2015 Kia K900 V8

Let's be honest, Rich America. When you drive your fullsize luxury sedans, you don't clock any laps of the Nürburgring. You don't view your car as an alternative to air travel, ready to wheel between countries at triple-digit Autobahn speeds. Heck, you don't even take the long way home. Instead, you commute in fender-to-fender gridlock looking to be assuaged by sybaritic luxuries, your ride serving as a four-wheeled extension of your living room. Yet when it comes time to vote with your pocketbooks, you overwhelmingly skew toward European driving values – German ones, more specifically. You favor the firm rides, firmer seats and quick steering of cars like the BMW 7 Series and Audi A8. What gives? That's what Kia is clandestinely asking with its new 2015 K900.

According to Kia PR director Scott McKee, this 200.6-inch bruiser of a sedan is all about "at-ease luxury." That's a notion that was once very much synonymous with American automakers' approach to big high-end sedans – effortless comfort above all other considerations. Sprawling room in every direction. Fine materials no matter where the hand falls. The automobile as an isolative cocoon. Once upon a time, Cadillac and Lincoln owned the Comfort First game, but these days, there's almost nobody playing – the Lexus LS and Hyundai Equus are the only cars in this end of the market, everyone else is busy aping German values.

Kia planners could claim that the K900 has been intentionally targeted at a different sort of customer – and indeed, during the press conference ahead of our first drive in Santa Barbara, there was some discussion of "a different kind of luxury" and seeking "confident individualist" buyers. But the truth is, the Korean premium car shoppers that this car was primarily designed for crave exactly the sort of plush luxury experience the K900 dispenses. In other words, Kia is hoping that there are a few thousand like-minded Americans willing to overlook the badge on its nose and give this car a chance.

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No other base models are anywhere near as well equipped as the K900.

And give it a chance they should. The K900 has a lot to offer, and it does so at a steep discount to its ostensible rivals. To wit, V8 models start at $60,400 delivered. Our all-boxes-checked K900 V8 tester with optional VIP package rang up at $66,400 with freight. That's a lot of money, but it's positively skinflint by European luxury car standards. A Mercedes-Benz S-Class starts at $93,825, a BMW 7 Series warms up at $74,925, a Jaguar XJ commands $74,200. Heck, even the Lexus LS 460 starts at $73,050, and none of these base models are anywhere near as well equipped as the K900.

But starting by comparing MSRPs is a rational exercise in what is, at its heart, an irrational end of the market. Better to start with what attracts one's interest in the first place – looks. Aesthetically, the K900 checks a lot of boxes, with an imposing stance and a piercing stare thanks to its standard LED active headlamps. Even Kia's signature 'tabbed' grille looks good in this scale. But the details are less convincing, namely a couple of superfluous nods to traditional American luxury touchstones – a pair of unnecessary faux fender vents and mandatory chrome on its 19-inch alloys. Thanks to its slabbish sides and high beltline, the K900 sits somewhat heavily upon those wheels, too. Overall, though, it exhibits a far more modern shape than the baroquely styled Hyundai Equus, a car with which this Kia shares a number of unseen parts. In fact, the K900 appears sufficiently luxurious that we were interrupted on a couple of occasions during our photography session by passersby who wanted to know what it was, including one admirer in a new 5 Series.

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Topping the list are the K900's rear-seat accommodations.

One trait that luxury customers like regardless of their driving style is an abundance of power underfoot, and the K900 delivers thanks to its direct-injected 5.0-liter V8's 420 horsepower and 376-pound-feet of torque. That power is routed exclusively to the rear wheels via a silky-smooth version of ZF's ubiquitous eight-speed automatic transmission ­– no all-wheel drive system is offered. We've had previous exposure to this Tau V8 in the Equus, and it's a pleasingly well-behaved, burr-free device from idle to redline. In K900 guise, it's been tuned more for the effortless accumulation of speed than it has been for a particularly charismatic soundtrack, but that suits the relaxed character of the car just fine.

What also suits the relaxed character of this car is its cabin. An expansive dashboard with head-up display and what appears to be several cows' worth of hides covering the seats, instrument panel and trim initially greet the driver. In the case of our V8 tester, the leather is of a higher-grade Nappa variety, and even darker-toned cabins are bathed in light thanks to the standard panoramic moonroof. It all feels appropriately posh, from the large 12.3-inch TFT display masquerading as a configurable gauge cluster to a by-wire gear selector whose operation will feel familiar to anyone who has driven a modern BMW. Topping the list are the K900's rear-seat accommodations, which on our VIP-spec car included individual AC zones as well as heated, cooled and power-articulated reclining seats. Even the doors close with a thoughtful power-assisted soft action. Plutocratic extras like a rear-seat refrigerator, fold-down wooden tray tables and rear-seat entertainment screens are all conspicuously unavailable, however.

2015 Kia K900 V8

We wish Kia had retained the touchscreen functionality available in lesser models not fitted with a multi-controller.

Yet even without such high-grade options-list tinsel, there are a couple of small but notable missteps that betray the idea of total luxury. Mainly, it's the absence of a heady aroma of leather inside as well as the distractingly cheap-feeling all-in-one infotainment controller mounted just south of the gear selector. In a car of this ambition, a major touchpoint like the latter must operate with well-oiled precision and feel substantial to the touch – this one doesn't. At least the plastic knob is otherwise intuitive in operation, affording easy access to the 9.2-inch center display screen's navigation, audio, climate control, Surround View Monitor cameras and related functions. We've lauded Kia's navigation systems and UVO e-services before and our impression is still favorable here, but we do wish Kia had retained the touchscreen functionality available in lesser models not fitted with the multi-controller.

On the move, the K900 calms its occupants with the Tau's steady hand of power and a supremely hushed comportment that smothers road imperfections and wind and road noise with equal faculty. Its stiff chassis, copious amounts of sound deadening and laminated glass all conspire to blot out what's happening below the tires and ahead of the windshield like few other luxury sedans at any price. It's a serene experience unencumbered by occasional stiff-legged moments that can mar cars like the BMW 7 Series and its run-flat tires, yet its front and rear multi-link suspension isn't so spongy that undulating and gently winding roads will cause occupants to unexpectedly revisit their ceviche.

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That's not to say that the K900 is particularly athletic – compared to the Germans and the English, it doesn't have a sporting bone in its steel-chassis'd, 4,555-pound body. Oh, Kia engineers have paid the whole 'sport' thing a bit of lip service – prod the "Drive Mode" button below the electronic parking brake a few times to get past Eco mode and into Sport, and the K900 will respond with modestly more aggressive shift mapping and a bit more effort from its electro-hydraulic steering rack, but it's not a convincing transformation.

The K900 comes across as an excellent road trip car.

In the latter mode, the gauge cluster also changes its appearance, losing its analog speedometer in favor of a mph speed readout. That's fine, but the traditionally needled round tachometer has also been inexplicably replaced by a numerical rev counter that reads in 10-rpm increments. Do you really need to know that the engine is humming at precisely 4,670 rpm? With so many numbers to cycle through, the RPM telltale is constantly changing, and it's too busy to be useful when driving hard. It's a novel bit of graphics work, but it's also a step backwards in terms of utility. And as there are no paddle shifters available, if you want to work the gearbox yourself, you'll have to take your hand off the wheel and use the manual gate on the console shifter.

We dutifully pushed the K900 on winding roads for brief stretches over a couple days' driving, but each time, we quickly dialed things back before the Hankook Optimo all-season rubber protested too much. It was simply easier and more pleasant to revert to the golf-shirt-and-khakis driving style this car favors. That might sound like a slam, but it's not meant to be – unruffled travel in the lap of luxury is its own reward, and the K900 comes across as an excellent road trip car.

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Regardless of how it all shakes out, Kia is smart enough not to bet the franchise on the K900 – officials won't talk firm sales targets, but it's clear the company only expects to move perhaps three to five-thousand units a year. That's a reasonable goal, especially when the entry-level 3.5-liter V6 model comes on line shortly after the V8 goes on sale. MSRP for the latter hasn't been announced, but it's likely to be around $50,000. For those keeping track, that's the price of an options-free 528i – and remember, base BMWs are hopelessly threadbare in terms of standard equipment, a cold reality compounded by their shockingly expensive options lists.

It's aimed squarely at would-be Lexus buyers and those customers who might otherwise be shopping a rung or two down the lux ladder.

Our Southern California saunter confirmed our initial suspicions about this Kia: on the spec sheet, the K900 may stack up competitively against the legions of S-Class and 7 Series models of this world, but we don't really see it as a threat to Europe's luxury hegemony. Instead, it's aimed squarely at would-be Lexus buyers and those customers who might otherwise be shopping a rung or two down the lux ladder. There's nothing wrong with that approach at all, but with a little more attention and money lavished on the cabin, the K900 could, in fact, be a better all-around luxury car for the way Rich America actually drives, full stop. Of course, that still doesn't mean Kia would sell 'em in big numbers; minivans may provide better real-world transportation than crossovers for most families, but that doesn't mean their sales will ever reflect it. Consumers just aren't that analytical and pragmatic, especially in this end of the market.

On some level, the K900 is nothing less than Kia attempting to climb Olympus at the tender age of 20. The Korean automaker is but two decades removed from shipping us its first boatload of frankly lousy Sephia econoboxes, and it's taking on the European and Japanese luxury gods with a sedan that's decidedly different in character from what sells here these days. It's a move likely to be seen as both brave and hubris-filled, but it would be a serious mistake to dismiss the K900 (and its Equus relative) as some sort of off-brand dog and pony show. If you're not a badge snob and can see embracing the "at-ease" lifestyle, the K900 proves there's real substance, value and luxury available at the unlikeliest of showrooms.