White, big chrome wheels. LA spec, then. Three-zone A/C and cooled seats made 105F in the Mojave Desert comfortable and the glass roof is dark enough to keep the shades open in a Southern California summer. Will the cheaper Kia upstart steal sales from Lexus and European rivals in the US?

White, big chrome wheels. LA spec, then. Three-zone A/C and cooled seats made 105F in the Mojave Desert comfortable and the glass roof is dark enough to keep the shades open in a Southern California summer. Will the cheaper Kia upstart steal sales from Lexus and European rivals in the US?

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Prior to moving to the UK, I had almost zero exposure to the Kia brand which, 20 years ago, was mostly recycled Mazdas. And something called a Festiva which was a Mazda 121 built on an OEM basis for Ford Asia Pacific. If someone had told me the brand - under different ownership - would one day come at least within nose-punching distance of Lexus and those famous European 'premium' brands, I'd have laughed. But the day, it appears, has arrived.

Fetching up at an off-airport place called Wallypark in Los Angeles, a group of UK motoring writers and their Kia UK host were handed the keys to two Kias I'd never previously set eyes on - a Camry-sized V6 called the Cadenza and a Lexus-like conveyance called the K900.

Sinking my jet-lagged carcass into the rear compartment, I discovered an electrically, adjustable, reclining Nappa leather trimmed, heated and cooled seat, electric rear sunshade and manual window shades. Bit of a cut above the grammatically challenged cee'd that is my sole European experience of Kia to date (I really should get off butt and sample a few other models in the range).

The US$60,400 big sedan's ride and interior 'ush seemed well up to Lexus LS standards and, is that a faint burble of V8 I hear in the distance? Yup. Nicked from parent Hyundai Motor's Genesis, it's called the Tau motor and a shade over five litres, DOHC, all-aluminium, 32-valve and produces 420 horses. Gasoline direct injection (GDI) and dual CVVT variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust are up with the play, there's an eight-speed automatic transmission and the demo car's eco, normal and sport mode buttons also changed the TFT virtual instrument display as well as the electric steering’s sensitivity. Standard equipment is very generous and includes a panoramic sunroof with front opening panel and electric sunshades, and satellite radio - which proved a boon for colleagues wanting to catch a crucial World Cup football game on our way back from Kia's hot weather test centre in the Mojave.

A $6,000 'VIP' option pack adds those virtual meters, radar cruise control (works a treat on stop-start LA freeways), surround view cameras, power soft close doors, extra front seat adjustment and recline and vent in the back, plus some extra safety gear on top of standard gear like lane departure warning and cross traffic monitor. A 3.8-litre 'Lamba' V6 with 311 horsepower and eight-speed transmission will become available later.

Introducing the US sales unit Kia Motors America (KMA), chief spokesman Scott McKee described the K900 as its biggest gamble yet "defying industry convention" to challenge the likes of Lexus "somewhere between premium mid-luxury and luxury" sector at US$66,000-ish versus the Japanese brand's $80,000 for an LS460 (it likely will sell for $76,000, according to Edmunds.com, vs $64,500 for the Kia). Brave Kia is also targeting the BMW 7-series, Audi A8 and Mercedes S-class but isn't giving any targets or making ridiculous claims as the model - its first V8 and rear wheel drive car for the US  - is still being launched. It's quite a step up from previous top dog, the $35,000-$42,000 Cadenza.

I'm not familiar with the German rivals but I am with Lexus and the K900 seemed a fair deal, taking price into account, offering acceptable performance, handling (as far as can be assessed on freeways and urban streets; I didn't get to give it a run along Mulholland Drive or up Topanga Canyon) and ride and decent interior materials, component quality and finish. US writers have noted a lack of adaptive or air suspension and thought a few interior parts and the intuitiveness of the infotainment controls a little lacking - as well as rear seat controls - but generally have rated it well. Me, I just like big, comfy V8 sedans with spacious seats and cabins so it'd do nicely. While saving a few bucks over its competitors.

"A premium luxury sedan experience that won't break the bank. It lacks some refinement in the details, but is still worth considering based on its long list of features and comfortable cabin," opines Santa Monica-based Edmunds.com.

US Kias come with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty and roadside assistance and the K900 gets a three-year, 37,500-mile scheduled maintenance programme thrown in.

We'll see how it does. US luxury car buyers are less brand snobbish than European buyers but they do like to be pampered and that's what they get from the likes of stand-alone Lexus showrooms separate from the Toyota peasantry next door or the massively expensive, luxurious specialist shops that retail Audi and Mercedes. Can a Kia outlet deliver the expectations of a $65,000 buyer having been, until now, geared to a wide range that starts at $14,000 for a little Rio subcompact? That'll be why one of KMA's strategies is "elevating the buyer experience".

Nonetheless, it's a pretty good first go at a rarified sector full of long-established heavyweights - is it really 25 years since Toyota's Lexus tried likewise? I'll watch this upstart's progress with interest.

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