2014 Kia Cadenza

Teenage passengers are often among the first people I turn to for second opinions about a test vehicle. While they understandably aren't allowed behind the wheel – most aren't even old enough to drive – their honest and generally unbiased observations, coupled with a complete lack of understanding about what a particular vehicle costs, can provide a wealth of insight.

An open-minded approach is especially important when taking a closer look at the 2014 Kia Cadenza, a premium sedan from an automaker best known for providing affordable transportation for entry-level buyers. But unlike the Rio and Forte, low-priced compacts designed to cater to consumers looking for fuel economy and value, this more substantial four-door sedan asks for twice the out-of-pocket investment in exchange for promises of luxury and technology.

With an impartial mindset and a genuine curiosity, I recently spent a week with the more substantial Cadenza to see if it could live up to its aspirations.
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Kia introduced the States to its Cadenza at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show as a model to sit above the Optima sedan, which was its flagship offering at the time. Those loyal to the brand wanted a more premium product. According to Mike Ofiara, Supervisor of Product Communications at Kia Motors America, the new "more upscale sedan was in response to what many of the buyers were asking for."

A look beneath its skin suggested a very similar heart and soul to the Hyundai Azera.

Despite its all-new appearance on this side of the Pacific, this vehicle had already been on sale in Korea's domestic market for some time, and a look beneath its skin and spec sheet at its reveal suggested a very similar heart and soul to the Hyundai Azera.

Yet its previous life and similarities to its corporate cousin were the last things on my mind when the automaker dropped off this sparkling Metallic Bronze over White Nappa model in my driveway. As you can see from these photos, this well-proportioned sedan looks every bit the part of its $35,100 base price (plus $800 destination), with its distinctive chrome Kia "Tiger Nose" grille, aggressive headlights, chrome window surrounds and LED-style taillamps. Even the 19-inch alloy wheels fill their wells perfectly.

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Four adults will find much to like about the Cadenza, but I'd argue that the driver has the best seat in the house.

More striking than its exterior, however, is its interior. My particular press car arrived configured with White Nappa Leather, a no-charge option that contrasts well with the dark dashboard, door panels and carpet. The Luxury Package (a $3,000 upgrade) adds goodies including a panoramic roof, upgraded instrument panel, heated rear seats and a warmed steering wheel. Less obvious to the eyes are components in the Technology Package (also $3,000), which includes Advanced Smart Cruise Control (ASCC), Blind Spot Detection (BSD), Lane Departure Warning (LDW) and hydrophobic front door windows. The bottom line reads $41,900 – that's a lot of cash, but it represents a considerable value; even before Kia's 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty is taken into consideration.

Four adults will find much to like about the Cadenza, but I'd argue that the driver has the best seat in the house. A standard 10-way power-operated seat provides plenty of support for my six-foot, two-inch frame, and the adjustable lower bolster supports my thighs comfortably. The front passenger is only offered four-way powered seats and oddly, they are offered no seat ventilation – many of my passengers griped about that. [We drove an early production car. Kia has since added passenger set ventilation. - Ed.] Those in the second row will find a spacious interior, with generous room for feet and shoulders. Headroom may be an issue for tall adults thanks to the Cadenza's graceful sloping roofline, however. Twin climate control outlets, adjustable for airflow (but not temperature), help keep rear passengers comfortable.

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Even though the primary instrument panel utilizes a large full-color digital display in tandem with an eight-inch infotainment display at the top of the stack, the Cadenza's cabin is very traditional in layout, with a large transmission selector dominating the lower center console. Two clusters of flat buttons are arranged on the console to control the climate control and audio operations. Comfort switchgear (e.g., heated steering wheel and ventilated seats) are found just aft of the transmission lever, while the safety settings (including lane departure and traction control) are to the left of the steering wheel. The seat memories are located on the door. After a few days of acclimation, I was able to locate the general area of the flush controls quickly, but each required me to remove my eyes from the road momentarily to use.

Third-party testing suggests the Cadenza sprints to the 60 mph benchmark from a standstill in under 6.5 seconds.

With key fob in pocket, a press of the black start/stop button fires up the 3.3-liter V6 under the Cadenza's hood. This modern direct-injected powerplant, shared with the Azera, is rated at 293 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 255 pound-feet of torque at 5,200 rpm. The engine is mounted transversely in the nose – perpendicular to the direction of travel – like it is in nearly all other front-wheel-drive vehicles. Amusingly, Kia's tricky engineers have hidden it beneath a plastic engine cover that has been molded to insinuate a longitudinal mounting.

A traditional six-speed automatic transmission, also shared with the Azera, is tasked with sending power to the ground. But its first two gears and final drive ratio are different to allow the Kia to feel a bit sportier than its sibling from Hyundai. In practice, this does seem to be the case, with the four-door launching off the line smartly, with even moderate throttle. Kia doesn't publish its own acceleration figures, but third-party testing suggests the Cadenza sprints to the 60 mph benchmark from a standstill in just under 6.5 seconds, covering the quarter mile in slightly fewer than 15 seconds. That's plenty quick for sedan whose primary mission is not performance.

2014 Kia Cadenza

If you shuttle grubby young passengers often or are a neat freak, consider other interior colors.

During my seven-day test, I tossed Kia's premium sedan headfirst into the family routine, where it was forced to drive carpools, run errands and suffer in traffic jams. Everyone found the cabin comfortable, but the high-gloss wood trim sprinkled throughout the upscale cabin quickly showed fingerprints and dust, while the buttery smooth white leather required a nightly wipe-down to keep it clean – if you shuttle grubby young passengers (I loaded it with lacrosse players) often or are a neat freak, consider other colors. The rear seats don't fold, but the automaker does provide a seven-inch square pass-through for longer items like skis or a few lacrosse sticks.

To better assess the Cadenza's ride and handling chops, I took it on a four-hour road trip, nearly 200 miles long, which started at sea level and eventually climbed to 5,500 feet of elevation. Making things interesting, the drive encompassed busy highways and rural two-lane mountain passes before dropping me back on a well-traveled interstate highway. In a nutshell, the loop forced the Kia to perform under every imaginable driving environment – with the exception of inclement weather, which was in the mid-60s with clear blue skies.

With its 18.5-gallon fuel tank filled to the top with regular unleaded gasoline (premium fuel is not required), I set out after the bulk of the area's morning congestion had cleared.

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The first part of the drive took me along the Pacific coast on a nicely paved, multi-lane highway traveling at about 60 mph (the speed limit was 65 mph, but it was crowded). To run with the flow of traffic, I switched on the Kia's radar-based ASCC and let its electronics inform my velocity. In this near-mindless state of cruise, with the Cadenza following the car ahead of it like a magnet following a block of iron, I found the sedan very comfortable. Its electrically assisted steering was on the numb side, but the car tracked well and lane changes were easy thanks to oversized exterior mirrors that provided a nice view. The cabin was well insulated, too, and there wasn't the slightest peep from the combustion going on under the hood or from the engine's two oval exhaust pipes – only the muted sound of wind rushing by the glass and the dull sound of the tires as they rolled over the textured pavement offered a hint of my velocity.

The cabin was well insulated, and there wasn't the slightest peep from the combustion going on under the hood.

Even though this transmission has been tweaked with sportier ratios, that more athletic mindset hasn't necessarily carried over to the rest of the car's specifications. It quickly became obvious that the fully independent front and rear suspension have been tuned for comfort, with the underpinnings effortlessly absorbing all bumps and expansion joints. The base Cadenza arrives with standard 18-inch wheels, but the aforementioned optional 19-inch alloys fitted to my tester never caused an issue, despite being paired with rubber possessing shorter sidewalls. Much of the credit goes to the Hankook Optimo H426 all-season grand touring tires, size 245/40R19, which are tuned to optimize ride comfort.

Turning off the highway and heading into the mountains quickened the pace of things, especially when the road narrowed and started to get twisty. But unfortunately, the Cadenza's impressive composure soon began to wane.

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With the roads nearly empty, I pushed the sedan into the corners. Kia pegs the curb weight of the four-door at 3,792 pounds, which is about average in this segment, but the strong V6 never felt the least bit burdened. In contrast, the standard disc brakes provided good initial bite, but the pads quickly started to overheat and provide less stopping power with each subsequent corner. But the single-piston brakes weren't the car's Achilles heel – the bulk of the blame should be directed at the soft suspension, which reached the end of its travel more than once, as well as at the aforementioned all-season tires that had me working the brakes as hard as I did.

The Cadenza is simply out of its comfort zone at anything above six-tenths in the canyons.

Despite Kia's mild attempt to make the Cadenza come off as a luxury sedan with a bit of sporty flair (they've even gone so far as to fit steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters), the four-door is simply out of its comfort zone at anything above six-tenths in the canyons. And even if the brakes, suspension and tires had worked in perfect harmony, the wide seats offer very little lateral support for such roads. I found myself continuously struggling to stay in place – these are not issues with sport sedans. Once I reduced my speeds and turned the impressive UVO entertainment (with audio by Infinity) up a few notches, motoring tranquility and serenity were restored to previous levels. Despite marketing materials that allude to "carving through the Swiss Alps," this clearly isn't tuned to be a sport sedan, a conclusion confirmed by Kia executives during a subsequent interview.

I kept records of the road trip, as I often do, and my overall hand-calculated average for 197.2 miles traveled was 21.88 mpg overall. While my number did fall between the EPA numbers (19 mpg city and 28 mpg highway), nearly all of its six-cylinder competitors, including the Toyota Avalon, Chevrolet Impala, Ford Taurus and Volvo S80 will exceed the Cadenza's government-estimated highway numbers. It's a shame that the list even includes the Hyundai Azera, thanks to its slight gearing changes.

2014 Kia Cadenza

Extended periods behind the Cadenza's four-spoke leather and wood steering was very revealing. Once I overlooked whatever misguided sport aspirations it held and I stopped worrying about its slightly thirstier fuel consumption, I was left very impressed with this luxury vehicle. But there was one more thing I still needed to reconcile – the badge on the grille.

Those who spend $40,000 are often looking for more than just a strong value proposition.

On my last day with the Kia, I drove a group of teenagers to high school while I covered the steering wheel hub with my hand. Each young passenger candidly raved about the sedan from their different seating positions. In their own words, they commented on the soft leather, legroom and isolation of the cabin. They played eagerly with the infotainment system, blasted the audio and were impressed when I mentioned that it had nearly 300 horsepower. As we approached the campus, I quizzed them about pricing, and each overshot the number, one guessing tens of thousands too high. Seconds before I dropped them off, I mentioned what brand car they were riding in. There was a brief pause before one of the kids piped up incredulously, "A Kia, really? Wow."

Seven days behind the wheel left me, and a handful of impartial teenagers, convinced that the new 2014 Kia Cadenza has what it takes to challenge for segment leadership. But those who spend $40,000 are often looking for more than just a strong value proposition – many want the prestige of a established premium badge (the automaker sold 8,626 Cadenza sedans in 2013, a partial year of sales, while Toyota moved 70,990 Avalon sedans). Only time will tell if this Korean automaker has finally proven to finicky Americans that the three silver letters on its nose carry more weight than the metal they are enameled upon.