Review: 2016 Kia K900: A First-Class Ride at Coach Prices

wheel-to-wheel copy

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

In baseball, the AL East has historically been the toughest division in the Major Leagues. Over the past 46 years (since the divisions were created), either the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, or Rays have made it to the World Series 25 times. And since the wild card was created, AL East teams have clinched a spot 18 times in the past 21 seasons. It’s usually the only division in baseball where a 90-win season won’t guarantee you a ticket to the playoffs. What exactly does this have to do with cars? Well, think of the luxury sedan segment as the AL East, and think of the Kia K900 as a 90-win team left on the outside looking in.

If baseball isn’t your thing, then think of the K900 as something like Toyota’s Lexus LS400 moment. The Korean automaker is in the midst of a great leap forward in engineering, quality, and design, and believes it’s ready to prove its mettle against the world’s best. As a result, the K900 does much of what the LS400 did back in 1989: It’s stylish in a sober way, its fit-and-finish is superb, it offers the latest comforts and amenities, and it undercuts the competition by many thousands of dollars. The car is an overachiever, and it lets you know it every chance it gets.

But that could also be the K900’s biggest problem; back when Lexus did it over a quarter century ago, the idea of a luxury flagship that could compete with Mercedes, BMW, and Jaguar and be dead reliable, not cost a fortune, and require only the most basic maintenance was as radical as it being from Japan. It caused nothing less than a freakout at Mercedes, sending it scrambling to make last-minute revisions to its W140 S-Class. The LS400 rewrote the rulebook, and it’s one that every automaker in the game has followed since — including, unfortunately, the K900.

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

And it’s a shame, because the Kia excels at everything it does. You may scoff at the idea of LeBron James really driving one once the cameras are off, but it’s a car that doesn’t leave anyone wanting for any creature comfort. In a segment where every model does everything well, the K900 stands out for two reasons: its $49,900 base price, which is good, and its badge, which has proven to be not so good. Unlike corporate cousin Hyundai’s Genesis, Kia chose to release its flagship under its own umbrella instead of creating a sub-brand. The fact that it’s sold fewer than 5,000 in the U.S. since the car launched in 2014 all but proves that Americans aren’t ready to cross the $50K threshold for a Kia.

It’s pretty heavy stuff for a single car model to be caught up in, especially a good one that offers world-class luxury at a bargain price. It would be easy to write off the K900 if it were a dud, but it isn’t. In fact, we ended up liking it even more than we expected to.

Exterior

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

The first thing you notice about the K900 is that it’s big — not just its overall length, but everything about it. Sized between a Mercedes E- and S- Class, the K900 comes standard with 18-inch wheels (19-inch are available on the V8-powered model), is wide and purposeful-looking, and is dominated by its massive headlights and grille up front. It’s unmistakably a Kia, and its design language translates to the luxury segment easily. It may be the brand’s first attempt at moving upmarket, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at it — now-outgoing design chief Peter Schreyer’s past experience at Bentley, Audi, and Lamborghini has been put to good use here.

Exterior pros and cons

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Kia’s design language really does translate to the luxury sedan segment well.

+ Understated without looking boring.

+ Well proportioned, and with a liberal amount of brightwork that keeps from getting ostentatious.

– With a number of other Kia models getting refreshes over the K900’s lifespan, it’s beginning to show its age.

– You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a late-model Lexus LS460 from the rear.

– We could do without the K-shaped faux fender vents.

Powertrain

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

When the K900 debuted, its sole powerplant was a 420-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, and it had a price tag to match — $60,400 and up. While that motor is still available, from 2015 on, the standard mill has been a 3.8-liter V6, which helped Kia lower the base price by over $10K, and is good for 311 horsepower and 293 pound-feet of torque. That’s what our car had, and surprisingly enough, we didn’t miss the V8 at all. The 3.8 suits the car nicely, taking it from zero to 60 in 6.2 seconds (as opposed to 5.5 with the V8), and letting out an appealing roar when you stomp on the gas. Power is routed to the rear wheels through a smooth-shifting eight-speed automatic with a manual shift option.

Powertrain pros and cons

+ 3.8-liter V6 suits the K900 well, and the only time you hear it is under hard acceleration. Even then, it sounds better than you’d expect, so we doubt anyone will mind hearing it.

+ The eight-speed automatic transmission does its job well here. It shifts effortlessly on its own, responds quickly in manual mode, and livens things up in “Sport” mode.

+ Powertrain suits the character of the car nicely.

– There’s a $6,000 gap between current V6 and V8 models.

– We averaged about 17 miles per gallon, which isn’t great, even for such a big car.

Interior

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Kia’s aim wasn’t to build a sporty car, or even a driver’s car, with the K900; it wanted an executive car, and you can feel it as soon as you get in. Look to your right from the driver’s seat and you notice two buttons on the side of the front passenger seat; they control it. The buttons are for the passenger in the right rear — the most important seat in an executive car — so they can get that annoying obstacle out of their way for more legroom, and provide an interesting fail-safe in case they can’t get to the same controls on the armrest panel. There are side and rear sunshades, a separate HVAC zone (a three-zone system in all), and power adjustable seats.

Back up front, amid the real wood veneers, heated and ventilated nappa leather seats, and tasteful chrome and aluminum accents, the K900 looks like a Kia inside, and we mean that largely as a compliment. The company’s current interiors punch above their weight, and the familiar switchgear works well in this upscale setting, even if it does detract a little from the car’s upscale pretensions.

Interior pros and cons

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Fit-and-finish is superb, with nary an exposed screw or exposed seam anywhere we looked. Some of Kia’s competitors could learn a thing or two about interiors from the K900.

+ Piano black trim and wood accents play well against the chrome and aluminum accents.

+ Plenty of storage space between the center console and expandable door bins.

– Lots of parts recognizable from other models. They don’t make the car feel cheap, but they make it feel a little less special.

– Careful for that tall rear door kink; it juts back out and, if you aren’t expecting it, can come pretty close to taking your jaw off.

Tech and safety

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Our car had the VIP package, a $5,000 options package that included a heads-up display, autonomous emergency braking, and a suite of safety sensors on top of the car’s standard UVO infotainment system and 9.2-inch touchscreen, aforementioned three zone climate control, and power everything.

The K900’s shift-by-wire controller is similar to one found on GM and Toyota models, and the BMW-esque rotary dials dominate the center console. They’re simple and easy to use, and together control just about anything you’d need to take your hands off the wheel for.

Tech and safety pros and cons

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

+ Everything you want from a modern luxury car, and for a lot less than the competition.

+ Kia’s infotainment system is fast, easy to use, and easy to read.

+ Controls are simple and intuitive.

– We found ourselves using the touchscreen far more than the rotary dial and bank of buttons around it.

– A lot of the safety, and even a few luxury features (reclining rear seats, power headrests, passenger seat lumbar support) come with the VIP package. You get a lot, but $5,000 isn’t insignificant either.

– Safety sensors can be overly sensitive. If you’re stopped at a crosswalk, expect a loud beep every time a pedestrian walks by.

The drive

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

We wanted to like Kia’s unloved flagship, and we actually ended up liking it more than we expected. Seats after a long road trip? Still comfortable! Power? Better than expected! Presence? Actually, yes! The K900 is like that kid that took their parents at their word and actually believed that getting straight-As was the key to popularity in school.

And the big Kia is easy to live with because it was designed to be. The steering and handling is a little too soft and old-school American luxobarge for it to be mistaken for a sport sedan, but it stays engaging in Sport mode, which noticeably firms up the steering and raises the shift points. If you don’t expect this to be a driver’s car, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The K900 is a comfortable long-distance cruiser, and it does a very good job of it.

The 3.8-liter V6 is put to good use here, and while purists may scoff at a big, rear-wheel drive luxury sedan going down two cylinders, it sounds good with the throttle open, and its 293 pound-feet of torque is enough to politely, but firmly push you into the plush leather seats when you stomp on it, just like any good luxury car should.

Though we spent more time on the former end of the EPA’s 17/26 fuel economy estimates than we would’ve hoped, our $60,850 K900 did just about everything well. Its biggest problem is that it’s in a segment full of overachievers, and they’ve been doing it a lot longer than Kia has.

Wrap up and review

2016 Kia K900

2016 Kia K900 | James Derek Sapienza/Autos Cheat Sheet

Instead of our baseball analogy, maybe a better one for the K900 would be a TV show. Some of the most iconic series of all time didn’t take off until their second season or so. Like a first-season show, the K900 has all the essential ingredients to be a hit, but it just hasn’t quite gelled yet. And if you look at most of Kia’s lineup, you can see that they went through the same maturation process. Luckily for the K900, we don’t think it’ll take all that long, and here’s why:

First, the all new 2017 Cadenza is a serious looker, and is a dramatic improvement on an already good car. It’s also not far off in size or proportion either. Second, the K900 shares its chassis with the first-generation Hyundai Genesis. That car got new architecture, was spun off from Hyundai, and became the Genesis G80. We’d love to see what Kia could do with more a streamlined design a la Cadenza, and a more modern platform.

As it stands now, the K900 won’t leave you wanting for creature comforts, but there’s room for improvement. Unfortunately, the luxury market rarely tolerates room for improvement in a segment full of superlatives. We’re impressed by how far Kia has come, how quickly it’s evolving, and how good its current lineup is. We hope the K900 can hang on to grow with it. We’d love to see the rulebook changed by an outsider again.

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