Will the luxury KH sedan finally erase Kia’s low-rent reputation?

Kia KH frontKia used to make the cheapest cars sold in the United States, but now it is reaching for new heights of prestige. The Korean carmaker just released renderings of a large sedan, codenamed KH, that will debut later this year. The drawings show a sedan that adds some formality to the design language of existing Kias, like the Optima. The LED headlights vaguely resemble those of a BMW. Kia’s signature grille is more upright and sports vertical bars instead of the usual mesh, another upscale detail. A sculpted line runs through the door handles, making the car look more taut and breaking up the large flanks most modern cars need to pass side-impact crash tests. There are also some side vents that look like they came off a Maserati, or a Buick.

Kia did not release technical details, other than the rear-drive layout, but it would not be a stretch for Kia to borrow the platform from parent company Hyundai’s Genesis.

Kia showed a rear-wheel-drive sedan concept at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show, the GT Concept, powered by a 3.3-liter turbocharged V6. It is unclear whether the KH will be powered by that engine or by the Genesis’ range of engines (a 3.8-liter V6, 4.6-liter V8, and 5.0-liter V8).

Soon Nam Lee, Kia’s overseas marketing director, said the KH will launch during the first half of this year. It will go on sale in Korea first, then all major markets except Europe and the UK. Kia has no plans to sell the new sedan in either market.

Kia KH rear

Kia started out at the lowest end of the price spectrum, only positive aspect being their low cost. Through continuous quality improvement and a good warranty, Kias became competitive in the mainstream segments dominated by Japanese and American brands. Thanks to former Audi designer Peter Schreyer, new models like the Optima and Sportage have some style to match that substance.

Every fleet needs a flagship, though, and this is not Kia’s first attempt. The Amanti, sold from 2003 to 2010, was a solid car but lacked the charisma to change people’s minds about the brand. If the KH is a success, Kia will truly be able to shake off its reputation for low quality.

If the KH is anything like the Hyundai Genesis, it will also be a major challenge to the status quo. Its large size and rear-wheel-drive invite comparisons with luxury liners like the BMW 7 Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The Genesis offered the luxury of those German brands for a fraction of the price. Could Kia do the same for even less money? Or will the idea of a luxury Kia be too radical for consumers to accept?