SAN DIEGO (TheStreet) -- The surprises began the minute I slid into the driver's seat.
Sitting in Kia's K900, a luxury sedan that will soon be released to the American market, is like sitting in an ultra luxurious cockpit.
You're surrounded by leather upholstery, real wood and aluminum accents and all sorts of unexpected and fun technology. It's all topped off by a panoramic sunroof that runs the full length of the car and opens up the cabin, making it feel light and airy great for a sunny, Southern California day.
So, yes, I had to keep reminding myself that the car I was sitting in was ... a Kia, a car offered up by a manufacturer long known for budget vehicles.
But as Kia's executive vice president for sales and marketing, Michael Sprague, points out during our interview, the Kia Motors' brand slogan is "The power to surprise." I for one am truly surprised by the K900.
"It's fascinating to hear people question us, 'Why are you doing this?'" Sprague says. "No one asked Mercedes why they were moving down in the market, so why are you questioning us about moving up?"
"We saw a consumer mindset shift," Sprague says. "Consumers are looking for new definitions of luxury not defined by tradition and heritage. Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, Audi, have been around for 100 years, or in some cases a little less. A lot of consumers are saying 'I don't want tradition and heritage, I want something new.' Particularly among the tech obsessed consumers. We call them confident individualists."
I've always considered myself a confident individualist, so Sprague was speaking to his target audience in many ways. So on with the test drive.
The first thing I noticed once I got the car onto the highway is that the K900 is a very solid, heavy car. Driving it did not necessarily make me feel sporty (although it does have a sport driving mode); instead I felt the weight of a very substantial vehicle.
I had fun with the car's many features, particularly the safety features. The K900 includes such things as rear cross-traffic alerts, blind-spot monitoring and lane departure warning systems. Many of the safety and navigation features show up on a "head up" display projected on the windshield -- one of the coolest features. While driving the K900 you can see the speed you're driving on the windshield, as well as the cars on your left or right when you try to change lanes.
Some of the other standard features this car is packed with include a heated leather and wood steering wheel, rain-sensing wipers, keyless entry and start, heated power-folding side mirrors, a power-closing trunk, power rear sunshade (very cool) and heated and ventilated 12-way power front seats.
On the first day I drove the K900, it was 88 degrees and the leather seats were hot. Within moments of activating the seat's cooling function, the seats were comfortably chilled and so was I. Well done, Kia. Another nice surprise.
"From a product standpoint, this vehicle is absolutely comparable to a BMW and Mercedes," Sprague says. "But the price, when you look at all the equipment, is about $20,000 cheaper then BMW. So our consumer will then take that money they saved and go on a nice trip."
I took the K900 on a trip to Palm Springs, where the temps climbed even higher then San Diego, and its cooling features continued to prove invaluable, as did its many other features.
And during my final day in the desert, the valet who pulled the car up when I checked out of my hotel couldn't help but ask: "What is this car you're driving, I've never seen one like it."
Again, well done, Kia.
Still, as much fun as I had with the K900, the question I kept returning to during the five days of test driving was whether I would be willing to shell out more than $66,000 for ... a Kia.
I asked others as well.
There was never a quick answer. It requires a change in mindset, and you could see that mental debate taking place among those to whom I posed the question.
Kia is aware it has something of an uphill battle on its hands. The company is not intimidated. Sprague says the K900 is just the first such new offering from the manufacturer.
"Do we think it's going to be a challenge? Yes. We know it. But we have found a segment of consumers looking for something different. And they are confident enough in who they are and carving out their own path that a [luxury car name] badge is not a show of success for them," Sprague says. "For many luxury consumers, it's all about the badge. But for others, it's about the car. It's about great design, great technology, and also a good value."
"Will you see more from us? Absolutely," Sprague says.