Automotive Heresy

Posted Friday, May. 30, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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It seems like just yesterday that I couldn’t walk into a 7/11 store without someone behind the counter telling me a tale of woe about their personal Kia Sephia. Bad brakes, no power in its 88-horsepower engine, interior trim not aligning properly and so on. Of course it wasn’t yesterday, but 16 or so years ago.

It’s been exactly 10 years since I reviewed the Kia Amanti, that automaker’s version of an executive luxury sedan. It had a reasonable ride and drive, but looked like a Korean-styled sedan from the Sixties. In fact, I asked the question on Fox Four’s Good Day, "Who in the world would pay $29,000 for a Kia?"

Then again, after a lunch that same year with Carl Sewell, he asked me what automotive franchises I thought had the best prospects for the future. I replied, "Kia Hyundai." Not necessarily for the products they had at the time, but because I could clearly see that in six years this car conglomerate had improved its product more and come farther than any other car company in the world. After all, just six years earlier Hyundai Kia had been building the equivalent of Third World junk and by 2004 were on the cusp of building product that could compete heads-up with the best-known Japanese automakers. The improvement in their product had happened so quickly it was breathtaking.

Fast forward another decade, and I’ve put the Hyundai Genesis and Sonata and the Kia Soul into my annual list of "the best cars for the money that I’ve reviewed" in three out of the past five years. And then came 2014.

Educated Gut Feeling

Many believe that I’m some type of automotive "gearhead," but nothing could be farther from the truth. I never look at a car based on how much horsepower its engine has or its 0-to-60 time. Nor am I impressed or biased by nameplates. I approach each new vehicle brought to market strictly by its sales prospects and by rating how likely the end consumer is to be satisfied with his or her purchase, should that particular vehicle be the one driven home.

I never look at the window sticker the manufacturer provides for the vehicle I have for review. I prefer to drive it and review the features, and then I mentally fix in my opinion what a fair sales price would be — and only then do I look at the MSRP. It’s always a question of what you are getting for what you are paying. Ultimately it all comes down to whether I believe that, if I were still in the auto industry, I would love to sell the vehicle I’m reviewing, knowing that the buyer would consider it the best car purchase he or she ever made.

As a result of my calculations on what determines real value, most vehicles I review today are fine purchases. But every so often I get a car that is so incredibly enjoyable to drive, I don’t want to give it back to the manufacturer at the end of the week. These are not just the rare vehicles that are more than reasonable values for the money, they’re vehicles that I would personally love to own.

Already this year that has happened twice. The first was the new Chevrolet SS, but who would have ever thought that the other car would be a $66,000 Kia? Believe me, if I had doubts about someone purchasing a $29,000 Kia Amanti a decade ago, before I drove this vehicle my faith in the likelihood that someone would shell out $66,000 for a Kia K900 was close to zero.

It’s not like the styling isn’t exceptional; it is. It no longer has that "Korean executive sedan" look that should have been abandoned five decades ago. No, everywhere I went people were so attracted to the look of the new Kia K900 that they asked me what it was. When I replied, "A Kia," they were astonished. When I added that its price was $66,000, their ardor decidedly cooled.

A Star in Telematics Layout

To be fair to them, the overall sales volume for vehicles in this price range is far smaller than one might think, regardless of how much income inequality there is in America. After all, each year in this country BMW sells only 11 – 12,000 copies of its truly exceptional 7 Series sedan. However, once I started driving the K900 and putting it through its paces, it became obvious to me that this new Kia could hold its own against any luxury sedan made by BMW, Mercedes, Lexus or Audi.

Yeah, it’s that good.

In fact, while driving it I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to take off in for six months and tour America, simply because of its inherent handling characteristics. Smooth, responsive, exceptionally low interior noise level, and a brilliantly laid-out dash that makes it easy to operate any of the many controls, from A/C to the radio equipment right down to the Navigation screen, while driving. While most manufacturers in today’s vehicle telematics age have made their dashes much too complex for the average driver, Kia’s engineers and stylists have delivered a car whose telecommunications and informatics systems are amazingly easy to use.

Oh, and the overall sensation of driving this luxury car on the road easily rivals what you feel in competitors’ products that can sell for $20 – 30,000 more than it does. Kia has gone after the finest luxury cars sold today and scored a bull’s-eye. And this from the same company that just 13 years ago was still selling that junky little Sephia sedan.

Japan Should be Worried

Of course, none of this means that the car is going to be an easy sale, although Matt Ducote at Moritz has sold four K900s in the past two months. Hyundai had a similar problem with its exceptional Veracruz SUV a few years ago. The vehicle’s advertising claimed it to be superior to many midsized luxury SUVs on the market, and that claim was certainly true; but when the list price on a Veracruz and that of a Lexus RX-350 were only $5,000 apart, the public chose to pay for the cachet of the better known brand.

Still, between the new Kia Cadenza and K900 and the Hyundai Genesis and Equus, the Korean automaker actually has a solid basis for breaking out its high-end luxury cars into a separate brand line. Maybe it should, but so far the Korean executives say that’s just not in their plans. Maybe that’s only because it would surprise the public to learn that, even today, some luxury car lines sold in America don’t make their manufacturers a profit.

In terms of real automotive value for vehicles that compete with European V-8 luxury touring sedans, the Chevrolet SS with its price in the mid-$40,000 range may still be the best buy. But GM is shutting down Holden, which designed and builds that vehicle. On the other hand, Kia has put the finest German luxury car manufacturers on notice that it will no longer allow itself to be thought of as the builder of cheap and substandard vehicles — that it’s quite capable of building vehicles that compete with the best of the best.

Unlike Holden, Kia isn’t going anywhere in the future. But, while the Germans may not care about the new K900, the Japanese luxury automakers should: At least in this one model, Kia has trumped some of their best.

Correction: In last week’s column I mistakenly turned the Peterbilt factory in Denton into a Freightliner plant. I sincerely apologize for that error. — Ed

© Ed Wallace 2014

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com

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