For a Kia nameplate to be described in such terms is a sign of how fast the company has ramped up its ambitions in recent years. Less than a decade ago, Kia was entrenched as a value brand selling affordable but nondescript cars for buyers in search of basic transportation. Its early attempts at luxury came with plenty of chrome accents and derivative designs, but weren't competitive in terms of performance, features or quality.
Kia has since overhauled its lineup with enough eye-catching designs and generously equipped vehicles to win over shoppers of brands such as Honda, Toyota and Ford. Its market share grew to 3.8 percent last year from 1.9 percent in 2007.
Other Asian brands ventured much more tentatively into higher tiers of the luxury market. Toyota, Honda and Nissan each spent years developing separate luxury brands before trying to challenge the likes of Mercedes-Benz and BMW; of the three, only Toyota's Lexus brand emerged with wide acceptance among upscale buyers.
Volkswagen's latest attempt to crack the U.S. luxury car market was a dud. Its full-sized Phaeton sedan, launched in 2003, was yanked from the United States at the end of the 2006 model year, never coming close to its 5,000-unit annual target. Phaeton prices ranged from around $65,000 to $100,000, while Volkswagen's second-most-expensive sedan at the time, the Passat, barely crept into the mid-$30,000s.
Kia's corporate sibling, Hyundai, initially felt its way around the premium rwd sedan market by launching the Genesis sedan in 2008, three years before introducing the bigger and more expensive Equus in the United States. Equus sales are off 19 percent this year, but they topped their first-year sales target of 2,000 to 3,000 units in 2011, and grew to nearly 4,000 units last year.
Kia is fast-forwarding through that cycle, emboldened by the strong response to its mid-sized Optima and, more recently, the Cadenza, a full-sized sedan that can top out at more than $40,000. Dealers say the Cadenza is attracting more-affluent customers to their showrooms, scoring a few conquest sales to former Audi, Infiniti, Lexus and BMW owners in the process.
"Five or six years ago to trade an Audi on a Kia was unheard of," said Rob King, who owns Kia, Mazda, Hyundai and Mitsubishi stores in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I was very surprised at how quickly that car took off in our showrooms."
Hobden, managing executive of a dealership group called the Kia Store, which owns six Kia dealerships in Kentucky, Alabama and Indiana, says Kia's overhauled lineup makes him confident that the brand is ready to support the K900 - a sedan with power and equipment comparable to cars such as the BMW 7 series and Lexus LS - and its price.
Kia executives told dealers they expect to sell about 5,000 units of the K900 next year. That's a relatively low-volume vehicle for Kia, but still higher than the Equus' initial targets. Kia officials declined to comment last week.
Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, says a $60,000 Kia may "perplex" some car shoppers who haven't followed the brand's progress. But the more modest gap between the Cadenza and the K900's expected price range should make the Kia flagship less of a risk to the brand than the Phaeton was for VW.
"There was a heck of a jump," with the Phaeton, Gutierrez said. "Today, with Cadenza, it's not quite the same leap. You can justify that it fits in that lineup better than the Phaeton did."