2014 Kia Cadenza: First Drive

April 27, 2013
How much of a luxury car's price is in the badge?

It's a question we kept revisiting, repeatedly, during a couple of days with the all-new 2014 Kia Cadenza

Because if you don't mind driving a car that tops $40k and has the Kia badge, the new Cadenza is a model that feels like a luxury car in almost every respect.

Styling is important, but only part of it. You need only look at Kia's last effort, the Amanti, to understand how far the brand has come with its styling in just a few model years. While the Amanti looked like an assemblage of cues borrowed from earlier luxury cars, the new 2014 Cadenza is representative of the brand's clean, Euro-chic look.

If you don't even remember the Amanti and just googled it, we're not surprised.

The Cadenza is far from forgettable, especially if you go by appearance. With the its stance, its proportions, its low-profile 19-inch alloys, and its LED taillights and HID headlamps, it all adds up to a car that could be mistaken for a rear-wheel-drive sport sedan. We think it's better-looking than its Hyundai Azera cousin, actually.

And the name is right; 'Cadenza' refers to the colorful solo that often bookends a concerto. And we feel that, with the brand's trajectory upward, this is a model that makes the refresh of an entire lineup complete.

Performance is possibly the only aspect of the Cadenza that might not be what's suggested at face value. It's essentially offered in a single driving flavor—and while it's not a wallflower it's not particularly punchy either.

Power and torque figures from its 3.3-liter all-aluminum, direct-injection V-6, at 293 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque are respectable for this kind of sedan. The engine doesn't spoil you with low-end torque the way that some other powerplants in this class do, so you need to use the rev range more than you might expect. Luckily, the transmission is quite eager to downshift (sometimes it's almost busy). The throttle also has a jumpy tip-in that could use an Eco mode—or a more linear throttle calibration befitting of its 'premium' presentation.

You won't find a Sport mode (or Eco mode), and there are no multi-mode steering or suspension settings. What it does include is a manual gate, along with steering-wheel paddle shifters, letting you make the call on what gear to be in. We like how it won't force a downshift, even at full throttle—great when you're on a tight set of uphill corners.

Sport-tuned, but not edgy

The only thing that might change everyday performance a slight bit is the upgrade to the 19-inch wheels that you get with the Tech Package our test car had. We didn't drive a Cadenza without it, but our car rode well over a wide range of surfaces. The Hankook Optimo tires they're shod with have decent, predictable grip otherwise, although they're vocal.

Kia calls the suspension sport-tuned, but it's hardly an edgy performer, or one that you'll want to take hauling down back roads. We took it out to some of our favorite ones, pitching it only moderately into corners, and the suspension found an unsettling wallow out of tight, imperfectly surfaced corners (quick prescription: more rebound damping, please!). The steering is too light and numb, and the 3,800-pound (as we tested it) Cadenza isn't one that does well with quick back-and-forth transitions or tight hairpins.

All this sounds like criticism, but that's only if you go against the Cadenza's modus operandi and truly drive it like a sport sedan; it's happy to hustle along curvy roads at what almost anyone would consider a brisk pace.

Settling into a highway cruise, you'll find the Cadenza is in its element and supremely quiet; there's not any wind noise to speak of, and only the faintest hum of road noise on one of the coarsest stretches of highway we could think of—all without the foolery of active noise insulation.

All Cadenzas have leather upholstery, but step up to the Luxury Package and you get ventilated Nappa leather, with heated rear seats, and even a thigh extension for the driver's seat—adding comfort on those longer highway hauls. Overhead, this package also gets you a twin-panel panoramic roof, which brightens the interior and looks great from the outside but unfortunately really limits headroom in back. There are two scooped out ares for the outboard rear occupants' heads, but you'll be locked into a slightly slouched position.

Inside: Movin' on up

Switchgear and trims are decidedly different than what you'll find elsewhere in the Kia lineup. Only in the new Sorento will you find anything close to this. They're the two most expensive cars in the lineup, we know, but with their finer details, better attention to refinement, and even their new font for everything (um... wasn't that Volvo's?), they're clearly pointing the brand in a new direction.

Standard equipment on all 2014 Cadenza models includes rain-sensing wipers, a rear camera system, rear parking sensors, a smart entry system, an eight-inch infotainment center, and touch-screen navigation with satellite-radio-based traffic. And yes, this is all for the $35,100 base price.

The navigation system and interface here are in our opinion among the best on the market, with clear, colorful displays, easy split-screen views and, perhaps most importantly, hard buttons for many sound-system and climate tasks. Below the screen, flanking the analog clock is a row of climate buttons, while a row of audio and nav shortcut buttons is below.

Voice control works here, too—really well. Not long after we got into the car (and without listening to help), we placed a call and tuned to a satellite radio channel. And the Cadenza is also one of the first models to offer Kia's UVO eServices system, which, with a connected smartphone and an app installed, allows roadside assistance, diagnostics, and points-of-interest flagging, all without a separate subscription.

Our test car was nearly fully loaded, adding the $3,000 Luxury Package (the panoramic roof, HID headlamps, Nappa leather, ventilated driver's seat, heated rear seats, heated steering wheel, power steering column, two-position memory, driver's seat thigh extension, power rear sunshade, and a first aid kit), plus the $3,000 Technology Package (19-inch alloys, smart cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane-departure warning, hydrophobic glass, and an electronic parking brake), as well as a cargo net. That raised the bottom-line sticker price to $41,950.

True luxury-car feature set

Especially of note were the active cruise control, which has four different distance settings and, as we tested, will bring this car to a stop in gridlock-style traffic. And the power sunshade conveniently, and quickly, automatically lowers when you reverse.

To sum, the Cadenza is a real luxury sedan—with the features, comfort, and refinement that you'd expect of one, even at $20k more. The only thing it lacks is the cachet of the brand badge. Less than a decade ago Kia was a brand of last resort, the brand that turned out decent but boring little cars like the Spectra.

While Kia's South Korean cousin Hyundai (run as a fully independent brand here in the U.S.) has pushed harder into luxury territory with cars like its Genesis and Equua, the Cadenza makes sense as about as far upward as Kia can go right now.

In Kia's lineup, the Cadenza, true to its name, really is more of a virtuoso than the brand's ever had.

For more observations and details, including specs, pricing, and more pictures, see our full review of the 2014 Kia Cadenza.

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