2019 Kia K900 Review: The Best LS 400 Lexus Never Built
Kia’s second-generation full-size luxury sedan is a tour de force of fanciness. Only one problem: Will anyone look past the badge?
Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2019 Kia K900 Luxury V6.
The 2019 Kia K900, By the Numbers:
Base Price (Price as Tested): $60,895 ($64,895)
Powertrain: 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6, 365 horsepower, 375 pound-feet; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
EPA Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city / 25 mpg highway
0-60 MPH: No data available, but figure somewhere in the mid-five second range
Swiss watchmaker that makes the analog clock in the dashboard: Maurice Lacroix
Quick Take: In minty-fresh second-generation form, Kia's flagship sedan has the quality needed to punch well above its price class.
When Toyota decided to launch the Lexus brand to combat Mercedes-Benz back in the Eighties, it went straight for the Three-Pointed Star's heart and created the LS 400, an S-Class competitor that was arguably just as comfortable, quiet, and accomodating as the big Benz for a far lower price. Since then, the LS has changed as Lexus has, following the brand down different stylistic paths and technological roads until eventually morphing into the V6-powered, optionally-hybridized, cognitively-dissonant sedan it is today.
As the big Lexus evolved, however, a series of cars from across the Sea of Japan began creeping around the relaxed, cushy niche it was moving away from. First came the Hyundai Equus, which reached the U.S. in its second generation a decade ago; then came the first Kia K900 in 2012; that in turn was followed by the Equus's successor, now incorporated into the Genesis lineup as the G90 upon its 2016 arrival.
With the arrival of the new 2019 K900, however, Kia has finally achieved the goal of building an Asian-market S-Class competitor—a luxury car that can stand on its own virtues, without being forced to add much in the way of excusatory clauses along the lines of "...for the money" or "...for a Korean car." It has, in effect, become the spiritual successor to that first LS 400 that shocked the world 30 years ago.
2019 Kia K900: The Pros
- The interior is, simply put, spectacular. It's 95 percent of the way to Audi A8 or Mercedes-Benz S-Class quality and luxury at 60 percent of the price. The Nappa leather looks elegant and feels soft beneath both fingertip and buttock; the seats themselves are perfectly balanced between soft and supportive, and the brown-over-black interior scheme on my tester looked, as the millennials might say, hygge AF. (Even the headliner—an artificial suede called Chamude—is nice enough to warrant notice.) Delicate touches like matte wood trim on the steering wheel, real metal accents, and the 17-speaker, 900-watt Lexicon stereo whose grilles look like blatant ripoffs of the Burmester units found in high-end Benzes all conspire to push the ambiance up to levels more often found in cars that cost at least twice as much.
- The top-tier version of Kia's Uvo infotainment system found here—complete with BMW-like tiles on the home screen for the most-commonly-used tools—is simple and effective. The 12.3-in LCD instrument panel is crisp, clean, and readable; there are a few different themes, most of which are pretty well interchangeable replicants of analog gauges, but a couple stand out; red and green portray speed and rpm as digits, with green taking it a step further by changing the gauges to rolling drums seen from the side. (There’s already a digital speedometer option in the dash’s third part, however, as well as one in the head-up display, making it theoretically possible to see your speed in three places at once, making it that much harder to lie to the cops when they stop you. “Son, do you know how fast you were going?” “Yes, quite well, actually.”)
- Somebody on the K900 engineering team must have spent an awful lot of time studying Rolls-Royce's cars, because the Kia's ride is practically Rolleresque. Even New York City's pockmarked, ridged streets seem smooth beneath its staggered 19-inch Michelins (245/45/19s in front, 275/40/19s in back) and active suspension, with impacts either greatly softened or erased altogether. Yet the car doesn't suffers from floatiness the way many cars with supple rides have in the past; it still feels buttoned-down and controlled at speed. It's not exactly a car you'd want to run the Nurburgring with, but it'd sure as hell be fine on the autobahn on the way there.
- The 3.3-liter twin-turbo V6 found across the top end of both the Genesis and Kia line may have found its best use case yet in the K900. With the somewhat-rough engine note muted out by copious sound deadening, it's easier to focus on the motor's better traits: specifically, the plentiful power it serves up, especially for the sort of car that values low-end thrust over flat-footed high-revving fun. The eight-speed transmission helps plenty, having been tuned to run to high cogs quickly for smoothness and quiet but quickly to pop down a gear or two when the rolling wave of torque that starts at just 1,300 rpm needs to be called upon for urgent merges and rapid lane changes.
2019 Kia K900: The Cons
- Sadly, the K900 isn't much to look at. In spite of the best efforts of head designer Peter Schreyer and his team, some of the Kia styling cues don’t seem to have scaled up very well to full-size sedan proportions; the headlights and taillamps look a little small from some angles. The long wheelbase also makes it seem larger than it is—a good five-plus inches shorter than a 7 Series or S-Class, or the same size as their not-sold-here short-wheelbase versions.
- This Kia isn't quiiiiiite as roomy inside as those long-wheelbase sedans. The back seat is certainly plush and commodious, but more in the Buick Park Avenue / Cadillac DeVille kind of way, not in mini-Maybach fashion. You won’t be cramped unless you’re LeBron-sized or bigger, but neither will you be blessed with leg-crossing room.
- And while the VIP rear does come with its own power-adjusting ventilated rear thrones and a wireless phone charger, it lacks the availability of the screen-based entertainment system found on many high-end luxury sedans cars nowadays. This likely won’t be a problem for most—anyone between the age of eight and 88 who finds themselves in the back seat of a $65,000 car is likely to have a smartphone or tablet to entertain themselves if they get sick of the view out the window—but it still seems like a missed opportunity.
- My test car suffered from a couple gremlins. One afternoon, the radio suddenly refused to play, even after I turned the car off and restarted it; then, when the fleet service company rep came to pick it up, the car was thoroughly and completely unresponsive, seemingly from a dead battery. I'm going to give Kia the benefit of the doubt and guess it was a one-off problem, barring further evidence—but if other people start reporting the same issue, it might become a problem.
- The name sucks. As if convincing people to buy a $60,000-plus luxury car wearing the same badge as a $16,315 subcompact and coming from a brand that Eastbound and Down used as a metaphor for Ashley Schaeffer's fall from BMW-selling grace wasn't hard enough, Kia had to saddle the car with an alphanumeric scramble that means nothing. "Equus" may have brought to mind bad jokes about naked Daniel Radcliffe when it came here, but damn it, at least it brought something to mind.
- Nope, thought about it again, and "K900" is, in fact, better than picturing naked Harry Potter.
2019 Kia K900: Value
Much as Hyundai and Kia have managed to grow well beyond their roots as the cheapo alternative to American or Japanese cars, pricing is still a major reason people—and perhaps nowhere is that more true than with the K900.
Here in America, the K900 comes in only one trim—aptly named Luxury—and with only one option, a $4,000 VIP package. Even so equipped, it doesn’t hit $65K. The comparable Mercedes-Benz S450 4Matic starts, in contrast, at about $95K; the new Audi A8 starts at $85K; and scoring a Cadillac CT6 with AWD and the twin-turbo V6 means spending at least $68K. Add on any of their respective equivalents to the VIP package, as well as the optional features that come standard on the Kia (head-up display, premium stereo, etc.) and you’re looking at $100K for either of the Germans. Next to them, the K900 is a smoking value.
2019 Kia K900: The Bottom Line
The K900 represents a remarkable achievement for a brand that, not long ago, ranked somewhere between punchline and punishment in the minds of most people in this country. It deserves, in many ways, to be ranked among the top-tier mass-market luxury makes sold here today.
Thing is, will Americans give a damn? Kia sold a measly 354 K900s in the U.S. last year. (I tried to pull up sales data for the Genesis G90 to see how the other full-size Korean sedan is doing, but, surprise, Hyundai's luxury division hasn't released a sales breakdown since the one for August.) That's not even a quarter of the number of AMG GT sports cars Mercedes sold here that same year, and that's an impractical two-seat sports car that starts at nearly twice the price.
Having a delightful new 2019 model in showrooms will hopefully boost K900 sales over last year's abysmal numbers at least a little. But with sedan sales flagging across the board, and Kia's 2019 marketing plans presumably dominated by the likes of the more profitable eight-seat Telluride SUV and the future-facing battery-powered Niro EV crossover, it's hard to imagine the carmaker will be doing much to get the word out about their full-size luxury sedan.
Which is a shame, because the world deserves to know Kia has built one hell of a great Lexus.
Note: After this article was initially published, Kia replied to my inquiry regarding advertising for the K900 by saying the car would be represented by "a new campaign tailored to this particular segment (business professionals, premium target/conquest owners) via direct marketing, content partnerships and social digital behavior targeting." In other words...don't expect to see a Super Bowl ad for it.