Korean automaker Kia Motors (NASDAQOTH:KIMTF) continues to gain ground in the U.S. with a simple formula: surprisingly stylish cars with long lists of features at affordable prices.
Like its corporate cousin Hyundai (NASDAQOTH:HYMTF), Kia appeals to many Americans who are drawn to the "import brand" sheen of quality at value prices. Young buyers in particular have flocked to the brand's attractively styled offerings.
But Kia threw those young buyers a big curve ball last year, when it brought the K900 luxury sedan to the United States for the first time.
The Kia K900 is a modern Korean take on an old-school American luxury car
Kia may be thought of as a young folks' brand to some extent in the U.S., but at home in South Korea, it's a respected full-line automaker. And that full product line is topped by the K9, a big imposing luxury sedan that is well-regarded for its smooth ride and whisper-quiet interior.
That's the car Kia introduced in the U.S. last year as the K900. Reviews were pretty good: Car and Driver dissed its soft handling, but lauded its "Lexus-like quiet and isolation" and its "tastefully styled" interior. Consumer Reports compared it to "old-style American cruisers" thanks to its "floaty buoyancy familiar from grandpa's Florida car." But it also loved the "plush and well put together" interior, the "slick, powerful V8" engine, and the long list of active safety features.
Nearly all reviewers agree: The Kia K900 isn't a luxury sports sedan in the modern German style. Instead, it's more of a throwback -- a modern take on an old-school Buick or Lincoln, cars that weren't adept at handling but were remarkably quiet and smooth-riding.
That said, both magazines -- and nearly everyone else who has reviewed the Kia K900 -- also pointed to the conundrum raised by the car. On the one hand, it's an intriguing, seemingly well-made alternative to top-of-the-line German sedans like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW's 7 Series that costs thousands of dollars less. (The K900 starts at just under $55,000 with a V6 engine, with well-equipped V8-powered examples priced about $10,000 higher.)
But on the other hand, it's not a Mercedes or a BMW or even a Cadillac. It's a $60,000 Kia.
Given Kia's brand image in the U.S., who would want one?
Sales of Kia's K900 haven't exactly been brisk
The answer so far seems to be, "Not too many people."
Kia sold just 1,330 K900s in the U.S. last year. Through May, sales in 2015 are down 8% from 2014's meager rate. Only 542 have been sold so far this year. Hyundai's similar Equus sedan isn't faring much better, with 989 sold this year through May.
In terms of price, size, features, and likely audience, the closest competitor to the Kia K900 (aside from its Hyundai sibling) is probably General Motors' big Cadillac XTS. Through May, Cadillac has sold 10,143 of them in the U.S.
In other words, the Kia K900 isn't exactly setting the market on fire. So why did Kia bring the K900 to the U.S.?
Kia's goal for the K900 is probably about more than sales numbers
I think the answer to that question becomes clear if we look at how Kia and Hyundai have grown in the U.S.
Hyundai started out offering cheap cars, period. Its cars got nicer over time, and as they did, the company started drawing a larger base of customers, pulling in some folks who had previously owned Japanese-brand cars.
I think Kia's K900 is a continuation of that trend. Because it's a global model, its tiny U.S. sales numbers aren't a problem for Kia's bottom line. But just its presence here helps to change perceptions of the Kia brand just a tiny bit. They aren't just cool cheap cars for young folks, there's also a pretty good Kia luxury sedan, too.
Give them five or 10 years to keep pushing consumers' impressions, and they may sell a lot more K900s here. We'll see.