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First Drive: 2019 Kia K900

The best luxury car that nobody will buy

Aaron GoldwriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

SEOUL, South Korea — Mike Floyd, our editor-in-chief, likes to remind us that every story should address the basics: Who, what, when, where, why and how. In the case of the 2019 Kia K900, the answers are pretty straight forward—all except the why.

Let's start with the easy bits. Who: The 2019 Kia K900. What: Kia's all-new value-priced large luxury sedan. When: This fall. Where: Your local Kia dealer—but for me; this test drive took place in Kia's homeland of South Korea.

The how will take a bit longer, but I can sum it up by saying that the K900 does what it does pretty darn well. The new K900 is based on the same architecture as Kia's sporty Stinger, and as with its sibling, ex-BMW engineer Albert Biermann had a hand in its development. You can feel his influence from the first turn of the wheel: Where the old K900 was softly sprung and isolated—a sensible tune for traffic-choked Seoul—the new one feels noticeably stiffer and more buttoned down, though still comfortable and compliant. I purposely dive-bombed a series of potholes, looking for the clunks and rattles that belie deficient (or discount) engineering. Nothin' doin'. The K900 delivers the kind of composure I've come to expect from German cars—and that I suppose I should now expect from Korean cars with German engineers in charge.

Seoul's suburbs are not exactly a bastion of curvy roads, and what tantalizing turns I found were watered down by slow speed limits and slow-moving traffic. I couldn't quite get the K900 on the boil, but I did get enough heat under it to experience its responsive and well-weighted steering and good body control. The relation to the Stinger is clear; the K900 feels like its older and more mature brother.

All 2019 K900s sold in the US will be powered the Stinger GT's 365-hp 3.3 liter twin-turbo V-6, which comes paired with a home-grown eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive. It's the perfect powertrain for a large luxury car: Strong and confident with a Kia-timed 0-62 mph run of 5.6 seconds, a healthy soundtrack under power, and near-silence when cruising. The current K900's naturally aspirated engines—a 3.8-liter V-6 and 5.0-liter V-8—will be offered in other markets, but we're not really missing out. The V-8 supposedly shaves a third of a second off the 0-62 run, but I'm happy to trade that for the 3.3TT's broad torque curve, and I doubt anyone here in the Land of Cheap Gas will miss the economy of the naturally aspirated V-6.

Of course, a luxury car ain't a luxury car if there ain't no luxury. Kia long ago mastered the art of high-quality switchgear and materials, and the 2019 K900 raises this to an even-higher level, with metal speaker grilles, detailed stitching on the door panels, and contrasting-color piping on the seats. Like many luxury cars, the K900's dash features an analog clock, but Kia's was designed by Maurice Lacroix. The overall impression is that the K900 is not a pretender. It is, as my British friends would say, properly posh.

While it may not have the technical wizardry of a top-end Benz or Bimmer, the new K900 certainly has its share of surprise-and-delight features. New to the K900 are reclining rear seats—just like you'll find in the top-end Genesis G90—along with a 17-speaker Lexicon stereo. The infotainment system gets a hi-res 12.3" wide-screen display and the ambient lighting package offers 64 colors, seven of which were specially developed by Pantone. The video-screen instrument panel is terrific, with crisp graphics and silky-smooth animation (Jaguar, you should take notes). My favorite feature is the three separate gauge displays, each tuned to one of the K900's three driving modes (Comfort, Eco, and Sport; there's also a driver-programmable Custom mode). Transitions between gauge displays are made with eye-catching animations, and if you prefer one gauge set over the others, you can easily lock it in.

The IP also serves as the display for the K900's nifty side-view cameras, which show a wide-angle view to the left or right (displayed on the corresponding side of the gauge panel) whenever you hit the turn signal. "Puts Honda's LaneWatch to shame, doesn't it?" one Kia exec said, and I agree that it does—though the Honda's right-side-only camera displays on the center screen, along your eyes' natural path as you look at the side mirror or over your right shoulder. The K900's system is awkward to use, as one generally doesn't (and probably shouldn't) look down at the instrument panel when changing lanes.

Surprisingly, the K900 doesn't offer a panoramic sunroof, an odd omission in a car that treats rear seat passengers so well. And I was surprised that the front seats don't have a massage function, especially as they do have inflatable lumbar and side bolsters—the latter automatically tightening up when Sport mode is engaged.

Kia hadn't announced pricing at the time of my test drive, but they said to expect a higher starting price and a lower top end than the current K900. That would put the new car in the mid-to-high 50s, a real bargain for a roomy luxury yacht with the comfort and composition of a Mercedes S-Class or a BMW 7-series. Bottom line: This is a fantastic luxury car, and pretty much unbeatable when it comes to value-for-money.

And that brings us to the most difficult question: Why? Because as good as it is, the Kia K900 makes absolutely no sense. None whatsoever.

For one thing, the current car isn't selling. Kia moved just 834 K900s in 2016 and 455 in 2017, numbers so low they can be rounded to zero. (For comparison, Mercedes sold nearly 16,000 S-Class cars in 2017, and even Maserati managed to sell 1,700 Quattroportes.) Sure, the new K900 is a better car, but the old one was just fine. Its flagging sales have little to do with the product and everything to do with its position in the segment.

Kia is fielding the K900 as a value-priced luxury car, but I would argue that value is anathema to luxury. Everyone likes a bargain; you'd be nuts to pay $100,000 for a given Mercedes if you could get the same car for $90,000. But when it comes to buying luxury cars, most people are looking to pay for a name. They want to be noticed. And what's wrong with that? If you've worked hard enough to afford a $100,000 Mercedes, you've earned a few jealous stares. Never mind what people might say in marketing clinics: Value-for-money is a not a primary purchase motivation for big, ostentatious luxury cars, and the moribund sales of the K900 prove that.

And then there's the fact that the K900 is a major wrench in the works of Hyundai-Kia's new luxury brand, Genesis, which features—you guessed it—high-value luxury cars. I can't help but wonder about the level of corporate dysfunction it takes to allow this to happen. One could argue the benefits of internal competition. After all, consumer goods companies pit their brands against each another all the time. But what works for laundry detergent doesn't work for cars. You won't find Buick launching models that compete directly with Cadillac, and even the nearly identical Chevrolet and GMC pickups manage not to step on each other's toes. It would be much better for the parent company if the Kia K900 were part of the Genesis lineup rather than competing against it.

It's not like the K900 even fits Kia's brand image. Over the past few years, Kia has established itself as a purveyor of youthful, sporty vehicles that contrast nicely with Hyundai's more mature designs, which in turn stop well short of Genesis luxury. The K900 fits Kia like a harp fits a heavy metal band.

What kills me is that the time, money and effort wasted on bringing the K900 to the US could have been invested in federalizing a model we aren't getting: The Kia Stonic. This oddly-named but handsomely-styled subcompact crossover would be a perfect foil for the Mazda CX-3, Honda HR-V, and Mini Countryman. It's small enough not to compete directly with the Hyundai Kona and hip enough to complement the Soul and the Stinger. I'm sure the Stonic is nowhere near as profitable as the K900 on a per-unit basis, but small SUVs are one of the hottest segments in the biz, while the K900, good as it may be, is all but guaranteed to fail. I'm no financial whiz, but I bet Kia would make a lot more money selling 50,000 Stonics per year than a thousand or so K900s.

Worst of all, the K900 makes it impossible for me to do my job. Telling you the who, what, when, where and how of the 2019 Kia K900 is no problem. But why? Beats the ever-loving crap outta me. Sorry, Mike.

2019 Kia K900 Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2018
PRICE $55,000 (base, est)
ENGINE 3.3L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve V-6/365 hp @ 6000 rpm, 376 lb-ft @ 1,300-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 4-5-passenger, front-engine, AWD sedan
L x W x H 201.6 x 75.4 x 58.7 in
WHEELBASE 122.2 in
WEIGHT 4,642 lb
0-60 MPH 5.5 sec (est)