By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist Photo courtesy of CARICOS
“K900” sounds like the designation for the latest Russian nuclear ballistic missile submarine. But it’s a Korean sub — and its warheads are targeted at Mercedes and BMW.
Kind of like Lexus did, back in the day.
The concept is similar: Offer more car (literally) for less money.
Thus, the K900 is bigger — and a great deal roomier — than an E-Class, but costs tens of thousands less than an S-Class. It also comes standard with a mighty V-8, which is no longer available at all in the regular E sedan.
Now, the K900’s not quite as honed as an E (much less an S) but it’s a credible alternative to either.
And that seems to be just what Kia intended.
WHAT IT IS
The K900 is a full-size luxury sedan — and Kia’s first such.
It is cousin to the Hyundai Equus — but a bit sportier looking, slightly smaller overall (and a lot less expensive). The Hyundai dreadnought begins at $61,500 — $68,750 for the Ultimate trim. As opposed to a much more manageable $54,500 for the K900 Premium trim — and $59,900 for a top-of-the-line Luxury trim.
This puts the Kia in the same price range as mid-sized mainstream luxury sedans like the Mercedes E — which begins at $51,800. Also the BMW 5 — which starts at $49,750. These two are both significantly smaller cars — with less room inside. They also come standard with four-cylinder engines (diesel and gas, respectively).
But they are available with all-wheel-drive while the Kia’s rear-drive only.
The luxury sedan most similar to the K900 is arguably — and ironically — the Lexus LS460, which was the first of the not-traditionals to successfully challenge the traditionals. It is almost exactly the same size overall (though not as roomy in the second row) and comes standard with a V-8. But the LS has also become very expensive — $72,520 to start. And in several objective ways, it offers less than Kia does.
Though it shares some DNA with its Hyundai Equus corporate cousin, the K900 is authentically “all new” and not a skin (and re-badge) job. It is the first-ever Kia to offer V-8 power — and with that power flowing to the rear wheels.
Near S-Class (and BMW 7) roominess — as well as that standard V-8 — for about what you’d pay for a smaller inside Benz E or BMW 5 (with a much smaller four or maybe a six under the hood).
“Base” trim is stuffed with features — including flat-screen gauge cluster (as in the S-Class Benz) tri-zone climate control, panorama sunroof, heated rear seats, a superb 14-speaker stereo, power rear sunshade and Kia’s Uvo system, which among other things includes owner-configurable speed limiter and geo-fencing to thwart teenagers and parking lot attendants.
Kia/Hyundai warranty’s good for twice-plus as long as what some of the others in this class give you.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
V-8 really sucks it down; eats twice as much gas (and twice as fast) as the frugal fours in the Benz E and BMW 5.
All-wheel-drive not offered.
Trunk is small for such a big car.
UNDER THE HOOD
Does it make sense to you that big engines are going away in cars with big price tags?
It’s understandable that people shopping in the teens and twenties and thirties are concerned about how much fuel a prospect uses. But once you’re in the fifties (let alone the sixties) it’s kind of risible — isn’t it? — to talk about gas mileage. Like Al Gore lecturing us about our “carbon footprint” from behind the wheel of his Cadillac Escalade. If you can afford to spend fifty grand on a car, the cost to feed it isn’t an economic consideration.
It’s like ordering a Diet Coke with your double angus Thickburger.
Kia gives you a full-sugar Big Gulp-sized real Coke to go with it — in the form of a 5.0 liter, 420 hp V-8 teamed up with an eight-speed automatic.
This is — literally — twice-plus the engine that comes standard in the price-equivalent Mercedes E (2.1 liters, 195 hp) and BMW 5 (2.0 liters, 240 hp). Not surprisingly, the Kia’s V-8 uses twice as much gas: 15 city, 23 highway — as opposed to the Benz’s 28 city, 42 highway and the BMW 528i’s 23 city, 34 highway.
Ok, it’s not quite twice as thirsty — but it is a lot thirstier.
It’s also a lot quicker.
The K900 can achieve 60 in 5.5 seconds — vs. 6.4 in the four-cylinder BMW and about 7.6 seconds for the Benz E250. Re-read the latter figure. The Kia is two full seconds quicker to 60 than the Mercedes, which isn’t slow — but which also isn’t much quicker than a four-cylinder Camry.
The K900 is much quicker than a four cylinder Camry.
It is also quicker than the V-8 powered Lexus LS460 — which is also about $18k more expensive to start. The Lexus flagship sedan has a 4.6 liter, 386 hp engine and takes just over six seconds to get to 60. It’s also thirsty: 16 city, 24 highway. Ironic, isn’t it? The Lexus LS — which undercut Mercedes and BMW back in the day by being more car for less is now less car for more. History does, indeed, repeat itself.
Among it’s price-in-the-same ballpark competition, the BMW 5 with its optionally available twin-turbo 4.4 liter V-8 (445 hp) is the only one that outguns the Kia. But “ballpark” is loosely used here, as the V-8 powered 550i starts at $64,500 — exactly $10,000 more than the V-8 powered K900.
One thing — other than a light appetite — that the Kia doesn’t offer is all-wheel-drive, a feature that is available as optional equipment in most of the cars in this class, including the Lexus LS, BMW 5 and Benz E.
Also: Kia will offer a lesser (size, power — and appetite) V6 engine later this year. If it’s the same basic unit used in the Hyundai Genesis, expect power to be in the 330-ish range.
ON THE ROAD
This car is a roller. A long-wheelbased sled.
How long, exactly? A tenth of an inch shy of 120 inches (119.9 inches). To put that in perspective, the Benz E’s wheelbase is 113.2 inches, a difference of some seven inches. The BMW 5 comes in at 116.9 — and even the Lexus LS (in standard wheelbase form) stretches a mere 116.9 inches in between the axle centerlines.
The long — and short — of it is that the K900 give you the Full-Size Experience, for both good and ill.
Good — in terms of its stateroom ride and road king presence. Bad — in terms of its lunkier handling when pressed. This can’t be helped. Not when the car is so long that the front half is already through the apex before the back half reaches it. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, too — but the point stands. Limos are not made for high-speed cornering any more than Corvettes are made for off-roading. There is no trouble if you don’t expect either to do what it wasn’t meant to do. Leave the K900 (and the Corvette) to operate in their natural environments — and expect them to do what they were meant to do — and you will not be disappointed.
The K900, though it looks sportier than its Hyundai Equus cousin, behaves like the gentle giant it is. It is dead quiet, dignified and dapper — the George Clooney of its class. The next closest thing to it (which actually does a slightly better job of it) is the Lexus LS. Which it ought to, given what they charge for it. But the Kia is close enough to sway, in no small way because of the bargain it is compared with the LS.
To get going, you engage Drive or Reverse via a BMW-ish tap and toggle gear selector. As in the BMW, you tap a button on top for Park. There are two driver-selectable modes, standard and Sport. When the latter is engaged, the optional “virtual” LCD gauge cluster morphs from analog-style speedometer and tach to a racier looking digital display, with both your speed and engine RPM displayed in big white numbers (with your speed also viewable via the also-available heads-up display).
Though the Kia is very quick by the numbers, the sensation of acceleration is muted by the sheer mass of the thing: 4,555-4,663 lbs., depending on the configuration. In lighter cars, the front end will rise a bit and you can feel the weight transfer toward the rear. Not here. The Titanic’s bow didn’t nose up, either, when the big screws out back began to churn the water.
But the V-8 has the horsepower — and the torque (376 ft.-lbs.) to overcome all that inertia. The car accelerates briskly whenever, wherever. The new generation turbo fours coming online in competitor models are also thrusty, but I’m leery of those turbos. A big lazy V8 is my kind of engine. My only complaint is that it’s too quiet. A background burble would be nice.
I did not discern much difference in the car’s behavior when Sport mode was enabled, though the digital gauge cluster makes it seem a bit sportier. The eight-speed automatic shifts mildly, but not sluggishly. I think it’s perfectly set up for the kind of driving — and drivers — this car is meant for.
AT THE CURB
People seem to like the Optima sedan. It’s one of Kia’s best-sellers (there are several at this point; another being the double-digit-uptick Soul). So the basic themes were carried over to the K900, including the attractive fastback/smoked glass roofline and front fender “breathers.” The grille, however, is pure Jaguar.And the trapezoidal exhaust cutouts built into the lower rear bumper are extremely Lexus LS.
Or at least, as close as copyright laws allow.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Remember what Bill Mitchell — father of the original Camaro and the first Sting Ray Corvette once said? If you’re going to rob something, rob a bank — not a gas station. He was replying to journalists who accused him — rightly — of “borrowing” certain lines from Ferraris of the era.
So, maybe the K900’s not the most original-looking car on the block. Neither was the original Lexus LS — and no one (with a functioning brain) is arguing Lexus made a mistake by copying Mercedes as closely as they could get away with.
But while the Kia’s similar in some ways to existing luxury sedans, it is also very different in others. For instance, interior space. Nothing in its class — and price range — can match it. A tenth of an inch shy of 46 inches of legroom up front (45.9) and 38.2 in the rear. Not even the Mercedes S Class has as much front seat legroom (though it does — and should, for $94k to start — have a roomier back seat).
The E has just 41.3 up front and 35.8 in the rear. The BMW 5 comes up even shorter: 41.4 up front and 35.3 in the rear.
Interestingly — that “fast” roofline notwithstanding — the Kia also has more headroom than most of the cars it squares off against: 40.2 inches in the first row, which is two-plus more inches than in the Lexus LS (38 inches) and a solid inch more than in the Benz E (37.9 inches). The BMW 5 has more than all of them, though: 40.5 inches. But the Kia’s very close. Second row headroom is, however, tighter than others in this class: 37.6 inches vs. 38.2 in the more formal-roofed E and BMW 5. Don’t sweat this too much, though — unless you’re taller than 6 ft 4. I’m 6ft 3 and had no headroom issues whatsoever in the Kia’s spacious second row.
One measure of space where the Kia comes up a little short in a meaningful way — for such a big car — is trunk size. Its 15.9 cubic foot trunk isn’t tiny. But it’s smaller than you’d expect a full-size car’s to be (the Lexus LS — which is almost exactly the same overall length as the K900 — 200 inches vs. the Kia’s 200.6 inches — has an 18 cubic foot trunk).
This car tries hard to impress — and does. There are a few small areas one could nitpick — such as the glovebox door that isn’t “damped” (it just opens and closes as in a normal car) and the leather’s maybe a little flat-looking. But it’s also everywhere. Even the grab handles built into the ceiling (lined, incidentally, with super soft Alcantara-style suede) are wrapped and stitched. The rear seats slide and tilt — and if you open the center divider you will find more than the usual upholders and power points. There are individual controls for those back seat heaters (remember, they’re standard) and you can upgrade the toys to include individual DVD flat screens that rise out of the front seatbacks. Walk up to your K900 and the outside rearview mirrors will unfold to welcome you (they automatically tuck-in when you park/leave the vehicle to avoid being damaged while you’re away).
Kia swung for the fences with this one. And did not strike out.
Is it an S-Class equivalent? No. But it is a damned impressive almost — for literally half (just about) what Mercedes asks for an S-Class. And it is arguably — because objectively — superior to the Benz E (and BMW 5 and Lexus LS) in several respects at least.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Granted, the Kia’s still a Kia. But there was a time when Lexus wasn’t Mercedes. Enough people saw the value, though. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Which may be about to repeat. Only this time, it may just be Lexus that’s in for a rude awakening.