Octane
By Bradley Hasemeyer
on 4.7.14
Photo by Bradley Hasemeyer

Kia has far surpassed expectations in a relatively short time frame, shifting from a producer of poorly designed, poorly built econo-boxes to well-made, adventurously styled cars that square off with practical Asian stalwarts like Honda and Toyota. Recently they set their sights on the European luxury market with their Cadenza (sounds like “credenza”) and the 2015 Kia K900 ($59,500 base), which they claim is aimed at that BMW 5-Series owner who wants a 7-Series but doesn’t want the price bump. We grabbed some seat time in a powerful, VIP-trimmed $65,000 version to decide for ourselves if it was worth the price tag — and to decide if the Germans should feel threatened by this Asian invasion.

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The Kia K9 has been in South Korea since 2012. The decision to bring it to the U.S. market involved a name change (K9 reminds most Americans of unwarranted police searches) and a change of intention: to be competitive with the other luxury showboats, the K900 had to evolve from a car you were driven in to a car you wanted to drive. To accomplish this, Kia built their very first V8, pumping 420 horses to the rear-wheels through an eight-speed transmission that launched the 4,500-lb K900 off the line more like a sports car than a luxury touring machine. The addition of this robust all-aluminum powerplant along with 19-inch staggered wheels, four-wheel independent suspension and a chassis made of 75 percent high-end ultra-high tensile strength steel does, in fact, make this a car for those who enjoy driving and not just the chauffeured.

In an approach to the large sedan that mirrors Audi and BMW, Kia made the K900 essentially an inflated version of their smaller offerings, the Optima and Cadenza. The design language isn’t as effective in the K900 as it is in its little brothers, but the car definitely looks better in person than in photographs. The characteristic “tiger nose” grille and a full suite of LEDs including fog lights, daytime running lamps and adaptive quad-beam headlights lead the charge, followed by a wide shoulder line and a handsome tail end that seems to mimic the 7-Series but does a better job aesthetically. The whole package is shorter than the in-house rival Hyundai Equus but offers more interior room.

OUT OF THE BOX, INTO THE FIRE?

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Nissan, Honda and other companies such as Toyota with their Scion and Lexus lines have spun off brands to keep their messages clear to consumers; similarly, in the 2000s, Mercedes-Benz created the Maybach to compete with the Rolls Royce and Bentley crowd. That attempt failed, despite having excellent equipment and performance numbers. It will be interesting to see if the same company that appeals to new buyers with hamsters selling a $15,000 Soul can manage to attract the handmade yacht CEO into the same showroom. No question Kia is taking a different approach than the aforementioned brands by offering such a wide spectrum of models. It’s that very same “outside of the box” approach that triggered Kia’s explosion in growth and popularity in the first place.

Inside the hefty steel doors, the K900 greets the driver and occupants with Napa leather, natural wood accents, a panoramic glass roof, soft LED lighting, 16-way adjustable front seats, three-zone climate control and reclining rear seats for heating, cooling and lumbar support. A rear center control cluster allows the wealthy but practical NBA player being driven to practice the ability to move the front passenger seat forward — a la Town Car.

The driver’s controls are run through a center-mounted dial which is intended to be ergonomically favorable, but the position caused us a 24-hour case of carpal tunnel. This pain in the wrist controls Kia’s infotainment system, Uvo, for navigation, car diagnostics, weather and integrated Pandora, which means you give “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” to the song from the car rather than your phone which is both convenient and safe. All the information appears on the large 12.3-inch LCD screen that’s clear and easy to read, but not touch capable — Kia felt it was too far away from the driver to safely navigate, but it would’ve been perfectly fine for arm’s length for us, thank you very much.

The luxury/technology continues with a heads-up display, a 900-watt Lexicon audio system, an adaptive cruise control system that allows the car to fully stop and then pick up speed again once traffic moves, a joystick shifter with manual option, and cameras that help the driver park, give a 360 degree birds-eye view, warn of lane departure and alert the driver if anything is approaching the vehicle (another car, a basketball) while in reverse.

Kia has, in essence, made the K900 the perfect cushy dream car for a long road trip. The suspension eats up the small imperfections in the pavement, making the 4,500 pounds of steel, glass and metal feel light; drivers will quickly hit the “lose your license” zone on the speedometer if they’re not careful. This is partly because of the strong engine but more to do with the remarkably silent cabin that comes from having laminated front and side windows as well as an underbody airflow management system. 80 mph on the freeway sounds like 15 mph in a neighborhood. Silent and powerful, the K900 accelerates on the straights but, unfortunately, the same suspension that works for small bumps at high speeds feels too soft around curvy streets and back roads, lending to body roll. Granted, most people in this segment aren’t looking for weekends of fun on twisty canyon roads, but the competition does offer adaptable suspension setups that would’ve been nice to see here.

The K900 is a great car, no question. On paper it competes nicely with a similarly equipped Lexus LS ($78,000), Audi A8 ($83,000), BMW 7-Series ($84,000) and Mercedes-Benz S-Class ($103,000) for significantly less. However, anyone who has had a bad Match.com date knows there is a chasm of difference between “on paper” and “in person”; though it’s truly a capable, well-outfitted, well-priced value proposition, the K900 still seems to be missing that element of presence that appeals to the owners of the aforementioned rides.

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