2017 Kia Cadenza Plays a Tuneful Sedan Passage
Mid-tempo performance, sumptuous chamber, tickets below $33,000.
For the love of Camry, Americans are dumping their stalwart family sedans. In terms of the American mythos, this is like cheerleaders turning down dates with football captains. Or Bruce Springsteen writing songs about Land Rovers. (Landie's Room)?
Remarkably, family sedans plunged to barely 12 percent of the market in August, down more than two points since last year. I’d try to feign more surprise. But these Stepford Sedans may deserve some comeuppance, because the cars have become so irredeemably boring and interchangeable. The ever-astute Eddie Alterman, editor in chief of Car and Driver, suggested the segment might be benchmarking itself out of existence.
Sure, predictability has worked in this segment for decades, from the Chevy Impala’s Sixties heyday to the more-recent reign of the Toyota Camry. But the jig may be up. Like any auto reviewer worth his free shrimp, I’ve long tried to steer prospects to the handsome, athletic Mazda6 as the cure for the common four-door. But people just don’t listen, with the 6’s sales a cosmic speck in the midsize universe.
So I’ll try another tack. If you’re tired of cookie-cutter family cars, consider a bite of this richer 2017 Kia Cadenza. Neighbors will definitely look up from their weed whackers: The Kia brings more sophisticated design character, inside and out, than a strip mall full of Toyotas and Fords.
Like the Nissan Maxima, the well-regarded new Impala and now the 2017 Buick Lacrosse, the Cadenza joins a four-door band that’s actually making more interesting moves than the status-quo midsize set. These full-size front-drivers are roomier and more luxurious than the typical family car, but still keep prices hovering around $33,000 or $34,000 – in line with higher-end Accords, Fusions and Camrys, and right on par with what Americans shell out in the average new-car transaction.
Kia says the Cadenza, with its 290-horsepower V6, will start under $33,000 when it goes on sale late this month. That price will stay below $40,000 in Technology trim – still reasonable for this fully armed near-luxury sedan – but rises to roughly $44,000 for the loaded SXL version I tested for a week in New York. That’s where the Cadenza begins to lose me, and Kia only has its cousin to blame: The Hyundai-built Genesis G80, which starts at just over $42,000, a no-apologies luxury sedan whose polished rear-drive road manners vault it well above the Cadenza. Yet, stick with the sub-$40,000 versions and this all-new Cadenza makes for an intriguing Road Less Traveled.
First, in a world where everyone grouses about dull alphanumeric model names – the MK’s, Q-whatsits and other personality-eliding letters and numbers – can we give it up for “Cadenza”? This tuneful name describes a technically complex, virtuoso solo section within a concerto or other longer work. Sure, the musical sobriquet seems more apt for some European gran turismo than a Korean cruiser. But considering the Cadenza’s harmonious design and lushly composed interior, a bit of Italy-based etymology is easy to pardon.
The Cadenza underlines the multifarious talents of designer Peter Schreyer, who left a fast-ascent career at Audi to head up design at Hyundai, Kia and now the Genesis brand. With the fine sense of line, proportion and detail of Schreyer’s saucy Kia Soul, but in a different design vein, this Cadenza is a good-looking sedan, period. The long, lean side profile recalls the lovely Volvo S90, and the C-pillar nods to BMW’s Hofmeister kink, but Schreyer also puts his own stamp on the car. Kia’s reworked, concave Tiger Shark grille adds an “Intaglio” look on uplevel versions, replacing mesh with slender vertical slats. Z-shaped LED lighting makes a decorative Zorro slash on headlamps and taillamps.
The official EPA ledger pegs the Cadenza as a full-size sedan. Yet it’s barely three inches longer than an Accord, so the Kia never felt overlarge, including in Manhattan parking. The Kia is also extremely well packaged with nearly 107 cubic feet of interior space. Rear seats are enormous and well-sculpted, and there's slightly more room overall than the Impala, a model that's nearly six inches longer than the Kia. The trunk is equally generous by family-car standards, at 16 cubic feet.
In keeping with roomy interiors, I parked the Cadenza before the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan – stretching just over two football fields, it's the world's longest Gothic cathedral. Tucking behind a brand-new Hyundai Sonata, I had my own Road to Damascus moment. The current Sonata is one of those Judas sedans in my book, a sell-out to mammon profits and the Golden Calf of Camry. And where the Hyundai looked tired and perfunctory, the Cadenza popped. The visual impact includes a cabin whose design and materials – aside from a few Kia parts-bin switches and unfortunate slabs of piano-black plastic – leave Acura’s similarly priced TLX for dead. Diamond-quilted Nappa leather seats pay winking homage to Audi and Bentley; they’re striking and comfortably padded, in a range of colors from my tester’s cocoa brown to a dramatic ivory. Those seats even featured a pneumatic, Mercedes-like thigh extender that unfurls the cushion’s leading edge like a comfy red carpet. A deep center console opens from the center like a drawbridge, as in a BMW or Benz.
The Kia’s flat-topped, wood-lined dashboard and controls, arrayed as traditionally as the settings in a Rockwell painting, come off as confident and appealing in a sedan world of trendy, digital one-uppers. Old-school relief extends to a bank of hard switches, as trusty as a front-line of soldiers, and bearing familiar words like “Radio,” “Climate” and “Map.” As for modern stuff, Kia’s UVO infotainment system remains among the easiest-to-master, despite a smallish eight-inch touchscreen. And the luxury roster just doesn’t quit: Adaptive cruise control, a head-up display, surround-view camera, heated rear seats, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a power trunk closer, a raft of safety monitors.
The driving experience seems less ambitious than the luxurious design and features. But this Kia knows where its sedan bread is buttered, or perhaps cream-cheesed in smooth Lexus style. Heavily boosted steering demands little exertion, physical or mental. The suspension is absorbent, the cabin hushed, aided by the Kia’s newly stiffened structure and an underbody tray. Its metal bones are filled with more high-strength steel. Added aluminum in the suspension trims 40 pounds of critical unsprung weight.
The 3.3-liter V6 won’t win any singing contests, but it’s suitably muffled and just powerful enough. Its 290 horses and 253 pound-feet counter a nearly 3,800-pound curb weight in loaded trim, enough to tug the Cadenza to 60 mph in less than seven seconds. Mat the gas from a standstill, and some torque steer twists the steering wheel in your hands, the front tires succumbing to the powerful V6. Kia’s new eight-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission replaces a previous six-speed. It’s smooth but not especially swift, and loves to keep the Kia in too-high gears in the interest of fuel economy. (The EPA grants a 20/28 mpg rating in city and highway).
On a high-speed nighttime test on the forested Bronx River Parkway north of Manhattan, the Cadenza felt like it was playing catch-up with the coiling two-laner. The Kia-Hyundai performance mode switch is as superfluous as ever, aside from changes you don’t want, such as emasculating the throttle in its Eco setting. But keep the Cadenza in its laid-back wheelhouse, don’t delude yourself that it’s a BMW, and everything will be fine.
The previous-generation Cadenza was an oddball, an Optima-based poseur that struggled to find 10,000 buyers a year in the States. This bar-raising version feels richer than its rivals – Impala, Maxima, Lacrosse, Toyota Avalon and Ford Taurus – and it’s on rough performance par in a class that chooses comfort over sport, every time.
Will this new Cadenza outsell the Avalon, Impala or Maxima? Doubtful. But for sedan iconoclasts, the Kia's relative anonymity might be all the more reason to arrange a test drive – and escape the lemming herd before it sleepwalks over a cliff.
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home.