It was only a year ago that Kia was raising eyebrows for the audacity of selling a sedan in the United States with sticker prices passing $40,000.
But the Cadenza, essentially a larger and fancier version of the midsize Optima, was still new to the market when Kia set its sights higher: the 2015 K900, an all-out luxury car with a base price just shy of $60,000, extending to $66,400 with all the boxes checked.
The K900 is a rear-wheel-drive sedan with a V8 engine, a mechanical twin to the Hyundai Equus that's been in the U.S. at a similar price point since the 2011 model year. The K900 entered production for the Korean market in 2012 but is only just arriving in the U.S. as a 2015 model.
But a lot has happened while Kia worked up the nerve to bring over the K900. Namely, Hyundai redesigned its slightly smaller luxury sedan, the Genesis. The Equus and K900 are derived from the older version of the Genesis; the new one has just appeared for the 2015 model year bearing more expressive styling, new features, and improved driving dynamics.
Lavishly equipped versions of the 2015 Genesis and K900 recently spent back-to-back weeks with the Cars Examiner; the 2014 Equus was also tested last fall. The K900 is clearly a bit plusher than the Genesis, and it also has advantages over the related Equus. But while it's quite nice, the luxury Kia comes up slightly short of the narrative of overlooked brilliance that the automaker would prefer for its new flagship. Ride, handling, and some interior details don't have the polish expected of a full-size luxury sedan, and many buyers will lament the lack of an all-wheel-drive option for superior messy-weather traction.
The Genesis, meanwhile, starts at $38,000 – a price point that was eye-popping for a Korean car when the first-generation model went on sale, but which raises fewer eyebrows after six years of sales successes, and which is practically a bargain in comparison to the Equus and K900.
And although its prices, too, can quickly increase past $50,000, the redesigned Genesis feels a lot more like a bargain than the K900 or Equus – in a good way. There are some interior details where it's clear Hyundai didn't heap the same investment as in the larger cars; the ride isn't quite as hushed; and there aren't as many features, especially for rear-seat passengers.
But benefiting from Hyundai's continual improvements in engineering, the new Genesis feels like a better-designed car than its larger, pricier, and older siblings, without skimping on luxury either. The Genesis has better ride and handling, a more user-friendly dashboard, a more comfortable rear seat, and a few unique features and better-executed interior details of its own.
If you want maximum size and exclusivity from your Korean luxury ride, the K900 puts up a strong showing against the Equus, and you'll be able to choose which car's styling you prefer. Neither offers the depth of luxury you'll find in a Lexus LS460 or Mercedes-Benz S550, but these models offer a not-too-bad alternative at much lower prices – the old-fashioned Hyundai/Kia way.
But the redesigned Genesis is not only the best deal of the Korean luxury trio, it also carves the most distinctive and most desirable market niche, and is the best executed while doing so. The Genesis carries through the strengths of its predecessor as a plush and useful large sedan, an alternative to a Toyota Avalon or Chrysler 300, while adding an even higher dose of luxury and modern features.
Even the outgoing Genesis won this reviewer's comparison of large sedans earlier this year, and the new model has superior driving dynamics, more modern styling inside and out, and a host of new features, with less of a price bump and less of a reduction in interior space and outward visibility than this reviewer had feared. Besides competing well with mainstream large sedans, the Genesis also does even better as a roomier alternative to luxury-branded sedans for buyers who don't seek out a sporty flavor. Even the old model had few compromises over the likes of the Lexus ES350; the new 2015 Genesis is in many ways superior. Note that it's common for reviews to praise some mainstream-branded cars as comparable to luxury models in every way but the badge; the Genesis is more deserving than the rest.
It can also hold its own against pricier luxury sedans like the Lexus GS and Mercedes-Benz E-Class – again, for buyers who buy a luxury sedan for a premium look and feel and a long list of features rather than for the best possible driving dynamics.
Don't expect perfect from the Genesis, but expect it to wow you in many ways while also quietly delivering high levels of comfort and luxury. Not bad for a $38,000 base price.
Outside the cars
The first-generation Genesis bore little resemblance to anything else in the Hyundai line. It was a cleanly styled, albeit somewhat anonymous, large sedan that fit in even less with smaller Hyundais when the brand adopted an edgier look with sloping rooflines and creased bodywork.
The redesigned 2015 Genesis wouldn't be mistaken for a mainstream Hyundai, except perhaps for taillights that bear a bit too much resemblance to the compact Elantra's. It wears a big, bold vertical grille at the tip of a long hood with a short overhang past the front wheels. The roof blends organically into the trunklid, unlike the boxier previous generation. A crease aligns with the doorhandles to break up otherwise flat sides of the car. The redesigned 2015 Sonata midsize sedan wears a somewhat similar front end to the Genesis, which was released earlier, but the big Hyundai is clearly distinguished from the humbler car.
Also instantly noticeable about the new Genesis is that it's a big car. Exterior dimensions are almost identical to its predecessor, but the 2015 model's longer wheelbase stretches out the car to give it long, low proportions. In contrast, the first-generation Genesis could have passed for an upsized Honda Accord.
The previous generation Genesis wore no badge on its front end, and had Hyundai's normal logo elsewhere on the car in the U.S. market. Back in Korea, a Bentley-like winged badge adorned the car, and many Hyundai dealers and owners quickly made the swap. For 2015, that badge is standard all around except on the trunklid. The winged logo also makes an Easter egg appearance on the ground beside the car at night, beamed Batman style from the sideview mirrors as the car senses an approaching key.
Meanwhile, the K900 proudly wears the normal Kia badge, and the front end is instantly recognizable to someone familiar with modern Kias. The chrome mesh grille was mistaken by one observer as a Jaguar's, but the shape of the headlights is a dead ringer for the compact Forte. Look closer and you'll spot intricate rectangular light arrays inside the anonymously rounded plastic housing, but the first impression doesn't quite dazzle.
From the side, the K900 has a similar shape to the Genesis, though a few details make the Kia look a little less angular. The other notable detail that Kia might do well to shelve off the K900 is a cheap-looking fake vent on each front fender. The rear end recalls the BMW 7-Series, with large blocky taillights that eschew the more common trend toward narrower slits.
In comparison to the Genesis and K900, the Hyundai Equus looks quite dated and slightly awkward on the outside, decorated more with shiny trim than confident, cohesive design. The Genesis looks more bold and aggressive; the K900 looks more sleek.
Inside the cars
The tested Genesis makes an eye-popping first impression when you open the door, with creamy, elaborately detailed leather seats; a swath of matte-finished wood trim on the dashboard; sprinkles of aluminum; and a hearty helping of LED cabin lights.
Some details don't survive the first impression: some inconsistent panel fits on the lower dash and center console, and a humdrum mainstream feel to the turn signal stalk and interior door handles. But other little details impress: the nicely textured trim on the center console and lower instrument panel, and the perfectly dampened movement of the console bins and lids.
Functionality also impresses when you settle in. The seats are comfortable and supportive, and the rear is suitably spacious for two adults to ride in luxury (though a third would lack headroom and have an unpleasantly hard backrest). Unlike many new cars, there's pretty good rear visibility, though fans of the first-generation model might miss its outstanding view out.
And unlike many new cars, the Genesis packs in loads of features without creating an ergonomic mess on the dashboard. Credit Hyundai's use of redundant controls – a multifunction knob and related buttons between the front seats, a large touchscreen, buttons on the steering wheel, and a conventional dashboard layout. And if this sounds like a fussy jumble of buttons and dials, think again; neither style nor functionality is compromised. Other automakers should take notice. The color display between the car's crisp, clear gauges also notes the status of the automatic headlights and wipers whenever the settings are adjusted, a very convenient gesture.
Also impressive is the Genesis' optional head-up display, a technology that isn't new but which Hyundai uses at a particularly high level. Projected onto the lower windshield in front of the driver in full color are – as needed – the car's current speed, the speed limit on the road, whether there are cars in the blind spot on either side, the status of the cruise control, the navigation system's turn-by-turn directions, and stereo volume and tuning.
Another clever feature is a power-operated trunklid that opens when the key stays near the back of the car for more than three seconds. (Though the feature did however confound this reviewer as he talked on the phone while standing behind the car, especially when a soft drink was set on the trunk at the time.)
The K900, too, has a sumptuous and comfortable interior, though its subdued design doesn't set out to wow you like the Genesis'. The Kia avoids the Hyundai's handful of panel-fit missteps – perhaps in part due to its longer time in production ironing out manufacturing kinks – but actual quality is pretty similar between these two suitably luxurious cabins.
The Genesis does trump the K900 with its slickly moving console lids, which are more ordinary in the Kia; the K900 also shares an odd foible with the Equus of power door locks that make a cheap loud click when they're activated. The K900's red cabin lighting is also out of place in its otherwise subdued, relaxed interior design.
Functionality is another Hyundai advantage. The two cars have similar dashboard layouts, but the Genesis' beats the K900's. The K900's dashboard screen lacks the Genesis' touch capabilities. The K900's heads-up system displays less information. The K900's steering wheel controls are fussier, and some buttons are oddly ridged rubber. An electronic gear selector, similar to the one found in BMWs, works better than in some cars but is fussier than the Genesis' conventional shifter.
The tested K900 had the optional feature that replaces the conventional gauge cluster with a single LCD panel, an interesting concept that fell far short in practice. In this system with no constraints on what the gauges can look like, Kia's designers used the LCD to render a perfectly ordinary, particularly plain speedometer and tachometer, albeit ones that don't quite look real. Switch the car into Sport mode (keeping the transmission in a lower gear for more acceleration kick) and you instead get digital displays, which are even worse, with the large-print RPM figure jumping around constantly as you drive.
A handier optional feature is a set of cameras that provide both a rearward and forward view, along with mirror-mounted cameras that piece together an overhead view of the car and its surrounding obstacles. This proved to be a boon in negotiating the big K900 into a modest, cluttered garage. Note that although this is a relatively uncommon feature, Nissan offers it on nearly all of its models, including sub-$20,000 economy cars. (The camera is also offered on the Equus.)
One place the K900 tries to truly trump the Genesis is in the rear seat, which is where the owner is most likely to ride in the Korean market. Passengers get power seat operations, and their own mini instrument panel on the fold-down center armrest with rear climate controls. The armrest also contains a USB charging port, a feature one passenger had wished for in the Genesis during a long road trip. (Both cars also have a port for the front seat that also lets a device connect to the car's stereo system.)
But, like the Equus, the K900 lacks foot space under the front seats, meaning that tall passengers don't get the stretch-out legroom you'd expect to find in a big luxury car. The K900 is several inches longer than the Genesis, but nearly all of that extra length goes to the trunk rather than to the wheelbase; the smaller Hyundai actually has the more comfortable rear seat for a tall adult, albeit with fewer toys. The K900 also has rickety plastic rear cupholders that would be out of place anywhere in the brand's lineup, much less at $66,000. Another ergonomic foible is that it's hard to reach the rear-seat interior door pulls. (Your chauffeur will handle that for you, though.)
The Equus, meanwhile, boasts even more features for the rear seat passengers, and has a similar control layout to the K900, benefiting from significant interior upgrade for 2014. The interior is brightened up with more splashes of wood trim than the Kia, and quality is comparably impressive – lock noises aside. The newer but cheaper Genesis still has more features, though.
Driving the cars
This isn't the section of the review where these cars are going to stand out most. The Genesis and K900, and the Equus, have solid composure – a confident feel either going in a straight line or around a gentle curve. But none of the three likes to be hustled around a sharp turn, with their otherwise responsive and well-weighted steering quickly going numb when extra precision is called for.
Nor are they outstanding for their ride quality. A surprising number of luxury sedans that try to balance comfort and sport end up skewing surprisingly far toward the latter, and some of them can get a little stiff over bumps. The Koreans beat those, but their big wheels – 18 inches on the Genesis, 19 on the K900 and Equus – can be clompy over bumps.
Ride and handling isn't objectionable on any of the three cars, but at least one of the two qualities could stand to improve. Ride would be this reviewer's recommendation, given the overall character of these comfortable plush sedans. Noise levels are at least suitably muted, a touch less so in the Genesis than in the other two.
The Genesis is available with two engines, which carry over with modest tweaks from the previous generation – a 310-horsepower 3.8-liter V6, which uses regular fuel, and a 420-horsepower 5.0-liter V8, which uses premium. The K900 and Equus share the V8 as their only engine option, the latter with a slightly higher horsepower rating of 429. All cars are offered only with an eight-speed automatic.
The tested Genesis has the standard V6, which provided satisfactory thrust and a suitably rich, smooth sound. Acceleration is more effortless than punchy, with high speeds approaching quickly and without fuss, but without lighting response off the line. Setting the car into its sport mode seems to do little more than make the engine rev needlessly high in gentle driving. The V8 K900 has a similar feel – with performance no doubt hindered by an extra 400 pounds of weight – but a slightly richer, deeper engine note.
The 2015 Genesis V6 is rated for 18 miles per gallon in the city, 29 mpg on the highway, and 22 mpg in mixed driving, which is competitive with other large V6 sedans but not outstanding, and marks a modest improvement over the 2014 model. The tested car returned 26.2 mpg in mixed driving that skewed mostly toward open highway, with some city, suburban, and stop-and-go congestion conditions thrown into the mix.
Meanwhile, the K900 (and Equus, and V8 Genesis) is rated for 15 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway, or 18 mpg in mixed driving. This reviewer observed 18.3 mpg in a roughly even mix of driving conditions.
As noted earlier, only one of the three cars is available with all-wheel-drive – the Genesis. The other two make do with rear-wheel-drive only.
Buying the cars
The Genesis is the obvious value leader in Korean luxury with its $38,000 base price. And with a hearty dose of standard equipment, it's in line with well-optioned mainstream competitors. All Genesises come equipped with leather seats – heated and with 12-way power adjustments up front – a navigation system, rain-sensing windshield wipers, 18-inch wheels, and a proximity key. Stripped down, this car is not.
The tested car's price escalated to $49,450 with further optional equipment (selections listed only): the Signature Package, $4,000, with a panoramic sunroof, a memory system for the driver's seat, ventilated seats, a power-adjustable steering column, HID headlights a blind-spot and cross-traffic detection system, and sunshades for the rear windshield and side windows; the Tech Package, $3,500, with upgraded leather seats, a fancier gauge cluster display, a lane-departure warning system that can make slight steering adjustments, an electronic parking brake, front and rear parking sensors, and radar-based cruise control with automatic braking; and the Ultimate Package, $3,500, with upgraded interior trim, a power-operated trunk, a larger in-dash screen, the heads-up display, and a 17-speaker sound system.
All-wheel-drive adds $2,500 to the V6 models and is unavailable on the V8, which starts at $51,500. The V8 includes all the features on the V6 without the Ultimate Package, which is also offered for $3,500 with the V8, plus 19-inch wheels.
For about $5,000 more than the fully loaded Genesis, or $59,500, the K900 adds rear climate control, heated rear seats, and a front-view parking camera, but not the head-up display or radar cruise control. The $6,000 VIP Package includes those features plus the overhead parking monitor, doors that pull themselves closed if they're not quite latched, the LCD gauge cluster, power reclining rear seats, ventilated rear seats, and rear-seat adjustable lumbar support.
Meanwhile, the Equus starts at $61,250 in the base Signature trim. It doesn't have the K900's standard power-operated trunk, panoramic sunroof, or forward-view camera, but it does include the power-adjustable rear seat. The $68,500 Equus Ultimate is equipped roughly identically to the $65,500 K900 VIP, except for the Kia's panoramic sunroof (it's over just the front seats in the Equus) and the Hyundai's rear-seat entertainment system.
Which to buy?
Unless exclusivity or an abundance of rear-seat features (without an abundance of rear-seat foot space) is a priority, it's hard to recommend the K900 or Equus over the comparatively affordable and sharply executed 2015 Hyundai Genesis. And before all the optional equipment pushes it out of their price range, Genesis also stands out against a bevy of less sophisticated, less opulent large sedans.
Between the K900 and Equus, a lot will come down to style. The K900 would have walked all over the Equus had it arrived in the U.S. as soon as it was launched elsewhere in the world, but Hyundai has caught up with its corporate cousin for interior layout and quality. If you're interested in a big, rare luxury sedan that feels more expensive than other big cars in their price range, choose between two based on what features you want and which car is more to your style inside and out.
The Equus and K900 won't embarrass a Lexus LS460, but they're in presentable company for more than $10,000 less – and they will indeed put a similarly priced Lincoln MKS to shame and offer a more traditional relaxed luxury experience than a Cadillac XTS.
But shop the Genesis first. It's the standout of the Korean trio – and a standout against competing premium spacious sedans.
Photo gallery of the 2015 Hyundai Genesis and 2015 Kia K900
Review: 2014 Hyundai Equus Signature
Review: 2014 Hyundai Genesis 3.8
Review: 2014 Kia Cadenza Premium
Comparison review: 10 large sedans
Vehicles tested: 2015 Hyundai Genesis / 2015 Kia K900
Vehicle base prices (MSRP): $38,000 / $59,500
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $49,450 / $66,400
Test vehicle provided by: Hyundai Motor America / Kia Motors America
Key specifications (Genesis / K900):
Length: 196.5 / 200.6 inches
Width: 74.4 / 74.8 inches
Height: 58.3 / 58.5 inches
Wheelbase: 118.5 / 119.9 inches
Weight: 4,138 pounds / 4,555 pounds
Trunk volume: 15.3 / 15.9 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.2 / 37.4 feet
Engine (as tested): 3.8-liter V6, 311 horsepower / 5.0-liter V8, 420 horsepower
Transmission: 8-speed automatic / 8-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 18 miles per gallon / 15 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 29 miles per gallon / 23 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 22 miles per gallon / 18 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test*: 26.2 / 18.3 miles per gallon
Assembly location: South Korea / South Korea
For more information: Hyundai website / Kia website
*Not based on standardized driving conditions.