MIDDLEBURG, Virginia—Kia introduced its mid-sized Cadenza in 2013 as a larger alternative to the Optima. It sold well, but it’s beginning to look a little dated, so it’s been redesigned with a whole new platform for 2017.
The Canadian price has not yet been released, but Kia says it will be a little less expensive – we’re guessing between $37,000 and $45,000 – despite being better equipped—this is to make it less costly a jump for drivers who want to trade up from an Optima.
Most would think of the Cadenza as a full-sized sedan, with room for five adults and their golf clubs. Kia expects – hopes – the average buyer to be fairly affluent, earning $100,000 or more, aged somewhere between 30 and 55.
It’s hoping for this because the traditional Kia buyer has always been at the lower end of the income scale, looking for a good deal from a basic car.
The maker’s stepped up its game considerably in the last decade, however, and is no longer just a budget manufacturer. Its reliability scoring is the best of J.D. Powers’ Initial Quality Standings in the U.S., and there are features on the Cadenza found only on premium vehicles.
The Cadenza doesn’t look like a cheap car. For many people, its single biggest detraction is the Kia name on the hood, which suggests it’s all looks and no substance.
That used to be the case, but Kia’s been watching all the other makers to see what’s needed to compete, and it’s a different company from a decade ago. The Cadenza is not a Benz or a Bimmer, since the leather isn’t quite that thick and the overall feel isn’t quite that premium, but it’s half the price.
The shape of the new sedan is a little different from the first generation. The length is the same, but the wheelbase is pulled out by 10 mm and the trunk deck is shorter by 65 mm.
We only get one grille in Canada – concave, with vertical bars (the U.S. still has a honeycomb grille on its base trim) – and it’s reshaped to minimize the trademark Kia squeeze in the middle.
The headlights feature swishy “Z”-shaped amber LED daytime running lights, and the Z-design is repeated in the back as an LED lightbar around the taillights. This is the Cadenza’s signature.
There’s no disappointment getting into the Cadenza. We get only one colour scheme in Canada – black – but it’s all leather and soft-touch plastic on the fascia and doors, with wood-grain and brushed aluminum accents.
Kia’s proud that the bottom of the dashboard (called the “lower crashpad” in designer parlance) is also soft-touch plastic, so it’s more comfortable for long knees to rub against, and less likely to scratch. Tall drivers and passengers have no reason for complaint in this car.
There’s more legroom in the back, but it’s only 10 mm, which is marginal. In any case, there’s more than enough and the seats back there are very comfortable. The roof liner is scooped out on the left and right for taller rear-seat passengers but not in the middle – the shortest rider will sit there. However, when was the last time you saw a sedan carrying three adults in the back?
Kia is clearly chasing the coveted “premium” designation, which it’s applied already to its full-size K900 sedan. Even the base trim level gets leather, powered front seats that are heated, and a nice chunky steering wheel that’s also heated.
If you upgrade to the Premium trim, then all the seats are heated and the front seats are also cooled. Go up one more level to the top-of-the-line Limited and the Nappa leather is quilted and the stitching is real. You get the idea.
There’s reasonable space in the trunk, with 452 litres of cargo room. Other sedans in this class have more space, though, and maybe even enough for an extra set of clubs.
As usual, you get what you pay for, but the base level Cadenza is quite well-equipped. LED headlights are standard, and they swivel around corners and adjust automatically for height, too.
(Note: unscrupulous tow truck drivers love these. If your car is damaged in a fender-bender and needs to be towed to a garage, cowboys have been known to whack the headlights with a screwdriver. It’ll cost your insurance company several thousand dollars extra for the mechanic to fix.)
Go up to the Premium and you start to get the safety features that use cameras and radar, including blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. But you need to go right up to the Limited to get the clever stuff, like the lane departure warning, active cruise control, a very clear 360-degree camera monitor, and even a heads-up display.
The top-end car even has “smart” blind spot detection, which means that if there’s a vehicle in the lane beside you and you turn the wheel anyway to move into that lane, it will dab the opposite front brake. This deters you from making the move. You can still do it if you’re James Bond and want to ram the bad guy in the Jaguar off the cliff, but it’s unlikely—James Bond has never driven a Kia.
The Cadenza may be all-new, but it’s powered by the same engine as before: a 3.3-litre naturally-aspirated V6 that creates 290 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque. This is the same engine that’s under the hood of the Sorento SUV and Sedona minivan. It gets the job done, but it’s not very exciting.
This year, however, everything goes through a completely new, in-house eight-speed transmission, instead of the old six-speed. Again, it’s not exciting, but it does improve overall gas consumption by about half-a-litre every 100 kilometres.
The official rating is now 11.5 L/100 km in the city and 8.5 on the highway, for a combined average of 10.2. This is okay but it’s not great, especially when the competition is introducing more frugal engines that are smaller and turbocharged.
There are four drive modes available, which adjust the steering feel, throttle response and transmission shift points: Eco, Comfort, Sport and Smart.
That last one is (apparently) the clever one, because it learns the inputs of the driver and adjusts the car to better suit the driver’s taste. It does this over time, but starts learning immediately. I couldn’t tell if it makes a difference during my day with the car, but it all sounds good in theory.
I could tell immediately, however, that the steering is very much improved. All Kias have had issues with vague, light steering, which is generally preferred by drivers in Asia but abhorred by the rest of the world. This time around, the motor-driven power steering is re-tuned to give it a firmer feel, and the CPU is doubled in capacity to a 32-bit unit to keep everything responding as it should.
The suspension is also much improved, adding bigger bushings and a redesigned geometry that helps keep the car flat around corners while absorbing bumps and ripples from the road. This is not a performance sedan, despite the Sport setting, but it’s not lacking in the kind of power or ability that most sedan drivers will want.
The Cadenza is quiet, too. Not as quiet as the tomb-like new Buick LaCrosse, but not much road noise makes it inside to disturb conversation.
Assuming the new Cadenza is priced right alongside its competition – Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Taurus, Nissan Maxima, et al – then it will be well worth considering and should not be dismissed for its lack of pedigree.
Without any official pricing, it’s tough to be decisive on this, but Kia’s marketers are smart: they know they’re still working to attach value to the name in North America, and most people who walk into a Kia dealership today are looking to pay less than for other brands. There’s no way the pricing will be uncompetitive – Kia’s in this for the long game.
The good news is that Kia’s residual values have been climbing; used cars hold onto their value better than before, because they’re built considerably better and buyers now know this. Those J.D. Power rankings are something to be proud of, and something to take to the bank.
The second generation of the Cadenza brings it nicely up to speed with the other sedans in its class, providing the satisfaction and comfort that drivers of such a car now expect.
The only way it’s left behind by the competition is with its engine, still a large and relatively thirsty mill, but many will be happy to stick with something so tried and tested.
The Cadenza is not a premium car, but it is luxurious and well-built, and will surely not charge buyers too much at the bank for the experience. Don’t dismiss it because Kia used to make cheap and unreliable cars—those days are long past, and the Cadenza can hold its badge high with the best of them.
Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.