2014 Kia goes luxury with the Cadenza

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The substantial, refined Cadenza should succeed by boldly—and capably—going where no Kia has yet ventured. Kia photo

To the generations of drivers who grew up with the VW Bug—the original one, that is—Volkswagen was an economy car. (We didn’t think in terms of “brands” then.)

Over decades, however, the company managed to morph into a kind of anti-luxury luxury marque. Flower children who now own organic markets and can’t imagine buying Audis may indulge in spendy hybrid Touaregs without “selling out.”

All it took for VW to remake itself was quality, brilliant marketing and a long, long horizon. In 2009, Korea, Inc., here comprising Hyundai and Kia, set off down the same path. Hyundai quietly slipped into the deep end of the pool with the Genesis Sedan ($40,000) and later the Equus ($62,000), and found it could swim there. Now Kia is following with this surprising sedan called the Cadenza, a 2014 model.

Sheet metal and space make a car’s first impressions, and the new Kia stands out instantly. The Cadenza isn’t just handsome, it has presence; this car won’t look out of place parked among the German dreadnaughts at the club. And not only is it tastefully sleek, the Cadenza is also big enough, especially inside. Four large, long-legged adults will revel in these well-cushioned seats and the airy, bright cabin.

These first impressions aren’t misleading. We used the Cadenza to chauffeur houseguests around over the Labor Day weekend. I appreciated the ability to overtake clots of motor homes while averaging 25 miles per gallon, and our friends saw the sights in splendid comfort and quiet.

The front-wheel-drive Cadenza’s suspension absorbs bumps and manages the body well. The driver’s seat and the steering wheel move through what seem to be unusually wide ranges of adjustments—the better to take advantage of the 300 horsepower (OK, 293) available from this lightweight V-6 engine, fed through a 6-speed automatic transmission with shifter paddles. Throttle, transmission and brakes respond precisely. The electric steering is too amplified to deliver useful feedback, but its one-finger ease reinforces the car’s effortlessness. Kia has arranged all the various controls in logical and pleasing arrays. There isn’t a sour note anywhere.

A base Cadenza—which is hardly basic, as it has leather upholstery, satnav, a touchscreen, telematics galore and a backup camera, among many other things—lists for $35,900, all in. On top of this, Kia offers two bundles of options, at $3,000 apiece. A Technology Package provides adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitors, an electronic parking brake, water-shedding front windows (that’s what it says), bigger wheels and a chime that sounds when the car drifts inadvertently toward a lane divider. Most of these safety features are worth their weight in fresh white truffles.

If you’ve ordered the Tech Package, you may tick one more box for the Luxury Package. This adds heat and power adjustment to the steering wheel, ventilation and memory settings for the driver’s seat, heaters for the back seats, nicer leather, a power-activated rear sunshade, a second color LCD screen, dual electric sunroofs and upgraded, adaptive headlights.

With all available options, the Cadenza tops out at $41,900. Yikes, you say; that’s a lot for a Kia. Yes, but hunt around among similar sedans from, say, Lexus, Acura and Infiniti, and you’ll find that Kia has done it again. That is, invaded a market segment with cars that are better-equipped or better-priced, or both, than the benchmarks—just as it did for economy cars and then crossover SUVs, and we know how that went.

All this said, Kia has still left itself some easy pickins’ for the future. An 8-speed (or a continuously variable) transmission in the Cadenza could drop the cruising RPM and might push fuel efficiency from 28 to 30 MPG on the highway. Hybrid drive could add even more performance and/or fuel economy. How about a super-efficient turbodiesel? Selectable all-wheel drive? Whatever direction Kia takes in the luxury market, the Cadenza is a worthy bellwether.

Is the Cadenza charged with bringing back grownups who have fond memories of their first Kia, an old Sephia or Sportage? Is it a half-price Audi A7 wannabe? Or is the Cadenza simply a great deal of very pleasant car for a fair amount of money?