Ask yourselves this simple question: What is luxury automotive engineering? We’re not talking about the overtly bespoke wooden and precious gem encrusted kind of sumptuousness associated with the Rolls Royce Dawn, or the gun-holstering and champagne flute-toting Holland & Holland Range Rover. Those are the kinds of cars that cross into the extravagant segment, and are nowhere close to being labeled as obtainable by 99% of the population. We’re talking about the average salary man’s luxury sedan, a vehicle that can be deemed obtainable by millions of middle class Americans only after years of saving.
Automotive opulence can no longer be characterized by badges, and for as painful as that may be for some to hear, it’s the truth. The luxury segment has become a grey area for many automakers, where a fully optioned out Nissan rivals its more expensive Infiniti counterpart, and a loaded Accord comes close to crushing its Acura upgrade based purely upon price and curb appeal. Heated and cooled seats, warming rear benches, power window shades, proximity based power folding mirrors with puddle lamps, every imaginable autonomous safety feature, and copious amounts of finely stitched leather are now the norm on what were once deemed entry-level automobiles.
Take Kia for instance: Once the economy subcompact automaker of yesteryear, the Korean car builder has done an outstanding job of rocketing itself to the forefront, taking the title in J.D. Power’s list of cars with best initial quality in 2016. That’s right. A little Korean upstart upset every single manufacturer out there, stealing the top spot from Porsche after three years, and winning applause from car critics everywhere.
How in the hell did this company outflank the world’s brightest and most established automakers, stunning engineers and designers at companies like BMW, Audi, GM, Ford, and Toyota? Maybe a quick tour of the completely redesigned Cadenza will help shine some light on the situation, because if you think Kia is taking the world by storm now, just wait until it unleashes its next round of award winners.
This car attracts the eye from every angle, and while it may be lacking in its wheel options and isn’t the wildest luxury sedan we’ve driven recently, it has a regal presence to it that is emphasized by its deep Platinum Graphite paint job. From the manta-ray looking LED headlamps, Zorro “Z” rear lenses, and quad fogs to the “tiger nose” scooped grille and integrated exhaust finishers, Kia’s baby K900 has become a refined looker. While this approach certainly isn’t for everyone, we really dig how former Audi chief designer Peter Schreyer has taken pre-1950s design cues and made them modern once more.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Rain sensing wipers and automatic trunk opener activate without being prompted.
+ Proximity-sensitive power-folding side mirrors with LED puddle lamps are a touch that Kia has wisely kept as a focal point on upper trim models, as it is both useful and attractive.
+ While the tubed LED “Z” lamps are always the first thing people notice outside of the “tiger nose” grille, it’s the simple horizontal belt lines, tasteful strips of chrome, balanced proportions, and duckbilled rear decklid that win our vote.
– Integrated exhaust tips are not connected, which lowers exhaust drone, but lowers curb appeal due to having exhaust ports that wiggle around inside.
– The 19-inch dark satin wheels come in a pattern that downplays the Cadenza’s presence.
– The automatic trunk can be a bit sensitive, and will occasionally get triggered just by walking by.
Here is where the Cadenza misses its mark the most, because despite generating 290 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque from its direct-injected 3.3-liter V6, the way in which it puts it to work is underwhelming. The eight-speed automatic may be a smooth attachment, but you can tell it’s there to achieve 28 mile per gallon averages on the freeway and little else. Hitting the throttle from a dead stop rewards you with little more than some chirping from the front tires before an unemotional climax to 60. Once momentum builds and your speedometer is over 40, you’re in for some smooth sailing though — and with a 2-ton curb weight behind it, the words “luxury cruise” do come to mind, making this an ideal candidate for prolonged road trips.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ A 23 mile per gallon average from a 20/28 city/highway EPA rating isn’t bad for a 2-ton car of this size.
+ The 3.3-liter GDi V6 offers a very smooth drive and quiet operation manners when attached to the new eight-speed automatic.
+ Having a front-wheel drive configuration makes northern winter commutes much more feasible thanks to Kia’s traction controls.
– It may be smooth, but there is nothing sporty about this powertrain, and even in sport mode with the paddle shifters snapping away we found ourselves shaking our heads and resetting the system to regular drive mode.
This cabin crushes the competition — both foreign and domestic — in its ability to both appeal and provide. Once you attach the available white interior option, cabin attraction levels really soar. Put a larger adult like myself in any of the Cadenza’s five seats and they will find themselves completely content with the ride home, and with a heated rear bench and retracting sun shades at the ready, it’s obvious that cabin comfort remains a core component in this car. Throw in the fact that both center stack and storage compartments are well thought out, heated/vented front seats and power options are plentiful, and that the genuine white Nappa leather interior looks stunning when the LED dome lights fire up, and you’ve got a winner in our book.
Interior pros and cons
+ If you are buying a Cadenza, be sure to check out the optional white package. It’s absolutely stunning and offers a magnificent mixture of quilted, stitched, and pleated Nappa leather seating surfaces that come to life at night under the LED map lights.
+ You can see why J.D. Power likes Kia so much when it comes to quality. All of the hard plastics, buttons, knobs, controls, hinges, soft touch, and headliner materials are top-notch and well put together, with nary a rattle or a creak to be heard.
+ Heated/vented seats, a power heated steering wheel, electric sun shade for the rear window, nicely proportioned storage options, panoramic sunroof, and even more cargo and passenger space than before seal the deal.
– Honda still holds the crown for best use of center console storage space, and upper portions of the dash could benefit from some contrasting materials.
Tech and safety
All sorts of tech and safety goods come on the Cadenza SXL, including an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, voice-command, surround view camera monitoring, and all manner of detection sensory system and semi-autonomous warning. It also comes with some nice 3D maps, hill-start assist, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Bluetooth integration, and a color heads-up display. Kia has surprised naysayers and believers alike.
Tech pros and cons
+ Blind spot monitoring, lane departure notifications, adaptive cruise, rear parking sensors, hill-start control … the list of useful safety tools is all-encompassing here. There’s also a heads-up display that keeps you informed and your eyes facing forward.
+ Kia’s surround view monitoring continues to be one of the best tech features in the biz, offering multiple visual angles that can be easily selected with the touch of a screen icon.
+ All the Bluetooth connectivity you could want, plus Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Kia’s own UVO infotainment voice-commands.
– The LCD driver gauge display is informative but nowhere near as slick as some Nissan and GM alternatives, and 3D maps are limited in the amount of detail they provide.
– Audio controls are slow to keep up with command prompts, and even at full blast you can still have a conversation over the Harman Kardon audio system, which is crystal clear but not all that powerful.
Rarely does one associate a Kia with this much opulence and serenity, and yet here we are, with everyone from Edmunds and Car & Driver, to Autoweek and Roadshow raving about how the new Cadenza is emerging as a leader in the segment. Ignore the sluggish 3.3-liter V6 and its lukewarm sport mode. The Cadenza’s extra gearing, as well as its generous cabin adjustments and suspension tweaks have gifted us with a car that redefines what the finer things in life look and feel like, and it delivers a driving feel that mimics this mantra.
Would it benefit from some bigger brakes and a more direct drivetrain that powers all four wheels instead of just the front two? Without a doubt. Does it feel less than sporty in sport mode and feature a steering feel that favors floating around corners instead of crushing them? You bet it does.
But the people who are looking for a budget-friendly luxury sedan aren’t always in need of sharp performance enhancements, especially in the $45,000 range and coming from a company like Kia. This car does everything properly and refuses to compromise when it comes to sumptuous driving characteristics, and with its retuned suspension and near silent cabin, the ride you get in the Cadenza is tranquil enough that even the most stalwart luxury purist will be left impressed.
Wrap up and review
Kia has done remarkable things with its brand image, and by manufacturing vehicles that offer many of the features found on vehicles costing twice as much, it has forced car buyers to rethink what luxury means. Sure, if a badge is all you’re concerned with, and you don’t mind paying through the nose for it, go ahead and opt for the more expensive European alternative.
But some Americans don’t care what brand they align themselves with, just as long as their purchase can get them comfortably to a destination in a cloud of leather and LED lighting, and isn’t prone to recalls every other month. The Cadenza covers its bases extremely well, and while we are curious to see how it would perform with a more snarky powertrain, a sharper sport mode, and both rear- and all-wheel drive configurations, it’s foolish to discredit this luxury sedan based purely upon its badging.
This is a car that borders on being an ideal example of what value, quality, and luxury look like, and while there are other impressive sedans in this segment today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that offers all that the SXL offers for under $45,000. So don’t be afraid to pit the reshaped Kia against all competitors both in the non-luxury segment and above, because if you don’t mind a front-wheel drive configuration, Kia badging, and some ho-hum acceleration, this sedan is crafted to overcome any doubts you may still be harboring about the brand.