2017 Kia Cadenza: a more grown-up Kia

The 2017 Kia Cadenza doesn’t bring much new to the table but, it delivers a thoroughly polished feel. There’s not an element of the latest Cadenza that reminds us that, just a decade ago, Kia was building cars best described as uncouth.

Kim Hong-Ji/AP/File
The logo of Kia Motor is displayed on a new K5 during its unveiling ceremony in Seoul, South Korea

Just what Kia wants to be when it grows up remains something of a mystery—but if it’s a purveyor of premium-feeling, stylish cars, the Cadenza goes a long way toward fulfilling that mission.

While this big sedan doesn’t bring much new to the table against rivals like the Buick LaCrosse, Toyota Avalon, and Hyundai Azera, it delivers a thoroughly polished feel. There’s not an element of the latest Cadenza that reminds us that, just a decade ago, Kia was building cars best described as uncouth.

The new-for-2017 Cadenza builds on the look and feel of its predecessor, but it comes at the full-size sedan segment with a little more vigor. And it needs to, since the last Cadenza was a mere blip in the sales charts overshadowed by almost every rival. Don’t look for the Cadenza to suddenly become Kia’s best seller, but its refinement sets a new high bar for the brand and, with any luck, it will continue to trickle down to the mainstream Optima and Forte.

Fitting in

Kia doesn’t position the Cadenza as a volume model, meaning that even the entry-level Premium model, priced at roughly $33,000, is better equipped than, say, the Chevrolet Impala. Leather seats and 18-inch alloy wheels are standard, a reminder that Kia still delivers a lot of value for the money.

An option package on the Premium—the only optional extra on any Cadenza—adds navigation, a panoramic sunroof, 630 watts of Harman/Kardon audio, blind spot monitors, and rear cross traffic alerts. The Technology trim level (at about $40,000) adds to that adaptive cruise control, a forward collision warnings with automatic emergency braking, a surround-view camera system, LED headlamps, and ventilated front seats. Topping the line is the decadent, roughly $45,000 SXL with upgraded leather, a power trunk lid, and a color head-up display that washes out with polarized sunglasses.

All models are priced about on par with the Buick LaCrosse and Toyota Avalon, though we give Kia credit for making automatic emergency braking a mandatory feature on the Technology and SXL grades.

But refinement is as crucial a selling point in the big sedan segment as value, and the Cadenza certainly delivers that, too. Nearly silent inside, it masks any hint of the outside world with sound deadening materials and laminated glass. That serenity extends to its ride quality, which is firm yet thoroughly devoid of sportiness. Its dashboard recalls Lexus of a decade ago, without ergonomic quirks thanks to logically grouped buttons and a simple infotainment system. Trendy design gestures are limited only to the odd but attractive quilted leather seating surfaces on the range-topping SXL.

Not a single material choice felt out of character in our SXL test car, and its suede headliner was a nice delight that subtly made the cabin seem more cossetting. There’s plenty of stretch-out space for five passengers; those in the rear can easily cross their legs, though they don’t get any kind of power outlet. Front seat passengers are treated to wide, firm seats that are heated on all models and ventilated on Technology and SXL grades.

Underhood is a 3.3-liter V-6, updated slightly from last year and delivering 290 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque. Cadenzas are only offered with front-wheel drive and they deliver power to the pavement via an 8-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters that seem a little incongruous in a full-size sedan. Still, we like to use them, so we'll take 'em.

Kia boasts about the Cadenza’s more composed demeanor on the road, and, for the most part, the automaker isn’t bluffing. The V-6 needs a deep stab at the throttle for highway passing, but its 8-speed reacts quickly and smoothly. Our only complaint is that it felt overly eager to kick into a higher gear to reduce fuel consumption.

We didn’t have the opportunity to measure the Cadenza’s thirst, but Kia anticipates EPA ratings of 20 mpg city, 28 highway, and 23 combined, figures up about 1 mpg over last year. An improvement is great, but the Cadenza still falls short of the 31 mpg highway promised by the Toyota Avalon and Buick LaCrosse.

It may be sufficiently quick, but the Cadenza isn’t at all sporty—because, well, it doesn’t need to be. Its European-inspired looks penned by ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer might imply some semblance of Autobahn-readiness, but the Cadenza immediately reminds us that it wants to be a relaxed cruiser. Four drive modes—Comfort, Eco, Sport, and Smart—give it slightly different personalities by adjusting the heft of its steering and the response of its throttle, but we found the Cadenza to be happiest where you might expect it: Comfort. Smart is said to adapt to your driving habits, but our 200-mile jaunt through Northern Virginia’s horse country didn’t give us enough time to see just how intelligent it can be.

Where the Cadenza falls short is in the feel of its tiller, which can't match the delightfully light and direct steering action in the 2017 Buick LaCrosse. Same goes for the Cadenza’s ride quality. That’s not to say that the Kia bounces heads around, but the Buick goes about its business with a little more grace thanks to its available two-mode adjustable dampers.

Still, the Cadenza wafts over rutted terrain and comes across well-composed on a curvy road. At about 3,800 pounds for the SXL, the Cadenza isn’t as heavy as its nearly 196-inch length and lavish list of features would suggest. It isn’t a car that will have you clipping apexes on a snaking canyon road, but it cossets in an acceptably “luxury lite” demeanor on a long stretch of highway pavement.

Although it doesn’t move the needle in any headline-grabbing way, the 2017 Kia Cadenza’s subtly luxurious feel makes it a full-size car certainly worth shopping—even if many of its virtues can be found in the Optima mid-sizer. 

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