Kia's classy redesign of the 2017 Cadenza significantly refines what it has to offer to buyers who want the stretch-out space and feature glut of a full-size luxury sedan for the same cost as a lesser model from an established luxury brand.
The near-luxury, full-size sedan market is a mixed bag, ranging from boulevard cruisers to would-be sports sedans, from hybrids to V-8s. But it's mostly made up of V-6 sedans battling for a loyal but shrinking pool of mainly older buyers who'd rather open their wallets for a big, comfortable car than for an SUV.
The redone Cadenza is a better car than the previous generation in nearly all respects; compare the 2017 with the 2016 here. But its competition isn't standing still, either: The Buick LaCrosse got a classy redesign for 2017, and Nissan's Maxima got a full makeover for 2016. The class sales leader, the Toyota Avalon, was also recently refreshed. Compare these rivals here.
Give Kia points for sticking with it, rolling out a second generation of a car that's only sold about 30,000 since it debuted as a 2014 model; Kia says competing in new market segments is essential to cement its status as a mainstream brand. In Kia's car lineup, the Cadenza slots above the mid-size Optima family sedan and below the pricey K900 luxury yacht. For 2017, the Cadenza is available in Premium, Technology and Limited trims. I tested the Limited, which comes fully loaded; there are no significant options to add.
Exterior & Styling
Rather than radical cosmetic surgery, the 2017 Cadenza got a subtle lift here and tuck there, yet the overall look is a lot more like an upscale European car and a lot less like a dressed-up version of Kia's smaller Optima, with which the Cadenza shares a platform. As is Kia's design tradition, you needn't squint to see hints of Audi in the look.
The 2017 is slightly lower and wider on a wheelbase that's been stretched about a half-inch. It's no larger than the 2016, but it looks as if it were — an effect amplified by its wider grille and headlights that stretch around the corners. The headlight clusters include striking Z-shaped LED daytime running lights that impart a sense of motion; Technology and Limited trims add full LED headlights. The Z is amber on the Limited, allowing the LEDs to also function as distinctive turn signals. The LED Z is repeated in the wraparound taillights, and the Zs are linked by an Audi-like character line that runs the length of the car.
Fog-light pods on the lower front corners (they're LEDs on the Technology and Limited trims) also house functional air inlets that channel air into the wheel wells to create an aerodynamic air curtain.
The greenhouse is stretched farther to the rear, serving both to make the car look longer and to increase rear headroom, making for more upright seating that makes the backseat feel roomier.
How It Drives
The Cadenza is no sports sedan and it doesn't pretend to be; a car like this is about sitting back and enjoying the ride. The new Cadenza lets you do that without being sloppy: Power is satisfying from an updated 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter V-6 that's mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission designed in-house by Kia. It now has a manual mode operated using the shift lever and, on higher trims, wheel-mounted paddles. That might seem gratuitous in this car, which handles capably but doesn't invite you to carve twisty roads, but it proved useful to manage engine braking in a trek through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shifts were generally positive, though the transmission hesitated a couple times making up its mind on downshifts. A Sport mode perks up accelerator and transmission response, but not aggressively. It was my preferred setting.
The brakes, whose discs have been increased by an inch in diameter, are firm and linear. The steering is still a bit numb but less so now thanks to an upgraded chip in the electric assist. The ride is tuned for comfort, but a new suspension with more sophisticated shock absorbers offers more road feel without more bumps. It's a decent balance — better than in the Avalon but slightly short of the new LaCrosse.
Adding to the Cadenza's nimbler feel is the fact that the new car is lighter and has a chassis Kia says is 35 percent stiffer than the 2016. That said, if you want sportier manners and are willing to compromise on backseat and trunk space, Nissan's Maxima sedan might be a better fit.
City and combined gas mileage improved by 1 mpg each for 2017, to 20/28/23 mpg city/highway/combined. That's more competitive with rival near-premium sedans. But the mileage winner in this group is the Avalon four-cylinder hybrid, which laps the field at 40/39/40 mpg.
Comfort is a need, not a want, in near-luxury sedans, and the redone Cadenza delivers. The cabin is serenely quiet.
Like the exterior design, the redone interior takes a more European turn, starting with a sweeping, horizontal dashboard. Fit and finish are excellent, but the "near" in the car's near-premium characterization shows in a juxtaposition of luxurious and not-so-much materials. My Limited test car's soft Nappa leather with diamond stitching on the bolsters could shame a luxury brand, and the seats were still comfy at the end of a long day's drive. Most of the surfaces you touch feel good, and a suede-like covering for the pillars and ceiling imparts a premium look. The "wood" trim isn't the real thing you might get from a luxury brand, but it doesn't look cheap.
The hard plastic, however, strikes a different chord on surfaces closer to the floor, including the lower door panels. Perhaps the most discordant notes, given the $45,000-plus price of my top-trim Limited test car, were the hard plastic front seatbacks that backseat passengers encountered.
More consistent is the quality and attention to detail in the car's array of creature comforts, from the available heated steering wheel and heated and ventilated front seats to a power sunshade in the rear. There's also an optional huge panoramic moonroof with a power shade that gives the cabin a light, airy feel. An available memory feature for the power driver's seat, mirror and steering wheel settings makes swapping drivers quick and easy. Among other thoughtful details: The seat heaters automatically dial back the intensity when your backside is sufficiently toasty.
The backseat — prime real estate for these cars and their grown-up buyers — features class-leading legroom and good headroom, but only in the outboard seats. At 6-foot-2, I had room to spare behind someone of my height except in the middle seat, where a humped seat cushion and a dip in the ceiling left my head sideways.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The Cadenza has upped its technology game with the latest Kia UVO multimedia and emergency connectivity systems, plus standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A 7-inch touchscreen is standard on the Premium; the Tech and Limited get an 8-inch touchscreen system with navigation and an impressive 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with digital surround sound.
Screen response in the Limited I drove was a little slow, but voice commands were quickly recognized. There's also a welcome array of old-school knobs and buttons (even at the price of some visual clutter). Props to Kia for resisting the temptation to follow the crowd in replacing such user-friendly controls with various touch-sensitive panels and rotary knob controls that look trendy but complicate eyes-free operation.
The knobs and buttons also have a quality feel and action, and the instrumentation and labels are clean and simple, though I found the uniform white-on-black scheme a little down-market for a premium cabin. The Limited adds a crisp head-up display, though it did not play well with my polarized sunglasses.
There's no shortage of places to plug in. A handy covered device bin at the front of the console contains USB connectivity, an analog aux input, a 12-volt outlet and a wireless charging pad. The console bin also has a 12-volt outlet, and the rear of the console has 12-volt and USB power for backseat passengers.
Cargo & Storage
Along with backseat room, a big trunk is expected in this class. The Cadenza doesn't disappoint, with 16 cubic feet of space that lands it among the class leaders. It needs it, though: Like the Avalon and many other full-size sedans, but unlike the rival LaCrosse and Maxima, the Cadenza's backseat does not fold to expand cargo space. Kia says it was a trade-off for a quieter cabin.
A downside of the 2017's longer roofline is that the trunk has a smaller, less convenient opening. The power trunk lid on the Limited offers no-touch automatic opening if you stand near it with the key fob in your pocket or purse.
Inside, the Cadenza offers ample storage, cubbies and cupholders, including a spacious console bin with a butterfly lid and a glove box big enough to swallow a tablet.
The new Cadenza has not been rated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Once it is, it will appear in the Large cars class among competing models like the LaCrosse, Maxima and Avalon, which have been rated for 2017.
The Cadenza offers an extensive suite of driver safety technology, including a standard backup camera on the two lower trims and an excellent, 360-degree high-resolution camera system on the Limited. Like many automakers, however, Kia disappointingly continues to reserve the most sophisticated safety technology for those who can afford more expensive trim levels.
The top two Cadenza trims come with a full package of safety tech, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and high-beam assist. They also get adaptive cruise control, which operates down to stop-and-go traffic, and blind spot detection. That feature includes not only visual and audible warnings, but also a related function Kia calls lane change assist that will brake the front wheel on the opposite side if you drift toward a vehicle in your blind spot. It doesn't assist you in changing lanes so much as prevent you from doing so when it's a bad idea.
You can't, however, get that full suite with the front crash system on an entry-level model, even as an option. The base Premium does offer blind spot warning, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert, but only bundled in a $3,000 Luxury Package (it's the only option package on any Cadenza) that includes such features as puddle lamps and an upgraded audio system.
Rivals such as the Maxima and LaCrosse are also guilty of such discrimination, but the Toyota notably equips all its Avalons with safety tech that includes a front crash prevention system with automatic braking.
In our Cars.com Car Seat Check, the Cadenza's backseat scored "A" grades for all types of child-safety seats except for one "B" it earned for boosters. That was because its flush seat belt buckles might be difficult for kids to operate on their own. The Kia's roomy backseat, with two sets of Latch anchors and three top tether anchors, fell just short of holding three child seats across in our testing.
Value in Its Class
The challenge for every car in this class is to get buyers to pay near-luxury prices for a mainstream badge. Kia's added challenge is overcoming its image in the not-so-distant past as a purveyor of cheap rides for the budget-impaired. But since then, Kia rose in the latest J.D. Power U.S. Initial Quality Study to first among any brand — a fact that could boost perceptions.
The Cadenza also comes with a peace-of-mind bonus: class-leading warranty coverage of five years/60,000 miles for the car and 10 years/100,000 miles for the powertrain. That's a level of security only matched among large family sedans by its corporate cousin, the Hyundai Azera.
The best value in the Cadenza lineup is the entry Premium trim, which starts at $32,890 including destination. That price is down about $1,000 from 2016 and undercuts the entry price of an Avalon by about the same amount. It's also less expensive than many top-trim mid-size sedans, including Kia's Optima SXL.
At that cost, you get an upscale sedan with full-size space, a standard V-6 powertrain and a decent complement of features that includes a leather interior, power front seats, a 7-inch touchscreen multimedia system and dual-zone climate control.
It's a big price leap, however, to the mid-level Technology model, which adds a lot more luxury features but starts at $39,890 with destination. It's an even bigger leap to my Limited test car's $45,290 sticker.
Those prices could have you considering the intangible factor of a fancier nameplate; a comparably equipped top-trim Buick LaCrosse is about $48,000, and a Lexus ES 350 starts about on par with the Technology trim while wearing a Lexus "L," though for the same money you'll get a mid-size sedan with fewer features and vinyl seats. Loaded with features comparable to the Cadenza Limited — and opting for luxury-car real wood trim — the smaller Lexus is still shy of $50,000.
Nonetheless, the Kia Cadenza Limited delivers a premium driving experience in a stylish package, with a decadent level of features at a competitive price. Only you can decide if that's worth enough to offset badge lust for a better-known or more status-laden brand. But the Cadenza deserves a good look before you pay more.