REVIEW: 2017 Kia Cadenza — It’s Lonely Being a Luxury Sedan

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The all-new 2017 Kia Cadenza is a full-size sedan with a roomy trunk and plenty of room for passengers. In other words, it’s what folks used to call a “car.”  But times have changed. As crossovers gain in popularity, sedans aren’t getting any love from car buyers. And the Cadenza might just be the most lovelorn four-door of all.

Just take a look at this graph from Google Trends, which shows search interest in the Cadenza and some of its competitors, including the Kia Sorento crossover and three other large sedans:

Even that little peak in the Cadenza’s graph is bad news. Yes, the term “Kia Cadenza” got more search traffic after a new ad campaign featuring Christina Hendricks, but most people wanted to know more about her, not the car.

Overall, Kia dealers sold just 523 Cadenzas in July. By comparison, the same dealerships moved 9,734 Sorento crossovers in the same month—more than three times how many Cadenzas Kia sold so far all year.

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To put just how dismal those numbers are into perspective, Chevrolet sells about four times as many Corvettes every month than Kia does Cadenzas. That’s horrible for what should be a mid-level luxury sedan on the same par as the Toyota Avalon.

It’s easy to see why car buyers prefer the crossover: A loaded Sorento costs $290 less than the top-level Cadenza, and it seats two more passengers. And despite the Cadenza’s capacious rear legroom, the Sorento has 46.4 more cubic feet of total passenger volume. If you can live with front-wheel drive, the Sorento actually gets better fuel economy than the Cadenza. And if you want all-wheel drive, the Cadenza doesn’t even offer it.

Game, set, match: Sorento, or just about any other crossover SUV on the market. Google Trends reveals the Cadenza’s lost cause even more dramatically when you look at search trends versus popular Crossover SUVs of the Sorento’s size. Their search popularity is not only orders of magnitude higher than the Cadenza’s; their upward march has been relentless while the Cadenza is nearly flatlined.

But it’s less obvious why the Cadenza struggles against the Avalon and Lacrosse. According to Good Car, Bad Car’s database, Avalon sales are certainly down from their high of 7,324 units in May of 2014, and LaCrosse sales are a shadow of their high of August 2014, but both cars do significantly better than the Cadenza.

Source: Good Car, Bad Car

Why? The Kia is supple and quiet on a long highway cruise, but nimble enough to fight rush-hour traffic—the perfect 21st century reboot of the old-school sedan. Even better? It starts at just under $32,000. It doesn’t look cheap, though. The Cadenza’s design is all-new for 2017, and its concave grille adds a hint of aggression. From any other angle, the sedan is an unassuming blend of Lexus and Buick design language, with some chrome trim for good measure.

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Inside, the dashboard is straightforward, like a modern Grand Marquis. There’s standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for fuss-free smartphone connectivity. Yes, there’s old-fashioned wood trim, but heated, power leather seats come standard up front, too. Step up to the Technology Package ($38,990) and you’ll add LED headlights and fog lights, cooled front seats, and a helpful automatic cruise control setup that takes a lot of stress out of traffic jams.

However, my favorite option is only available on the Cadenza Limited ($44,390): quilted Nappa leather seats. Sure, the look is borrowed from Bentley, and in a decade the diamond-stitched pattern might look just as gauche as fake carbon fiber does today. But order it in white, and your drive to work will feel like a pleasure cruise in a Chris Craft.

Luckily, the Cadenza’s nautical attributes are limited to its appearance. On the road, handling is comfortable but well-balanced, and the electric power steering is both relaxed and communicative. Though the car places no demands on the driver under ordinary circumstances, it’s still quick to respond to, say, an emergency lane-change.

The Cadenza’s only engine choice is a 3.3-liter V6. Mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, it moves the big Kia’s front wheels forward without any drama. A naturally aspirated six might seem like another throwback in an era when even SUVs get turbo fours, but Kia’s V6 is pretty advanced. Gasoline direct injection means it’s good for 290 hp and 28 mpg highway/20 city/23 combined.

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Sure, none of that matters if you want the tall seating position or increased interior space of a crossover. But if you’re in that dwindling group of Americans who prefer a large sedan, the Cadenza might be the best-kept secret out there.

That’s bad news for Kia. In fact, Hyundai already killed the Azera—the Cadenza’s corporate cousin—due to poor sales. But it’s good news for car buyers: With a 10 year, 1 00,000-mile powertrain warranty and tons of standard features, the Cadenza is already a great value. And slow sales mean dealerships will likely be willing to haggle on price.

Cost aside, however, I think the most compelling argument in the Cadenza’s favor is its image—or, more accurately, lack thereof. Buy an Avalon, and you might have to shoo Uber passengers away from your back door. Buy a Lexus, and your coworkers might start gossiping about your paycheck.

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But what does a luxury Kia sedan say about its driver? It’s such an unknown quantity that it practically promises anonymity. Go ahead—enjoy those quilted seats while you deliver Meals on Wheels, or park it at the country club next to a BMW 5 Series. Nobody else has to know how little you paid, or just how much you love your new car.

Keith Barry

Keith Barry