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Driver's Seat: Kia offers luxury in overcoming its rep

2015 Kia K900: Luxury from an unusual source. Price: $66,400 as tested. ($59,500 base price.) Marketer's pitch: "Challenge the luxury you know."

2015 Kia K900:

Luxury from an unusual source.

Price: $66,400 as tested. ($59,500 base price.)

Marketer's pitch: "Challenge the luxury you know."

Conventional wisdom: Named International Car of the Year by Road and Travel magazine last month at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Reality: The K900 holds its own, but there's a lot to overcome.

A big change: Once upon a time, poor folks like me sat in Kia showrooms in the 1990s and thought about maybe scraping together enough loose change to buy a strange-looking Sephia. Kia was still a punch line at the time (along with Hyundai and Daewoo). So the K900 can be difficult to swallow.

It's a $66,000 Kia, people. That's more than 125 percent of the $52,000 median household income for the United States in 2013, according to the Census Bureau.

Sure, the people at Kia (and the people who drive Kias - among them the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat) must grow weary of having the past dredged up. But I had a reader say no one would ever pay $30,000 for a Hyundai (Kia's cousin), so the preconception among the American public remains strong.

The Soul, Optima, Cadenza, and new Sedona should certainly prove the Kia ain't what it was, but can it be an alternative to a Cadillac or a Lexus?

For the privileged: Forget this column's focus on the Driver's Seat for a moment. The rear seat is the place to be in the K900. The legroom is astounding; this 5-foot-10 columnist had loads of room. Certainly, a lanky CEO or hedge-fund manager who stands well over 6 feet would ride like a king or queen back there.

And if the boss is too tall even for the K900, Kia offers ways to forget the snug tootsies. Enjoy the power reclining rear seats and lateral adjusting rear headrests (part of a $6,000 VIP package), and seat heater and cooler.

Up to speed: If you don't have the hedge fund to help cover the cost of a chauffeur, you'll want to know what it's like to drive. The 5.0-liter V-8 produces 420 horsepower and 376 pound-feet of torque, so the K900 definitely gets you back quickly to your life in the fast lane. The eight-speed automatic is silky smooth.

Shifty: The K900 has all the latest advances, including electronic gear control lever. But I find this Prius-inspired shifter somehow backward. Even after close to 30 years off PRNDL, it still feels awkward to "bump" a joystick forward to go backward and vice versa.

On the road: The ride can be more than a hair bouncy. The large, rear-wheel-drive sedan is a gem on the highways, smooth as butter, but takes all the fun out of Pennsylvania's old winding roads. One of my favorite nearby stretches involves not just curves, but rolling hills that can awaken the butterflies, and there the K900 went really bouncy.

I confess I am, as one colleague described me, a heavily caffeinated individual, but none of the other cars left me feeling this way. A return trip a couple of days later confirmed this feeling.

Inside: The gray wood trim on the dash and other interior bits certainly projected as much luxury as possible.

Outside: It looks a little Lexus-ish, I suppose, but I just found it kind of fat-looking.

Gauges: The K900 offers LCD versions of analog speedometer and tachometer, à la the Cadillac XTS. But the Cadillac allows drivers to scroll through the displays and pick a half-dozen versions; the K900 is static.

Play some tunes: The infotainment interface is operated by a dial, like BMW, Audi, and all the other big boys of Europe. The enormous 12.3-inch LCD display definitely matches the fanciest Lexus I've driven.

Friends and stuff: I've already gushed at length about the enormous backseat. The trunk is huge, too, as are the storage bins.

Fuel economy: I observed 19 m.p.g. in the usual Mr. Driver's Seat testing. But Kia keeps its common-man touch - regular fuel.

Where it's built: Sohari, South Korea.

How it's built: Consumer Reports doesn't offer predicated reliability ratings for new models. Kia's other models range from average to excellent.

In the end: Kia reports that 1,168 of the vehicles were sold in 2014 through October, compared to more than 125,000 Souls and 6,682 Lexus LS460s (a comparable upscale car I've tested that costs a bit more).

For people who don't think companies can overcome a less-than-stellar past, I have just three words - 1971 Honda 600. The K900 isn't quite the lap of luxury just yet, but Kia is on the right track.