Big sedans have been a part of the American landscape for generations, but they've fallen out of favor among mainstream buyers in part because mid-sizers offer at least as much space as the full-size four-doors of yore.
Yet for 2017, Buick, long a player in this segment, and relative upstart Kia have brand new full-size near-luxury sedans ready to vie for consumers. Both sedans offer plenty of room for passengers and their gear, including rear seats capable of holding three adults.
Pop into a Kia showroom and you'll find just a single Cadenza powertrain: a 3.3-liter V-6 engine rated 290 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque that delivers its power exclusively to the front wheels via a new 8-speed automatic gearbox. Though the transmission may have the same gear count, Kia's was developed in-house, while the Buick's is a ZF unit.
The LaCrosse is available in four flavors: base, Preferred, Essence, and Premium. A simplified lineup means that its predecessor's slow-selling eAssist mild hybrid is gone. The Cadenza, meanwhile, is available in Premium, Technology, and SXL trims. Curiously, Premium at Buick is range-topping, while it's entry-level at Kia; don't read into that any further, however.
Both sedans are more evolutionary than revolutionary in the styling department. Buick, unfortunately, retains the fake portholes it has glued to the LaCrosse's hood, but otherwise this sedan is shapely and stylish, with flared rear haunches and delicate chrome detailing. Most models ride on 18-inch alloy wheels, but 20-inchers are paired with adjustable dampers. We're mixed on the value of this option as the larger diameter tires are more expensive to replace and they ride slightly more firmly, despite the adjustable suspension.
The LaCrosse acquits itself well inside, with a gently-flowing dashboard and a big 8.0-inch infotainment system mounted high on the dashboard. The high-resolution screen powers GM's Intellilink system, which is among the most user-friendly around, and it includes Apple CarPlay compatibility. Up front, the seats are comfortable and, on high-spec models, they even include a massaging function. It's not quite Shiatsu, but it should relieve some road trip stress. Rear seat passengers have decent space, but the roofline cuts in considerably, which reduces headroom and makes ingress and egress a little more challenging than it ought to be.
Kia has added some almost Italian styling elements to the Cadenza, particularly in the treatment used on the sedan's grille. Its detailing is more impressive than the LaCrosse's, but overall we like the Buick's shape just a little more.
More than anywhere else, the 2017 Cadenza ups its game inside, where it counts, with an interior far more focused on hand-crafted (or at least hand-crafted-looking) details and an upgraded material set. Though its dash is far more button-heavy than the simple LaCrosse's look, most switches are easy to sort out after a quick acclimation. Kia's Uvo infotainment rivals Buick's setup, but Kia reserves the larger 8.0-inch touchscreen upgrade over the standard 7.0-inch unit for models with navigation.
Though there's no massaging function on the Kia's seats they're wrapped in nice Nappa leather on higher-spec models, and the SXL trim level includes a decadent suede headliner. The look isn't quite Bentley, but the line between the two is beginning to blur more than you might expect.
We do think that Kia has done a better job spacing out its models, however. The Premium has leather, heated seats standard, and it offers navigation as an option. The Technology trim level, meanwhile, adds automatic emergency braking—an important safety feature. On the LaCrosse, the base model has vinyl covering the seats, but it includes tech niceties like Apple CarPlay an Android Auto capability, infotainment that can dealer-upgradeable with navigation, and even a wireless charger. But the lineup gets muddy from there, with the Preferred model listing for considerably more but adding very little equipment, and the safety tech that's standard on the mid-level Cadenza requires going full-boat (plus adding a package) on the LaCrosse.
On the road, the cars reveal their differences after only a few miles. They both tend toward cosseting rather than sporting, but the LaCrosse is the more confident apex clipper. Its steering is light but accurate, revealing more of the road than we've come to expect from plush sedans. Its lighter curb weight helps this big sedan feel surprisingly lithe—and that benefits its V-6, too. Though it's muffled behind considerable sound deadening, the engine emits a refined growl and accelerates this sedan with authority. We especially like the 8-speed automatic's fast shifts, something we haven't seen all that often from a GM sedan.
The Cadenza goes about things more like a Mercedes-Benz. Its ride is a little firmer, but certainly not harsh, and there is a little more wind and road noise. The Kia's steering requires a little more effort than the Buick's, but there isn't quite as much road feel present. Yet with its more comfortable cabin, we feel that the Cadenza is the better road trip car; in fact, it's among the best of that breed.
Snow belters will appreciate the Buick's optional all-wheel drive, although it does dent fuel economy. On the EPA's test, the front-wheel-drive LaCrosse is rated at 21 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, 25 mpg combined. Opt for all-wheel drive and those figures drop to 20/29/23 mpg, respectively. The Cadenza is more of a guzzler, however, coming in at 20/28/23 mpg, with only front-wheel drive.
Which one is best for you? It's a true toss up. If you're drawn to the Buick's style and like its silent demeanor, you'll be more than happy with the redesigned model. Yet if you want something a little more edgy and comfortable inside and are willing to give up a little fuel efficiency, opt for the Cadenza.