NEWPORT COAST, CALIF.?Is the world ready for an ultra-posh Kia?
We?ll soon know, as the South Korean auto maker delivers the first rear-drive K900 sedans to showrooms across Canada.
Kia has gradually moved up-market since arriving here 15 years ago with rudimentary Sportage and Sephia models.
Last year, it tackled the luxury segment with the Cadenza. Now, it?s taking another step up the ladder with the K900.
Kia isn?t yet aiming right for the top. Although the K900 bears some resemblance in looks, size and features to the Mercedes-Benz S Class and the BMW 7 Series sedans, it?s much less expensive and isn?t meant to go toe to toe with them.
It also isn?t intended to sell in big numbers. It enters a lofty segment that accounts for just 2.6 per cent of new-vehicle sales, and Kia expects to move only 50 in Canada this year.
The aim is to retain Kia drivers craving additional plush and power while distracting a few from Cadillac, Lincoln and premium Japanese models.
Kia also lists the Mercedes E Class and BMW 5 Series as possible competitors, but makes less of those comparisons. The K900 is also in the same game as the Hyundai Equus, the recently refreshed flagship of Kia?s corporate sibling.
Kia and Hyundai are following an unusual path into the high-end market, offering lineups that run the gamut from econo-boxes to these new premium beasts.
In contrast, their competitors either create independent luxury divisions (think Ford?s Lincoln or Nissan?s Infiniti) to sever links with the bottom-dwellers or, like BMW and Mercedes, offer nothing lower-end.
In a nod to exclusivity, Kia will showcase the K900 at only 34 ?premium? dealers among its 184 Canadian outlets. But the all-in-one strategy runs the risk it will suffer from proximity to its relatively impoverished relatives. On the other hand, it might be most important as a halo vehicle that attracts customers who will admire it, then buy something cheaper.
The K900?s target customer is an older driver, likely male, retired or nearing that state, and whose family income exceeds $150,000.
That demographic might conjure images of, say, an old Buick ? a soft, sedate vehicle that ruffles few feathers, or emotions.
Although the K900 emits echoes of such stately plush, it has far loftier ambitions. It?s a spacious, powerful, well-mannered vehicle, outfitted with enough features to turn an S or 7 green with envy.
The car comes in three trims, each a package with no additional options.
The $49,995 base model is propelled by a 3.8-litre, direct-injection V6 that produces 311 horsepower and 293 lb.-ft. of torque. Kia anticipates it will account for only 10 per cent of sales.
The $60,995 Premium model has the same engine with many add-ons.
At the top sits the aristocratic, $69,995 Elite, boasting a 5.0-litre Tau V8 that delivers 420 hp and 376 lb.-ft.
All levels offer four driving modes ? normal, eco, sport and snow ? and an eight-speed automatic transmission with manual-shifting on the stick. The top two trims feature electronic shift-by-wire.
The base model includes eight air bags, a host of electronic driving aids, water-shedding glass, parking sensors and cameras, LED daytime and tail lights, leather interior, heated seats all around with cooling up front, Lexicon 17-speaker audio, a 9.2-inch multimedia screen, power trunk lid and a rear-window screen.
The Premium elevates to Nappa leather from regular, a 16-way driver?s seat from 12, and adds touches such as a panoramic sunroof, advanced cruise control, heads-up display, lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection.
With the Elite, the wheels enlarge from 18 to 19 inches, and extra features include 360-degree cameras, cooled and reclining rear seats with adjustable lumbar support, a 12.3-inch screen, power pull-in doors and LED headlights that adapt to curves, vehicle load and city or highway driving.
We tested only the Elite, set up for the U.S. market.
Being in California, my driving partner and I ignored the ?snow? driving mode. We also abandoned ?normal? and ?eco,? because they generated a soft, floaty sensation, reminding me of those mushy barges of yesteryear.
Sport was the clear winner, stiffening the suspension, tightening steering response and boosting acceleration to produce a satisfying, spirited, ride.
It handled expressways and the steep hills and tight corners of the dry-as-dust chaparral country south of Los Angeles with equal aplomb.
How the V6 manages the K900?s nearly 2,000 kilograms is a question for another day.
The car is handsome, if somewhat generic, outside, and practically palatial inside ? comfortable with high-quality materials and workmanship.
Operating the navigation, information and other controls ? on the steering wheel or a console-mounted dial ? involves a book?s worth of menus. After initial confusion, it was manageable.
Since I suffer in heat, I particularly loved the cooled seats, each with four small fans that silently blow ambient air up through the perforated leather.
With all these systems and power, the K900 is no fuel-economy champ. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the Elite at 13 L/100 km. We averaged 12.4.
Still, it?s an impressive package, especially at the price.
Transportation for freelance writer Peter Gorrie was provided by the manufacturer. Email: email@example.com.
Price: $49,995 base, $60,995 Premium, $69,995 Elite
Engine: 3.8-L V6 or 5.0-L V8
Power/Torque: 311 hp/293 lb.-ft. V6, 420/376 V8
Fuel Consumption L/100 km: 13 combined EPA, 12.4 as tested
Competition: Hyundai Equus, Lincoln MKS, Cadillac XTS, Acura RLX, Infiniti Q70
What?s Best: Features and quality for the price, cooled seats.
What?s Worst: Floaty ride in normal and eco modes.
What?s Interesting: Kia is selling this ultra-premium model in the same showrooms as its lowest-end vehicles.