Kia’s Luxury Bid With $60,400 K900 Sedan Needs Some Fine-Tuning

Would you be willing to pony up $60,400 for a Kia? Maybe the better question is, would you cross-shop a Kia with executive sedans from Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus?

The K900 sedan is Kia Motors Corp.’s attempt to swing for the fences, testing both the marketplace and consumers’ viewpoints of luxury. There’s no doubt that many a highbrow buyer wouldn’t even set foot into a Kia dealership. It’s equally true that even the superrich like a deal. And with a starting price of $60,400, the K900 is definitely a deal.

Take a quick look at the major specifications and it’s clear that the Seoul-based automaker benchmarked its would-be competitors smartly. (Even the nonsensical alphanumeric name puts it in fine company with many tony cars.)

There’s the eight-speed automatic transmission from German manufacturer ZF Friedrichshafen AG, one of the best in the business. And it gets a proper V-8 engine, with 5 liters, direct injection and 420 horsepower. (The cheapest Audi A8 starts at $78,325 and it offers a supercharged, 333-horsepower V-6.)

The wheelbase is close to that of Tata Motors Ltd.’s Jaguar XJ, and the exterior looks generically expensive. The big dog in the Kia lineup inherited only some of the brand’s crisp design language, namely the oval grille with a single tooth intruding top and bottom. But see one drive by and you wouldn’t readily identify it as any specific brand. It doesn’t shout Kia, and the 19-inch (48-centimeter) chrome wheels and crimped tail mimic any number of luxury brands.

Hyundai Precedent

There is precedent here, as its South Korean sister brand, Hyundai Motor Co., has been selling its Equus in the U.S. since the 2011 model year. The 2014 model was mildly updated. The K900 is the Equus’s mechanical equivalent. The only thing it doesn’t offer is the Hyundai’s air suspension.

Also worth noting: Both the Hyundai and Kia are rear-wheel drive, which lends a more premium ride. But neither is yet available with all-wheel drive, which hurts them in markets like the U.S. Northeast.

I took the K900 on a long road trip from Manhattan up to the Finger Lakes region of New York, more than 500 miles (800 kilometers) round trip. My test model was sort of a browned bronze, with white leather interior and dark wood.

The seats were fine and everything on the inside fit together nicely, but my first thought was the interior looked rather staunch and conservative. It seems just as likely to me that many buyers will cross-shop Kia and Hyundai rather than, say, Kia and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG’s BMW, and the reason you’d choose a Kia over its sister brand is that it might be slightly more youthful.

Stale Concept

But there’s no freshness or exuberance to be found inside the K900, just overly lacquered wood and a round analog clock that seems like a stale and reheated concept of comfort.

Then I tried to key in an address on the center console’s big touch screen. My fingers stabbed the screen, to no avail. It isn’t a touch screen, though it certainly looks like one. Rather, the navigation and infotainment are controlled by a (cheap feeling) rotary knob, like something you’d have found in a Daimler AG Mercedes-Benz many, many years ago. It was slow to use.

I brushed a button on the center dash as I moved the (very BMW-esque) gear selector, and the rear privacy shade rolled up. I didn’t mean to do that. Then I tweaked my seats using the (Mercedes-like) seat adjuster located on the door. I began to think I’d pay the many extra thousands for an Audi just to have an interior that is cogently laid out. A sense of frustration isn’t a good beginning to a long road trip.

Quiet Power

Things improved once I was on my way. The engine has great pep and is happily managed by the automatic. This isn’t a power plant that knocks you back into your seat, and nor should it be. It quietly picks up power, sliding along through traffic until - - careful! -- you find yourself well over the speed limit.

The car is quiet, too, with little road noise.

The steering, though, is lousy. Not kind of lousy; really, inexplicably lousy. It’s slack and sleepy when you’re going straight and then jumpy when you make turns at speed.

The suspension take bumps and bad pavement in stride, but it does so by floating over the asphalt. It’s as if the engineers were trying to replicate the suspension of a Lexus, only this is the kind of detached ride that even the Toyota Motor Corp. luxury brand has tried to get away from.

You do get a long list of standard features, from a sunroof to LED headlights to blind-spot detection. The extra $6,000 in options on my car was a VIP package that included ventilated rear seats, advanced cruise control and power headrests.

At trip’s end, I arrived home safely and surely. But I had a list of niggles and nitpicks that well exceeded the niceties. When it comes to luxury, sometime you do get what you pay for.

The 2015 Kia K900 at a Glance

Engine: 5-liter V-8 engine with 420 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic.

Gas mileage per gallon: 15 city, 23 highway.

Price as tested: $66,400.

Best feature: Power of the V-8; quietness.

Worst feature: Poorly thought-out cabin.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)