When most Americans think about Korean cars, they’re likely to picture affordable prices. Or, if they are feeling less charitable, they might reflect on Hyundai and Kia’s shoddy quality from the 1990s.
But folks who have been following the auto industry know that these brands – which have the same corporate parent and share many mechanical components – have come a long way. For the past decade, Korea has been selling bona fide luxury cars in the United States, starting with the award-winning 2009 Hyundai Genesis.
These cars have only kept improving. Two recently tested Korean luxury sedans are the best yet: the all-new 2019 Genesis G70 compact sports sedan and the newly redesigned full-size 2019 Kia K900. Besides offering the Korean staple of plenty of features for the money, both models also fill niches that the established class leaders have drifted away from.
We’ll start with the G70, whose competitors include the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4. Priced from $35,895, it is the new entry-level model in Hyundai’s Genesis brand, which the company spun off a couple of years ago; the brand’s only other two models are both full-size sedans.
The G70’s rear-wheel-drive platform (with available all-wheel-drive) provides it legitimate performance credentials, in contrast to the less dynamically balanced front-wheel-drive models like the Acura TLX or Volvo S60. It backs that up with a pair of strong turbocharged engines: a 252-horsepower four-cylinder and a 365-horsepower V6.
In an era when the European sports-sedan sales leaders have begun to focus on interior spaciousness and high-end electronics, the G70 stands apart for its focus on delightful driving dynamics — extra-responsive steering, outstanding handling agility, plus a smooth and quiet ride — and lots of horsepower for the money.
The G70 is more fun to drive than a modern BMW, and it feels like a solidly built machine, with all the components working together for a harmonious whole. None of that is easy to achieve, making the G70 an engineering triumph.
Genesis could have settled for offering a moderately good car at an excellent price, but instead created something magnificent — and still kept prices reasonable, if not quite bargain-basement. Consider it a superior alternative to the Lexus IS and Infiniti Q50, two aging sports sedans that also undercut the Europeans’ price tags.
That’s not to say the G70 is perfect. Genesis could have given the car a posher interior and more-advanced infotainment. True, it is class-competitive in those ways, too, even by luxury standards, but it could have been a standout.
The interior looks nice and mostly feels quite premium, but the dials feel “plasticky” for a luxury car, and Genesis didn’t move the infotainment system beyond the (already intuitive and fully featured) displays found in humble Hyundais. BMW and Audi fans likely won’t be unimpressed. Some buyers would also appreciate more rear leg room, as the G70’s backseat is tight for adults.
You can get the same engines and much of the same handling thrills from the roomier Kia Stinger liftback, although, unlike the Genesis, it is designed to look more brash than luxurious both inside and out.
If the new Genesis G70 drives like a better European sports sedan, the redesigned Kia K900 drives like a better Lexus.
Toyota’s luxury division, Lexus, used to sell extra-smooth, extra-quiet cars with user-friendly controls. But the brand has edged away from that history, instead providing flashier styling, sharper handling and more-advanced technology — at the expense of its former strengths.
The flagship Lexus LS full-size sedan is no longer as smooth or silent as past models; its design is in-your-face rather than quietly classy, and many of its dashboard controls are a mess to work through.
If you miss the old LS, the K900 might hit the spot. This subtle sedan wafts calmly down the road, yet its suspension is now composed enough to avoid a boat-like quality to its handling.
Full-size Korean luxury cars are the most-popular back home in Korea, where business executives and government officials are chauffeured in the back seat. That’s why the K900 is available with a full set of rear controls, where the backseat passenger can adjust audio and climate settings, adjust the rear seats,and even move the front passenger seat out of the way.
Kia has sold the K900 in the U.S. since 2015, but it was never impressive, except in the audacity of a $60,000 Kia. This year’s model is different. Its driving experience, interior decor, in-cabin technology and powertrain are a big step up, giving the big Kia more viability in the market. It’s decadently finished and generously equipped, and you do not need to read 600 pages to figure out how to use it.
The market for every full-size luxury sedan has dwindled. People who want “big” have mostly switched to SUVs. The Lincoln Continental undercuts the K900’s base price by around $15,000, mostly due to its skimpier list of standard features. (Comparably equipped, they are similar in price.)
The K900 drives with more solidity than the Lincoln, though. It’s not a cutting-edge technological marvel like the latest Audis and Mercedes-Benzes, and it’s not as sporty to drive. And, of course, it is a Kia — neither its design nor its badge command as much presence as those models, though the K900’s sheer size is enough to be imposing.
But at half the price of a comparably equipped Mercedes S-Class, the K900 is not only a comfortable, quiet and feature-laden luxury sedan, but also one that some buyers will actually prefer due to its mainstream-grade ease of use.
The K900 also edges out its mechanical twin, the Genesis G90, which has been available since 2017. The G90 offers the same driving experience but a less up-to-date interior design and a higher price tag.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.