First Drive: Experiencing Upward Mobility With the 2017 Kia Cadenza

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2017 Kia Cadenza sits pretty outside of Middleburg, Va.
2017 Kia Cadenza sits pretty outside of Middleburg, Va. | Justin Lloyd-Miller/Autos Cheat Sheet

Next to owning a home, owning a car is probably the next largest pillar of the American Dream. “Work hard,” it says. “Work hard and you can have it all.” That’s how it went. Work harder, make more, buy a bigger house. Buy a nicer car. For decades, automakers have been happy to oblige: Work hard for a Ford. Work harder and you can get a Mercury. Work even harder and you can have a Lincoln.

Times have changed for the American Dream, and without getting into the political ramifications of whether it’s feasible or not, the gist is still there — work more, be rewarded with more money, buy a bigger house and a nicer car. You can still work harder to move from a Chevy to a Buick. Work even harder and get yourself a Cadillac. For Kia, well… Kia is hoping you’ll work harder so you can buy a Kia.

Unlike Hyundai, which is seeing its tuxedo-clad vehicles be escorted to a brand of their own, Kia’s upper-crust offerings are staying in-house. For a few years now, the Cadenza has offered loyal buyers more than what’s available in a top-spec Optima. By blending uncharacteristically fine materials with more potent engines, longer wheelbases, and plenty of sound deadening, Kia has made inroads into the soft-luxury market once dominated by Buick, Chrysler, and before it’s hospice years, Mercury.

2017 Kia Cadenza
2017 Kia Cadenza | Justin Lloyd-Miller/Autos Cheat Sheet

Kia’s first attempt at the Cadenza wasn’t a bad one, but similar to its struggle when it first arrived in the United States decades ago, the brand has had to work fervently to convince buyers it’s as-good or better than the incumbent luxury vehicles. So can a second-generation Cadenza make its case better than the first? We traveled to Virginia to find out.

2017 Kia Cadenza
2017 Kia Cadenza | Justin Lloyd-Miller/Autos Cheat Sheet

In a word, yes. Yes, the Cadenza’s second iteration seems more than up to the task to resume the mantle formed by the first. It’s comfortable, capable, spacious, relatively fuel-savvy, easy to use, and in true Kia fashion, a solid value for the money.

While the previous Cadenza wasn’t ugly by any measure, it struggled to stand out in a crowd. As the Chrysler 300, Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse, and Chevrolet Impala — all vehicles cited by Kia execs as being in firing range of the Cadenza — have received significant updates since the Kia first made it’s entrance, the Cadenza found itself playing catch-up in a class it had only just joined.

Not so anymore; the new Cadenza is handsome, taught and sculpted, and uses the weaknesses of the older generation as opportunities to make a statement. The anonymous, soft-edged lights on the old model have been replaced by Z-emblazoned LED tube lighting and an aggressive fascia that conveys elegance but stops short of being garish or gaudy. A simple, strong shoulder line runs the length of the entire car, conveying a comprehensive design language from bumper to bumper.

Inside, hide the badge on the steering wheel and it’d be hard to imagine that you were sitting in a Kia-badged vehicle at all. Premium headliner, soft-touch leather and plastics, and some contrasting trim impart the aura of a car two or three times the price (the Cadenza will start below, if you can believe it, $33,000; our loaded SXL tester will ring in closer to $44,000, but prices aren’t solidified yet). The steering wheel is heated; seats are heated, cooled, bolstered, and quilted; the back seat is plenty spacious, and there’s an analog clock to ensure that passengers know they aren’t riding in a spec’d out Optima.

2017 Cadenza interior
2017 Cadenza interior | Source: Kia

One thing Kia has done exceptionally well is its button layout. The UVO infotainment system is intuitive and uses a blend of physical buttons and the 8-inch touchscreen. The clusters of buttons (real, actual, physical buttons!) for the stereo and dual-zone climate control are superbly laid out in such a functional manner that with just a day’s worth of driving under our belts, we felt comfortable and at home sliding behind the wheel.

Kia has also put a fair amount of work into the platform that Cadenza rides on. Buyers moving up from the old model can expect improved cornering performance and tighter handling overall; significant improvements were made in noise/vibration/harshness (NVH) management, and when combined with Kia’s eight-speed transmission, this equates to a genuinely luxurious ride. At 107.8 cubic feet, it’s among the largest in its class.

2017 Cadenza
2017 Kia Cadenza | Source: Kia

But on the road, the Cadenza doesn’t feel big. On the winding roads of Virginia, the car — which weighs in at roughly 3,635 pounds — felt planted, without the vague floating feeling that many luxury cars have. The electronic steering system was precise, swung with ease, and combined with the linear acceleration at sub-highway speeds and predictable braking (not too grabby or soft), made piloting the Cadenza easy. Almost too easy.

The Cadenza is not a sport sedan, and not particularly exciting to drive. But it is an ideal highway companion; the eight-speed transmission does a valiant job of staying out of the way, the added efforts in fighting NVH pay off in spades, and the suspension — which can be honed with Sport and Comfort settings — largely handles bumps with ease. The seats are well-bolstered and comfortable, with added thigh support for the driver. Getting up to speed on an interstate or country road isn’t an especially rousing experience (the engine likes to make noise in higher RPMs, but without the G-force to match), but once there, the Cadenza is an enjoyable highway cruiser well-suited for long journeys.

2017 Cadenza
2017 Cadenza taillight | Source: Kia

The 3.3-liter V6 gets the job done, and does so without much fanfare, but doesn’t have the memorable charm of a BMW straight-six or a burbling V8. However, it suits the car well; like the transmission, it largely stays out of the way. It can and will handle what 99% of its buyers expect of it with ease, and it returns decent fuel economy at 23 miles per gallon combined (one better than Impala, one shy of Avalon). It provides 290 horsepower and 253 pound-feet of torque.

Technologically-speaking, the Kia doesn’t offer a whole lot that you can’t get on the competition — but you can get a surround-view camera system, which provides a stellar view around the car when maneuvering in close quarters. Though the ’16 Cadenzas had this feature as well, Kia has touched up its abilities with better image stitching for improved birds-eye viewing of the immediate surroundings. It joins the now-usual legion of safety tech, including a driver’s knee airbag, autonomous braking, blind spot alerts, and smart blind-spot detection — which will come online if the driver starts to slip toward an adjacent vehicle. It will automatically brake the opposite side front wheel, to help pull the car away from the offending vehicle. New for 2017, Kia has added a head-up display, a wireless smartphone charger, and an automatic smart trunk opener that pops the boot if you stand behind it with the key fob in your pocket.

2017 Cadenza
2017 Kia Cadenza | Source: Kia

The luxo-Kia will start at a very reasonable $33,000 or so (a hair more than the Avalon), but to get one dressed to the nines like our SXL tester was, you’ll be shelling out close to $45,000, if not more after optional extras. That’s a lot of coin, and puts the Cadenza in direct competition with brands that have been in the luxury business for a lot longer. The Lexus ES and GS straddle that mark; $5,000 more will get you a large sedan with a BMW roundel on front, and about $4,500 more will put you in an Infiniti Q70 with 40 more horsepower and rear-wheel drive.

But take a chance on the Kia. At the very least take one for a quick spin. It’s a car with a big spirit and small audience — those looking for comfort, quality (yes, in a Kia), and reliability (it is, of course, backed by Kia’s best-in-class warranty if you’re feeling unsure) but don’t mind forgoing benchmark performance will likely love it. The Cadenza won’t be a driver in bringing younger buyers to the brand (not that that’s an issue for Kia with the Forte Koup, Soul, and the latter’s entourage of ghetto hamsters), but that’s not its goal: It was designed to move the brand upmarket. And upmarket is where older people with money live.

Kia has been on a streak of late; a Beats-by-Dre-style sports sponsorship deal has seen its cars in the hands of high-caliber celebrities like LeBron James, raising its profile in pop culture and showing the world that its cars are now, finally, cool. A No. 1 ranking from J.D. Power for Initial Quality (besting the perennial favorites Porsche, Lexus, and Honda) didn’t hurt either. As cliche as it has come to sound, Kia has come a long, long way since the days of the original Sportage and Sephia — hell, the lukewarm luxury Amanti too — and the new Cadenza is the yardstick by which to measure just how far the brand has come.

Editors’ Note: Kia supplied the author with airfare, room, and board during the event.