Let’s say you’re ready to buy a new car. And let’s say that the last few years had been good to you, financially, and you have somewhere between $35,000 and $40,000 to spend. Would the first thing that comes to mind be: I’m going to get myself a Kia? No. It wouldn’t. But with their new 2014 Kia Cadenza “premium” sedan, Kia is angling to change your mind.
The word Kia loosely translates as “rising out of Asia,” and Kia has definitely risen. From humble World War II-era beginnings, when the company manufactured steel tubing and bicycle parts by hand, and an equally humble middle period, where it existed mainly to make Mazda-derived vehicles sold as cheap Ford nameplates, suddenly Kia is the 8th-largest car brand in the United States by volume, outselling such household names as Volkswagen, BMW, Mazda, and Chrysler with 557,000 new vehicles sold here last year.
Kia’s current rise can mostly be pegged to 2006, when it began to shift its focus from making dime-cars, hiring Peter Schreyer away from Audi as Chief Design Officer, declaring design its “core future growth engine.” Soon after, Schreyer debuted Kia’s “tiger nose” grille, establishing it as the car’s calling card. Kia relaunched the Sorento CUV in 2009, the youth-oriented, brilliantly-marketed, and extremely recognizable Kia Soul in 2010, and a sleekly redesigned Optima sedan in 2011. It sold 152,000 Optimas in 2012 alone, to customers it believed would eventually be able to take the leap up from affordable mid-sized cars. Slowly, the company was trying to persuade consumers that Kia could be an aspirational brand.
Enter the Cadenza, an all-new car which Kia calls its entry in the “emerging premium space between mainstream and luxury.” It’s questionable whether or not that space actually exists outside of marketing land, but in Kia’s mind, they’re straddling the line between stalwarts like the Toyota Avalon, the Nissan Maxima, the Ford Taurus and the Chevy Impala, and entry-level luxury cars like the Lexus ES and Acura TL. Kia wants the Cadenza to play with the big boys in the segment. So that’s how it’ll be judged.
The company claims that the Cadenza’s exterior design has a “distinctive sport sedan form, as if the car would be equally comfortable on the Autobahn or carving through the Swiss Alps.” We drove the Cadenza in San Francisco and environs, so it’s impossible to speak to its Alpine capability, but it does look and feel something like a sports sedan. The exterior design isn’t going to blow any minds, but it also doesn’t have any significant flaws, with an elegant silhouette, chrome accents, twin tailpipes, and, on the highest trim package, 19-inch alloy wheels that give it strong shoulders.
Cars in this segment aim to feel pleasant inside, and the Cadenza definitely hits that target. The interior is low-key, if a bit generic-feeling, with wood accents on the dash and and wood-and-leather-wrapped steering wheel, an unfussy dashboard, and materials that successfuly mimic luxury. Overall, it feels a little tighter and younger than the Avalon, a little less muscular and sleeker than the Maxima, way better in every way than the new ticky-tack Impala, and, at the highest end of its wish list, close to par with the Lexus ES.
The Cadenza has a 3.3-liter direct injection V-6 engine that offers 293 hp, almost exactly the same as the Avalon, and a fine six-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. But it benefits greatly from an excellent fully independent suspension, with a McPherson strut setup in front and a multilink rear design, which makes the car surprisingly agile through tight turns. We drove it along some wavy segments of the Pacific Coast Highway and through the Sonoma Valley. It hugged the road with great precision, pinpoint steering, and excellent braking. This type of car tends to feel pillowy and drifting through turns, but the Cadenza neatly sidestepped the usual flaws. It’s not often that a car like this can boast an excellent suspension as its most outstanding feature, but this one does, like a secret toy surprise.
In terms of amenities, the Cadenza has a roomy backseat and a large trunk, though the front passenger seat rides a little low and isn’t as comfortable as the rest of the car. It comes standard with a navigation system with satellite traffic, a high-resolution eight-inch screen with the now-standard array of linked-up apps, rear-backup camera, and leather seat trim. A “Premium” package throws in a panoramic sunroof, really nice Napa leather seats, a 12-way ventilated driver’s seat with extra cushioning, and a heated steering wheel. At the top of the line is the Technology package, which adds smart braking, lane-departure warning, a cyborg cruise control, and a rear blind-spot detection system, all of which place the Cadenza (at least with this package) at the high end of industry safety standards.
The Cadenza’s pretense toward luxury actually approaches it; the car is above-average or better for its segment, a success all around for Kia, with one glaring flaw: subpar gas mileage. I realize that this isn’t a small vehicle, and you need to make certain concessions for a V-6 engine, but 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway is just not good enough — certainly not when you’re asking people to take an expensive flier on a new product.
Kia spent a lot of time talking about “value opportunities” while presenting us with the Cadenza. “Value is what you get for your money,” they said. As such, they threw a fancy two-day premium-ish party for us and our significant others. This included meals, nice hotels, a spa treatment for the wife, and a private dinner hosted by a boutique Napa Valley winemaker, going a couple steps beyond the usual car junket perks. We had a nice time, and it was a nice car. But I kept thinking about value. Cars have hidden costs, with fuel at the top of the list.
The Lexus ES300 hybrid costs the same as the Cadenza, or even a little less, and it gets 40 mpg. Plus, it’s a Lexus, with all the amenity that implies. The Avalon hybrid gets the same mileage as the ES. Even the base model Avalon, which in terms of luxury features, if not drive performance, pretty much evenly matches the Cadenza, gets 21 city and 31 highway. Plus it costs several thousand dollars less. That seems to get a lot closer to offering actual value.
Then again, if you’ve got $40,000 to spend on a Kia, maybe you’re not worried about such things.