2017 Kia Cadenza First Drive: Big car, small market

  • Comfortable ride
  • Large interior
  • Respectable power
  • Affordable starting price
  • Excellent warranty
  • Few buyers interested in large sedans
  • Not many shoppers know it exists

Lurking just below the surface of flashy ad campaigns and country club one-upmanship at the valet station there exists a world of comfortable, handsomely-styled automobiles that deliver 90 percent of the features found in traditional luxury cars almost completely under the radar. The 2017 Kia Cadenza is one such premium sleeper, joining the ranks of the Buick LaCrosse, the Toyota Avalon, and the Nissan Maxima as de facto upscale vehicles that ply the full-size sedan waters with silent dignity.

Redesigned for 2017, the master plan that has seen Kia claw its way up from the bargain aisle it occupied a mere 15 years ago is on full display in the Cadenza. This is a four-door that can go toe-to-toe with more established entries sitting in Lexus and Acura showrooms when it comes to features and build quality, and yet it doesn't ask buyers to stretch their monthly payments quite as far in the process. Like most modern Kias, the Cadenza demonstrates how the democratization of technology has leveled the playing field to the point where you no longer have to go badge-hunting to bag a comfortable car.

The 2017 Kia Cadenza certainly fits in well with the current crop of large sedans, what with its revised creases and newly concave grille providing just enough differentiation from the previous model to stand out. More extensive use of LED lighting up front and at the rear also serve to highlight the car's pleasing, if somewhat staid proportions and presence. Perhaps most importantly, the Cadenza moves farther away from the next-one-down Optima in terms of design, while maintaining a general family resemblance.

While the exterior of the Cadenza isn't intended to wow, the passenger cabin gets high marks for its inspired interpretation of what family car shoppers are looking for in a premium car. This is particularly true of the top-tier SXL model, which features soft, perforated leather, the availability of heated and cooled seats, a well-organized dashboard and gauge cluster, and restrained use of interior metallic trim highlights. Back seat room is simply enormous, which is surprising given the Kia's modest wheelbase, and the car's infotainment system provides an easy-to-use menu system and compatibility with Android Auto and Apple Car Play.

Mechanically, Kia has invested in its familiar 3.3-liter V6 with a focus on boosting efficiency (albeit modestly). You'll benefit from one more mile per gallon around town in the 2017 Kia Cadenza as compared to the model it replaces (20-mpg city, 28-mpg highway), at the cost of a few horsepower and a smattering of torque. It's hard to imagine anyone noticing the 'missing' grunt, as the 290 ponies and 253 lb-ft of twist on offer from the six-cylinder unit is more than sufficient for motivating the sedan. A new eight-speed automatic transmission is on hand, too, and it makes power delivery as transparent as possible when the car is set to 'Smart' or 'Eco' driving modes.

There's a 'Sport' mode, too, but I don't expect it will be engaged all that often. Despite checking in as lighter than the old platform, the suspension tuning in the Kia Cadenza is clearly aimed at ensuring smooth sailing rather than boiling anyone's blood. This meant calm and controlled body movements over rough pavement and a respectably flat comportment when pulling through the corners of the Virginian back roads where I spent most of my time behind the wheel. The quietness of the Cadenza's passenger compartment and the relaxed steering effort also contributed to the car's refined character, with easy parallels drawn between the Kia and alternatives like the (somewhat smaller) Lexus ES or the Acura TLX.

Herein lies the puzzle of the Cadenza. That this is a very competent full-size sedan is not in doubt, and with a full complement of advanced safety equipment available to match its redeveloped drivetrain, it's clear that Kia is all-in when it comes to investing in the car. Still, the Cadenza has traditionally played to a limited audience, with most other large four-doors in its class doing a much brisker business. This is despite competitive pricing that is predicted to fall in the $32,000 to $44,000 range once released this fall.

Kia clearly hopes that a better Cadenza is also a more attractive Cadenza, but the fate of the car might be out of the company's hands. Fewer people are shopping at the deep end of the sedan pool, preferring instead to devote their dollars to SUVs and crossovers, and while sales of the Maxima and the Avalon are strong in comparison to past Kia efforts in the class, they are absolutely dwarfed by Pathfinder and Highlander numbers. It's nice to have a clear upgrade path available to Optima drivers in the form of a comfy Cadenza, but the real trade-up is most likely a Sorento, not a larger four-door.