It is apparently not enough that Kia has been making many Europeans look like fools with regard to design, quality and warranty and (together with its big sister Hyundai) has moved to No. 5 among global car producers. Now it wants to stir up the premium segment and pit the new flagship Kia K9 (to be called the K900 in the U.S.) against the BMW 7 Series and the Mercedes S-Class.
The result of this automotive megalomania is not far-fetched. The massive luxury car, which shares its platform with the Hyundai Equus, offers the visual appeal of BMW's 7 Series without looking like its cheap copy. In addition, its ambience and features are immediately convincing.
The design is coherent, fitting and rock-solid. Like a penthouse suite, the comfort is exemplary, the space generous, the features abundant and the army of assistance systems state-of-the-art. The car smells of leather and the woodwork is genuine. It is, by every measure, a real-deal luxury car.
Pampers Driver and Passengers
Rear-seat passengers ride on fully temperature-adjustable reclining seats, enjoy champagne from the cooling compartment, can command the co-driver seat to nearly disappear in the glovebox and can watch movies on the DVD screens. It's a nice place to be.
The driver seat, too, offers opulent surroundings. Once the shock of looking at the mass of buttons has faded, navigating this entirely Korean car is surprisingly simple. The central control dial is as good as BMW's iDrive, and the animated instruments are brilliant and clearly arranged.
Impressively, the 2015 Kia K9 is in no way technologically inferior to its European competitors. On the contrary: The head-up display (not available in the new S-Class) is standard on the K9 we drove. So are active cruise control, lane-changing alerts and a camera-based parking assistant. Even LED front lights are standard in the Kia flagship, a mobile hotspot is available and the navigation equipment warns not only of traffic jams and speed traps, but also of ever-present speed bumps capable of overwhelming even the most sensitive air suspension. The only less-than-seamless feature is the voice control, and that's likely a product of our own poor Korean.
It's Not Perfect, Though
As long as the K9 is moving through rush-hour traffic, it is hardly any different from the S-Class and its companions. But on the open road there are a few critical differences. Even in Comfort mode the air suspension does a rather poor job at damping the grooves in the concrete, such that our tea at times spilled from the cup in the rear. We've learned, however, that the K900's suspension will be retuned for American roads. Even so, ride quality is at least partially the product of a wheelbase that's 4.7 inches shorter than a Mercedes-Benz S550's and 6.5 inches shorter than that of a BMW 750Li.
At speeds higher than 60 mph, wind noise is abundant enough to require more volume from the audio system — something you wouldn't experience in the S-Class.
And it is quickly noticeable how hard the 3.8-liter 333-horsepower V6 engine has to work. Yes, the silky eight-speed automatic transmission changes gears briskly, but there is no punch. In fact, beyond 120, this luxury car seems oddly slow. Reaching the promised top speed of 150 mph requires patience.
It's unsurprising that a 450-hp V8 is in the works. It should provide Kia's flagship with the bite a newbie in the segment needs. Once equipped with the more powerful V8, the new Kia should find success in countries where higher extended cruising speeds are common.
Coming Soon to a Kia Dealer Near You
The Koreans have started their attack on the establishment first at home where they are stronger and where, next to patriotism, the vehicle acquisition policy of Korean businesses suits them. It is therefore not surprising that there are more K9s than European luxury limousines roaming around Seoul. The K9's launch in Korea is also supported by its price: Fitted with its base 300-hp 3.3-liter V6 it starts at about half the cost of the S-Class or 7 Series.
"We are so convinced of our flagship that we will introduce it as the K900 in the United States and celebrate its premiere at the Los Angeles auto show at the end of the month," says foreign executive Thomas Oh. Expect pricing, full specs and availability to be announced then or shortly after.
Oh suggests that Kia is pursuing an ambitious expansion plan. The introduction into other Asian markets, the Emirates and Eastern Europe will follow shortly. Only Central Europe and especially Germany will be avoided. It's not that Oh thinks the K9 can't compete with the S-Class and the 7 Series there. Rather, he says "In order to stand up against the top dog on home turf, one needs an extremely strong brand. Kia is not there yet," he admits.
However, just because Kia isn't ready yet doesn't mean it won't be soon, according to Oh. "In two or three years, things could look much differently," he said. Regardless, Kia may very well have a winner with the K900 in the U.S.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.