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'Premium' and 'Kia' aren't words that naturally tumble together. In the 18 years since the South Korean automaker came to North America, it's battled to undo its reputation for cars that are unremrkable for anything other than bargain-basement pricing.
But with its new Cadenza sedan, Kia whittles away that public perception for the many buyers who haven't received the memo about Kia's steady rise in stature. Kia isn't only affordable, it can be aspirational, as well.
If it sounds like an oxymoron, its sister brand Hyundai has already proven the concept with its Mercedes S-Class wannabe, the Equus, which was designed for a growing market of pragmatic luxurists who desire a premium experience without the second-mortgage price tag and look-at-me status.
That's precisely what the Cadenza offers. The most expensive Kia on the market, the four-door, five-seat sedan starts at $37,795 with standard features, including navigation, a backup camera and heated leather seats, that often cost extra from more esteemed brands.
The Cadenza exterior is about as plain-Jane as it gets, despite a new take on Kia's tiger-nose grille. Its color palette is available in shades of grey, blue and brown so muted, they beg to be ignored.
While the uninformed on the road are likely to dismiss the mid-sized sedan as just another Kia, the Cadenza's drivers will be luxuriating in a vehicle that could pass for European, if not for the Kia badge in the middle of its leather-and-wood-veneer steering wheel. The knobs on its radio controls are knurled like a Bentley's, its digital dash inlaid with the analog clock that's de rigueur for many European brands.
The Cadenza doesn't strive for European athleticism, though its 3.3-litre V-6 offers a satisfying amount of off-the-line performance as it shifts through its six gears smoothly and automatically. Its fuel economy underscores its goal of ample, rather than overboard, responsiveness, with a Transport Canada-estimated rating of 11.2 L/100 km city, 7.4 highway.
Likewise, its suspension is tuned for comfort, with a new two-channel damping system on the back end to compensate for any lack of road maintenance. Neither spongelike nor Germanic in its precision, it was adequately poised in the corners as I slung the Cadenza through a series of switchbacks recently as part of a daylong launch event for the car.
Based on the Optima -- Kia's most premium sedan before the Cadenza came to town -- the new, slightly more expensive, Kia flagship adds 127 mm (five inches) to the overall length of the Optima and 50.8 mm (two inches) to its wheelbase, the latter of which was incorporated into a rear seat roomy enough for a gaggle of leggy models.
The rear seats don't fold down, but the middle armrest can be configured to create a pass-through that could accommodate a cello, if the Cadenza's large trunk were employed in a manner consistent with its musical nomenclature and packed with an ensemble's worth of instruments.
Whatever the space or interior appointments, it's the level of wind and road noise that separates lesser brands from their more luxurious counterparts. Once again, the Kia Cadenza defies expectations with sound-reducing reinforcements to the dashboard, side body, chassis and underbody, as well as triple-sealed door seals, to keep exterior noise where it belongs.
The $44,995 Cadenza Premium I tested was equipped with a technology package boasting a number of Kia firsts, particularly with regard to safety. In an apparent nod to interior luxuries that could prompt drivers to zone out behind the wheel, the Cadenza marks Kia's first application of an optional lane-departure warning system, as well as smart cruise control that monitors the space in front of the vehicle and automatically eases up on the throttle and can apply the brakes to a full stop if it senses a potential impact.
Blind-spot detection also comes with the Premium trim, with rear-facing radar that looks 60 metres behind the car and beeps and flashes graphics in the side mirrors if the driver has turned on the signals that indicate he may plow into an unsuspecting fellow traveller.
Cadenza drivers will know it's time to re-route to the dealer's service bay with the free Kia smartphone application, UVO, which automatically alerts drivers to the car's maintenance needs, and can even contact the dealer and schedule service without the driver ever needing to leave his or her seat.
Kia only intends to make about 12,000 Cadenzas this year, as it tests the waters on an emerging market segment that exploits the grey area between the mainstream and luxury markets. That seems low for a model that lacks cache but more than makes up for it with an extremely pleasant driving experience.
-- The Orange County Register