LUXURY, I’VE DISCOVERED, is a relative concept. Standing by itself, it means things like opulence, lavishness, grandeur and magnificence, all of these customarily going hand in hand with significant expense. What happens, however, when you’re able to access luxury at a relatively low cost? Are you no longer operating in a rarified atmosphere? Are you simply a pretender, someone who has allowed the words ‘value for money’ to besmirch the good name of true, coldblooded affluence? Is the product or service in question to be looked at in a diminished capacity?
In most instances, the answer to all these questions appears to be “Yes” – but the answer also depends heavily on which part of the world you’re in. In South Korea, for example, luxury limousines are so popular that you see more of them on the undulating roads of Seoul than you do hatchbacks. The difference is that an overwhelming majority of them are homegrown, made principally by Hyundai and its hip sister brand, Kia. You do, of course, see an increasing number of the German Big Three – the S-Class, 7 Series and A8 – but they’re thinner on the ground, which shows that despite the options being available to them, local buyers graduate towards local models.
ENGINE 3.3L: TWIN-TURBO PETROL V6; POWER: 365 BHP; ACCELERATION 5.6 SECONDS (0-100KPH)
There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that these cars are sold at significantly cheaper prices because they’re locally manufactured and don’t have import duties slapped on them. Secondly, the South Korean public doesn’t appear to perceive these cars as being any less premium than their German counterparts, which is an important point – when the perception battle has been won, the road ahead becomes much easier to deal with.
Once looked at with derision for being cheap knockoffs of the genuine article (in much the same way as Japanese cars originally were), high end Korean cars are now selling in increasingly larger numbers in Europe and the USA, and one of these, the Kia K9 (the K900 in non-Korean markets) is the car I had the chance to drive. Although it seems highly unlikely to be part of Kia’s launch portfolio in India in 2019, it serves as an excellent example of just how far Korea has come in the luxury car game. Beginning with the hiring of influential German designer Peter Schreyer in 2006, and continuing with the Belgians Luc Donckerwolke and, most recently, Pierre Leclercq (Kia’s current head of styling), Kia has reinvented itself and is now designing and building cars that can go toe-to-toe with the best of them, across categories.
The K9, on the outside, is a very… universal car – that’s the best word I can find to describe its design. There was once a time when you could tell a Korean car from a mile away (spoiler alert: this was not a good thing), but Kia, in particular, has turned that on its head, focussing aggressively on design for over a decade, and seeing its global sales numbers rise as a direct consequence. The K9 isn’t what you would call memorable, but it has a definite road presence and looks like a proper, ‘big’ car. The ‘ripple effect’ radiator grille isn’t to my taste, but it appears to be popular nonetheless; the rear end marries muscularity and elegance quite well, with the twin exhaust tips rounding off the look.
The crucial part of a luxury car is its cabin, and in this department, the K9 scores big. The latest K9 is a country mile ahead of its predecessor in the fittings game, and clearly, a great deal of thought and attention has gone into the interior. The fit and finish is an absolutely top drawer, with real wood used, superbly stitched leather everywhere and high-grade metal. A Maurice Lacroix analogue clock adorns the dashboard, a 17-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system provides audiophile-level sound quality and there are 64 ambient colours available in the interior lighting system, 7 of which were specially developed in collaboration with Pantone. The front and rear seats are adjustable in a myriad of ways and are heated/cooled, and sinking into them is a pleasurable experience, especially at the back, where you can really sit back and relax. I’ve experienced many different luxury car cabins, and I have to say that the K9 holds up extremely well, all told.
KEY FEATURES: Dual zone climate control, leather seats with heating/ cooling and multi-way adjustment, 17-speaker Harman Kardon audio system
Not many people who buy cars like the K9 will place themselves in the driver’s seat, but if they do, they’ll find that it’s a smooth, fuss-free drive, if a little staid, overall. Kia has a great engine in the 3.3-litre twin-turbocharged V6 petrol which does duty in this car (a naturally aspirated 3.8-litre V6 and a 5-litre V8 are also available in certain markets). It’s punchy, has a broad torque curve, provides plenty of shoves and is actually quite a lot of fun if you decide to drive aggressively; it’s coupled with an 8-speed automatic transmission and permanent all-wheel drive, which is one of the reasons the K9 is as sure-footed as it is. The car has top-shelf ride quality, and the suspension smoothes out road imperfections impeccably (South Korean B-roads have a surprising number of potholes, as I discovered); the cabin is suitably hushed and quiet through it all.
At the end of the drive, I got out of the K9 thoroughly impressed. It is a car that offers genuine luxury at just over half the cost of the machines that we have been taught are the ‘real’ luxury models; the only real reason to not buy is it its inferior badge value – and therein lies the rub. In India, where Kia will launch a range of products next year, the executive luxury game has been well and truly cornered by the Germans (and the Swedes and Indo-Brits, to some extent); Korean and Japanese cars have ‘value’ irrevocably attached to them, and previous efforts by these manufacturers to launch higher-end models have largely failed.
As mentioned earlier, we will probably not see the K9 launched anytime soon here, but for me, it showed that Kia is capable of playing at the world level in the automotive market – and that bodes well for the cars that it will launch in India.
PRICE: Rs 38 LAKH ONWARDS (in the US market)