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2014 Kia Cadenza First Drive

A Korean car without caveats

What It Is
Kia's attempt to call it everything except for what it is: A full-size luxury car.
Best Thing
It feels like a premium experience throughout.
Worst Thing
There's no ventilated passenger seat option…yet. Seriously, this is our biggest complaint.
Snap Judgment
Expensive for a Kia? Sure. Worth it? Absolutely.


At this January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, my coworkers stared at the Kia stand in bewilderment. That week, the 2014 Kia Cadenza full-size luxury sedan was unveiled, which took them aback after seeing it for the first time. Why on Earth was Kia selling it in the U.S? I had seen it before, in South Korea, and I looked forward to seeing it on our soil. I was the only one. Others wondered why they are trying to sell yet another full-size sedan in the U.S. after the anonymous-looking Amanti, why this spunky brand that's so diligently reinvented itself reverted to selling a big boring car. Hyundai already has the Azera; why does Kia need this? As we'd learn a few months later, they weren't just taking this Korean-spec car and shoving it into the U.S. because it had available capacity to sell.

The Cadenza has been in the cards for the U.S. since late last decade. We're just finally getting the premium sedan here.

That's right, premium. Because, starting at $35,900, including $800 for destination and handling, Kia isn't aiming for the Hertz rental car lot of your dreams; it's trying to infuse its brand with an image of quality and class--something it's lacked until recently and still struggles with. The reason for this is twofold: The brand wants to offer a stepping stone up from the Optima midsizer as well as offer a car for luxury-minded shoppers who believe conspicuous consumption is a bit gauche. And, as we recently confirmed, Kia is planning on bringing a bigger and more expensive car to the U.S. soon. Jumping from selling $25,000 family sedans to $50,000 luxury cars is never a good idea without something to bridge the gap.

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The Cadenza has been on sale since 2009 in South Korea as a mid-level executive sedan, usually with a chauffeur intact and a "Gentleman's Class" tagline. Here in the U.S., Kia has gotten away with creating a cheeky, fun image for itself with the help of basketball star Blake Griffin and hip-hop hamsters. For our market, they will have to find a way to change face in order to steal sales away from cars like the Chevrolet Impala as well as providing a cheaper alternative to the Acura TL and Lexus ES, as the Cadenza stretches to nearly $42,000 all in. Can it work?

Walkaround

The first time I saw a Cadenza was in 2011 in Seoul. "Kia needs to sell that lovely beast in the U.S.," I thought to myself, the Cadenza looking like a larger, more polished Optima. Over there, it's a car to be driven in, evidenced by a rear-seat option that allows Korean shoppers to fold the front-passenger seat into an ottoman with the press of a button.

Now with refreshed sheetmetal, the Cadenza is a bit less distinctive than I remember it, but Korean shoppers are hardly the type to complain. They like conservative cars. When the rest of the Automotive.com staff saw it in Detroit, they thought it was as bland as bland could be. To each his or her own, I guess.

Like other recent Kias, the 2014 Cadenza has a bit of Germanic flair to it, albeit watered down, from its creases and curves in its body work to its mirrors with integrated turn signals. Its tail lights and back look as though they've been poached from the 2014 Maserati Quattroporte, though, which is more a knock on the softballing $130,000 Italian than the $40,000 Korean.

Kia should take that as a compliment, in fact.

Whether you think it looks too anonymous, like an angry guppy, or like an Audi-BMW-Maserati amalgamation is completely up to you. Outside of the badge, there's little to tell you this isn't at least in the same ballpark as much more expensive competition.

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Sitting Down

Stepping into the 2014 Kia Cadenza, our loaded $41,900 example definitely showed signs of punching above its weight. Its cabin is expansive, with Nappa leather covering its plush seats--part of the $3,000 Luxury package that includes a panoramic sunroof that spans almost the entire roof, heated rear outboard seats, a ventilated front driver's seat, HID headlights, a 7-inch LCD instrument cluster, a power-adjustable heated steering wheel, and more. Adding the $3,000 Technology package yields 19-inch wheels, an electronic parking brake, active cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, and hydrophobic driver and front-passenger windows that has a coat of film that actively deflects water. Even if you don't opt for the gonzo version, all Cadenzas come with Kia's UVO infotainment system--short for "your voice"--on an 8-inch screen that's shared with the standard navigation system. Even leather is standard, even if it's not the optional Nappa stuff. All of provides an air of quality and usability, and UVO even comes with separate knobs for radio controls--something we like that's becoming rarer and rarer with the advent of touchscreen systems.

It makes for one inviting place to be, with the roof draped in microfiber cloth and most plastics feeling soft and rich to the touch. We say most because the quality of some panels is mismatched with others; you may be hard-pressed to tell, though, unless you knock on every piece of plastic in the car. The Cadenza's interior is at least on-par with the class, though, dollar for dollar. And everything in the 2014 Cadenza's interior is so easy to use, even your 80-year-old grandmother could figure out how to work UVO and the rest of the car's technology.

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Driving

Admittedly, I had my hesitations about driving the 2014 Kia Cadenza. It shares much of what's under its sheetmetal with the Hyundai Azera, a car that never seems to ride smoothly, has a dated interior, and has what might be among the worst electric power steering units on the market today. I was setting myself up for disappointment until the night before the drive.

"So what's different between [the Cadenza] and the Azera?" I asked an engineer.

"The Cadenza's better," he said. Fair 'nuff.

He wasn't embellishing or simply towing the company line. He was telling the truth.

We drove the Cadenza through a rugged assortment of backroads, highways, and city streets in the outskirts of San Diego, and the Cadenza never even flinched. Even in higher-speed corners, the Cadenza kept its composure, gliding down the road with aplomb. It isn't until you start driving the car in aggression that it separates itself from true luxury cars like BMWs and rear-wheel-drive fare. But when was the last time you went autocrossing with your high-end sedan? Yeah, we didn't think so.

Everything about driving the Cadenza feels like a class above; its steering is a tad numb, but it’s linear and you never feel overwhelmed with lugging around nearly two tons of car. Power comes on quickly, and while the car doesn't feel punchy, it gets up to speed far more quickly than you'd think if you never looked down at the speedometer. They must've consulted a librarian when designing the Cadenza's on-road sound quality. Just in case you don't want to hear the modest drone of engine or wind noise emanating from the outside world, the available 12-speaker, 550-watt Infinity audio system is enough to drown out the cries of the proletariat screaming at you and your luxury car with a rich, enveloping ambience. Then again, you shouldn't hear those groans to begin with: You're driving a Kia, remember?

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Summary

We have but two qualms with the 2014 Cadenza. First are the mismatched plastics. Everything looks the same, but, unlike your average obsessive-compulsively designed Lexus, it doesn't all feel the same. Kia could easily fix this, as it's shown time and time again that it's not too shy with changing interiors mid-cycle--sometimes within months of launching a vehicle--to keep ahead of the curve.

The second complaint is quite honestly far more noticeable: The lack of a ventilated front passenger seat, which is odd given that even the $35,275 Optima Limited has one. We were told that one's coming, which could be a reason you can't buy a top-tier Cadenza quite yet. Rumor has it that Kia's Korean overlords wanted the car to be more expensive; the U.S. team reeled them back in, though. As a result, a few things were cut to keep the price down and are being gradually thrown back in as Korea realizes the magnitude of competition in the States and Kia North America's lofty ambitions with the car.

But if we've conceded to nitpicking about seat coolers, you can tell that we're really stretching for gripes.

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This is a car where every little detail matters, and Kia needs to be at the top of its game, which it is. The Cadenza is attacking a shrinking full-size sedan segment that it needs to make an impression in as they continue its ascent in price and quality. The 2014 Cadenza is still a Big Lots deal compared to the similarly equipped, less-powerful Lexus ES 350, which costs $6,000 more when you line the loaded Cadenza up with it, feature-wise. In basic spec, where the Lexus still costs $1,000 more, the ES doesn't even come with leather. And we'll go ahead and say this: The Cadenza drives better, too.

With the 2014 Kia Cadenza, there are no compromises--not in ride quality, performance, space, features, or luxury. Kia is even launching its first complimentary maintenance program for three years to sweeten the deal--as if its 10-year powertrain warranty weren't enough incentive. We're not sure it needs it, though. No matter how you look at the Cadenza, it's either screamin' deal of a luxury car or a lavish full-size sedan that offers a lot of bang for the buck. It's a damn good car--without having to use the phrase "for the money." If they can figure out how to sell it without the help of a basketball player or anthropomorphic rodents, the competition may have a serious problem on its hands by way of this dark horse from Seoul.

Basic Specs

3.3-liter V-6, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 293-hp, $35,900-$41,900, 19 mpg city/28 mpg hwy

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5 comments
Jason Davis
Jason Davis

And the point that I made is that you're making a big deal of nothing. It isn't a play on words, and there's no deviousness to sell more cars. A car buyer doesn't go to a "Kia Motors America" dealership to buy a car, they go to their local Kia dealership. Here is the Kia Motors Worldwide Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Kiamotorsworldwide Here is the Kia Motors America Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kia They're different, and they each cater to different regions and markets. Every brand does this, including American brands to overseas markets.

Kevin Michalski
Kevin Michalski

The point I was trying to make was that their play with words confuse people into beleiving things that will help them sell cars.

Jason Davis
Jason Davis

Kevin Michalski, it's no different than "BMW North America" and "Honda of America." The company is not implying it is an American car, but that the manufacturer has an American Headquarters that puts out news relating to America. Kia Motors America on FB is differentiated from Kia (global, of Korea) in this respect.

Kevin Michalski
Kevin Michalski

Kia Motors "America"?? The only person that would belive that their buying a "American" car when purchasing a Kia, would be an ignoramus

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