L.A. Auto Show: Kia moves upmarket with luxury K900

Using a city known for luxury living as a backdrop, Kia took a bold step into the world of full-size — and full-priced — cars at today's Los Angeles Auto Show.

The Korean automaker unveiled the all-new K900, a large sedan that will offer the space and trappings of German land yachts, while undercutting their prices by tens of thousands of dollars.

"This is our boldest statement yet," said Tom Loveless, executive vice president of sales for Kia. "It's a true flagship sedan that symbolizes how far we've come, and we believe it will make you question everything you thought you knew about Kia." 

The K900's strategy will largely mirror the car on which it's based: the full-size Equus from Kia's corporate cousin Hyundai. Like the Equus, the K900 will be available with a V-8 engine, though the Kia will differ in that a V-6 will be the base engine.

Exact pricing wasn't announced, but Kia officials say the K900 will start around $50,000. Throw in everything on the impressive options list, including the optional V-8, and you'll top out around $65,000.

That's foreign territory for the brand, once known for little beyond econoboxes. Its first model in the U.S. released two decades ago was the Sephia, priced less than $10,000.


FULL COVERAGE: L.A. Auto Show 2013

But the brand has built a loyal following over the years, using strategies similar to Hyundai, including a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty on its vehicles, long before other automakers came close. Not only have the quality and reliability of Kias improved measurably over the years, so too has the styling.

Much of that progress owes to Kia's hiring of famed automotive designer Peter Schreyer — who led the development of such breakthrough cars as the original Audi TT and Volkswagen New Beetle. Kia hired Schreyer away from Volkswagen Group in 2006.

Since then, Kias have evolved into sharply designed vehicles whose popularity has grown quickly. Kia sales, though down slightly year-to-date, more than doubled from 2008 to 2012; last year, the brand reported it sold 557,559 vehicles in the U.S.

With this wind at its back, Kia is pressing forward. After the success of its current generation Optima — a mid-size sedan battling such stalwarts as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry — Kia this year dipped a toe into the luxury segment with the Cadenza, a sizable sedan starting at $36,000.

Now it's ready to dive into the deep end with the K900.

"You can see that Kia is flexing their muscles now," said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific. "They're really maturing as a brand. They have powertrains, technology, design, and now they're going into the next chapter, which is luxury."

The K900 will target buyers who want the creature comforts of hundred-thousand-dollar sedans such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or BMW 7-Series, yet also want to fly below the radar and make less of a statement with his or her car.

This means a loaded K900 can be had with goodies such as reclining rear seats and rear climate control, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure assist and LED headlights.

A 3.8-liter V-6 will be standard and will put out at least 330 horsepower. A 5-liter V-8 making 420 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque will be an option. An eight-speed automatic transmission will be standard on both models.

Despite being new to the high-dollar world, there are few risks to Kia's ambitions. Because the K900 is largely based on the Hyundai Equus, its bones are proven, Sullivan said.

"This is an established car already," Sullivan said. "It's not going to be like we're a petri dish for testing out some sort of low-volume expensive vehicle."

That the K900 is based on an existing vehicle — and has already been sold in foreign markets under the K9 and Quoris nameplates — made the business case for bringing the sedan to the U.S. straightforward.

Ironically, it's the Equus itself that could pose the biggest threat to the K900's success; they'll be competing for the same customers, who want luxury without the attention. Yet Kia expects at least 70% of the K900 buyers to opt for the cheaper V-6 engine, which is not available on the Equus. This should help the two brands delineate their respective products.

Kia says its K900 is due in dealerships early next year. When it arrives, Southern California, the country's premier luxury car market, will be a key target for the sedan. This was instrumental in Kia's decision to unveil the car at the L.A. show.

"What better place to introduce our most luxurious vehicle and the next step for our brand in the U.S.," said Michael Sprague, executive vice president of marketing for Kia.

A big step indeed.

Times staff writer Alicia Banks contributed to this report.