-minded people who value their time and money. Giving us the same sort of demographic breakdowns you'd expect to come up with—45 to 54 years old, male-skewing, affluent, worldly, and self-employed—those sensible people ought to come in droves to their local Kia dealer to drive this supposedly world-class luxury car.

Except luxury has never really been about sensibility.

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Walkaround

There's no getting around the fact that the Kia K900 looks stately, with smooth, flowing lines and a regal stance. It looks the part in every way that it can, but we worry that Kia's Germanic approach to designing a luxury car might have its share of problems. Parked outside of a resort villa next to a bunch of Kia Cadenzas, we had a little trouble telling the cars apart at first. That's a trait we see more in BMWs and Audis than Kias. BMW and Audi also don't sell $15,000 subcompact cars under their own brands. Yet, at least.

And it didn't help that the Cadenzas were optioned some $20,000 less than the K900s. There's much more to each of the cars—the Cadenza is front-wheel drive and has a V-6 engine while the K900 comes packing 420 horsepower and rear-wheel drive—but if you're paying that much for a car, you expect to be able to tell it apart from its lesser siblings a little easier. We like the way it looks, coming off as clean and stylish from the side and rear without being too in-your-face. However, up front, we think Kia may be trying too hard with an abundance of LED running lamps and chrome bling.

But, for the first time in a while, this car doesn't have quite the visual punch we've come to expect from Kia.

Sitting Down

With the outside of the 2015 Kia K900 being a bit too "me too" for our tastes, it's good that its interior is awash with upscale materials that would make Lexus blush. And should. The interior of the K900 is reminiscent of the BMW 7 Series all the way down to its scroll knob-control UVO infotainment system—the first Kia has made without a touchscreen interface. Kia's people tell us that they wanted to sweep the dashboard back to give the feeling of more interior space, making it impossible to use touchscreen functions. Except that the screen is still close enough that we could easily touch it. Call it, instead, going with the trend of what works best for luxury shoppers. It works well, and the system is complemented with redundant buttons that make it easy to use in addition to voice-activation and scores of other amenities. On top of the car's $60,400 base price, our tester featured the $6,000 VIP Package that included a surround-view monitor, 12.3-inch digital gauge display, active cruise control, a head-up display, soft-close doors, heated and cooled rear seats, and recliners in the back. Adorned with glove-soft Nappa leather and Alcantara throughout—including the dashboard—the 2015 Kia K900 exudes luxury and would take at least $83,000 from Lexus to yield a similarly equipped LS 460.

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Driving

The first thing one notices when driving the 2015 Kia K900 is its utterly Zen-like interior. You sink a quarter-inch into its driver seat, press its seat cooler button all the way up, pair your phone to the UVO system instantaneously, and turn on your Notorious B.I.G. Pandora station. Crank up the 900 watts. "Going Back to Cali" is on.

"See it's all about the cheddar, nobody do it better/Going back to Cali, strictly for the weather…"

You drive along the coast of Southern California with the windows down, hearing the V-8 growl over the stereo as it whisks the K900 along with ease; its in-house-designed eight-speed automatic shifts as smoothly as the ZF-sourced unit used in everything from BMWs to Ram trucks to Jaguars. Then you roll up the windows and turn off the stereo. And there's nothing but a whisper of wind and your sighs of comfort. This is what it's like to be in the lap of luxury.

Put in Sport mode, the car adjusts its steering effort and throttle response, feeling more hurried as it unleashes a few more of those 420 horses. We found it to be steering sharp and accurate for a car of its size and better than a good many competitors, but we were left for ever-brief moments without extra passing power while the car's transmission tried to figure out how many gears to downshift upon flooring it. The K900 is a lover and not a fighter, though. While it has plenty of punch, its suspension is a coil spring unit instead of the air suspension offered in its Hyundai Equus cousin or overseas version called the Kia Quoris or K9—a dogged name if you ask us. Calibrated for comfort over performance prowess, it soaks up every bump without much notice. But in corners, it reminds us of old world luxury cars that were more for highway cruising than backroad carving, bobbing and heaving more as driving becomes aggressive. It's a shame because most drivers will never take their full-size luxury sedans through those kinds of ardors, but as the competition has gotten better, it's fair to point out that there's a bit too much of that old American land yacht float to this one when the going gets narrow, twisty, and rapidly paced. Most rivals just don't do that anymore.

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Summary

Kia says the K900 is perfectly positioned in a no-man's land of luxury where midsize cars like the BMW 5 Series are at their top end and cars like the Lexus LS are bare-bones, relatively speaking. The 2015 Kia K900 will come with a 311-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 and will start at just over $50,000, and loaded up where ours was with the V-8 engine, it was oozing with amenities. The V-8 model is determined to go over to the Lexus LS 460 and BMW 740i and shake them for all of their lunch money, albeit at a fraction of the cost. We can't help but see it more like a Cadillac XTS and Acura RLX rival, a tier below.

For $66,400, Kia is nothing if not ambitious. The product is there. It's refined, powerful, and certainly carries features befitting of a premier flagship car. Except one: At the end of the day, it's still a Kia. When it comes to luxury, people don't price-shop. They don't compromise. Kia's reps said it themselves: 90 percent of the cars in the segment are leased because no one wants the low car on the totem pole and value doesn't matter nearly as much as image.

Better than a Lexus LS or not—and we think the 2015 Kia K900 probably is from our short experience—we relate it to the analogy of Luxottica eyewear. Luxottica makes 80 percent of the world's major glasses brands. If you pick up a $50 pair of sunglasses and a $500 pair, chances are that they were made by the same company. The difference is the name on the box. And that perceived value is an intangible that goes a long way. Kia is asking us to suspend a lot of belief for a quiet, comfortable car that soothes the soul but fails to stir it.

So has Kia made itself a very good car? Certainly. But in our reasonably irrational world in which we live, we're still wondering just what the heck Kia is doing with this car, if not selling it simply as a loss-leader and symbolic halo for the brand.

Basic Specs

5.0-liter V-8, 8-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, 420-hp, $66,400 as-tested, 15 mpg city/23 mpg hwy

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