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2017 Kia Cadenza Test Drive Review
In a country dominated by SUVs and populated by aspirational consumers seeking to move up to a luxury brand just as soon as the lease payment is affordable, it's hard to make sense of the 2017 Kia Cadenza.
There is nothing particularly wrong with the redesigned 2017 Kia Cadenza. At the same time, there is nothing particularly memorable about this new full-size sedan, either. And it competes within a segment that is increasingly ignored by American car buyers.
Look and Feel
Once upon a time, big cars like the 2017 Kia Cadenza ruled American highways and byways. They had big engines, huge interiors, gigantic trunks, and oversize bodies. Coupes, sedans, and station wagons served a variety of needs, whether you were a dashing advertising executive, a hard-working tradesperson, or shuttling your family around new post-war suburbs.
Today, people don’t buy big sedans. Governments do. State and local municipalities do. Rental car companies do. Livery services do. But for the most part, people like you and me do not. We buy SUVs instead, which replaced station wagons starting in the 1990s.
Yet Kia has rolled out a redesigned 2017 Cadenza, a full-size sedan that slots between the much more popular midsize Optima and the much cooler upcoming Stinger in the automaker’s lineup. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld famously said. After all, if Kia invested in this vehicle, there must be a business case to support it, right?
You can buy a brand new Kia Cadenza for as little as $32,890, which is on par with the Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300, and Toyota Avalon, but is more than a Chevrolet Impala, Dodge Charger, or Ford Taurus. Here’s the thing, though: The Cadenza delivers impressive value, and not just because of its industry-leading roadside assistance and warranty programs.
Every Cadenza has a powerful V6 engine, heated leather seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, free connected safety and convenience services, a hands-free power trunk lid, and a generous list of amenities. If you have extra money to spend, you can upgrade the car with a panoramic sunroof, a Luxury Package, Technology trim, or Limited trim.
My test vehicle was the Cadenza Limited, which includes everything Kia offers for this car except for a handful of dealer-installed accessories. The price tag came to $45,340, including a cargo net ($50) and a quite reasonable destination charge of $900.
A good-looking car with an upscale appearance, the new Cadenza is nevertheless bland, an impression that admittedly could be explained by its Snow White Pearl paint job, which seemed to absorb reflections and mask body detail. Aside from its appealing Z-shaped front and rear lighting signatures, perhaps its most unique design element is its concave grille, which is offered only for the Technology and Limited versions of the car.
Inside, my test car’s Limited trim includes premium Nappa leather with quilt-stitched bolsters and perforated inserts. The available white leather contrasts sharply with the otherwise dark décor, giving the Cadenza an undeniably rich look, and both the headliner and roof pillars are covered in simulated suede, just like a real luxury car.
As might be expected at this price point, however, the lower part of the cabin is covered in hard plastic, and the simulated wood trim is obviously not the real deal. Hey, you’ve got to remember, the price tag is just over 45 grand, not double that amount.
If I had to summarize the Cadenza’s driving experience in a single word, it would be “unremarkable.”
That is not meant to be a disparaging comment. Rather, this Kia drives exactly the way you expect it to. It’s reasonably quick, it rides nicely, and it handles decently. It is not quite as engaging to drive as I’ve come to expect from Kia models, but maybe that’s not a problem for a typical full-size sedan buyer.
In any case, the Cadenza is equipped with a 290-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6 engine, an 8-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. The EPA says the Cadenza should get 23 miles per gallon in combined driving, and my test car returned 23.3 mpg on my test loop, which I drove primarily in the Smart Shift and Drive mode.
Smart Shift and Drive mode is designed to learn your driving style and tailor transmission-shift characteristics to your specific needs. Additional driving-mode choices include Eco, Comfort, and Sport, but once the adaptive system figured me out, I didn’t require any of them.
Until the car understood that I tend to accelerate rapidly, the transmission upshifted prematurely, presumably to maximize fuel economy. Once it adapted to my driving style, I had few complaints about the Cadenza’s engine and transmission. The paddle shifters weren’t much fun to use, though, and when the gear selector was moved left into the transmission's manual shift gate, it was in constant contact with my leg. Kia’s failure to hone these details is, perhaps, tacit recognition that few Cadenza buyers are likely to use either feature.
When driven hard in the mountains, the brakes did fade somewhat in seasonable mid-70s temperatures, but still executed a panic stop without a problem. In all other conditions, they responded and performed as expected, drawing no undue attention to themselves.
The electric steering, frequently a source of complaint in Kia models, isn’t an issue in the Cadenza. The system is equipped with a faster processor now, and the steering provides consistent levels of assist and linear response throughout the range of motion.
Kia tunes the suspension to limit body roll and to absorb impact harshness, and the result is stable handling combined with an agreeable ride quality that is unsettled only by sharper bumps and cracks in the pavement. Oddly, though, given the claimed 35 percent increase in structural stiffness, the Cadenza seems to flex too much for a car whose architecture employs a significant amount of high-strength steel. Toss this Kia through a set of tight S-curves, and the interior creaks.
I also found that the Cadenza allows more road noise into the cabin than expected, especially considering the steps the company claims to have taken to limit such intrusion. Perhaps the blame resides with my test car’s larger 19-inch wheels and 245/40 tires.
In any case, for the typical car buyer, the Cadenza is going to perform exactly as anticipated. If you enjoy the journey as much as the destination, though, you’ll probably want to consider something else.
Form and Function
People buy full-size cars because they have full-size interiors, and that is true of the new Kia Cadenza. There’s a whole bunch of storage space inside this car, too. So the question is this: Is the Cadenza comfortable as well as roomy?
Both front seats offer a decent range of adjustment, and my Limited test car also had heated and ventilated front seats and a heated steering wheel. However, during a three-hour road trip, the seats ultimately lacked support, increasingly feeling like a park bench as I piled on the miles. Softer, denser armrests would’ve been nice, too.
The Cadenza’s back seat is downright cavernous, and my loaded test vehicle had sunshades for the rear and rear side windows. The seatback is reclined a bit, and in combination with good thigh support and tons of legroom, the Cadenza’s back seat is perfect for napping.
You know what’s missing, though? Rear USB charging ports. This omission is a big oversight in a car whose reason for being is, in part, to provide passengers with a spacious, comfortable, and inviting rear seat.
The other reason big cars like the Cadenza exist is trunk space. Here, the Cadenza fails to impress, offering just 16 cubic feet of space, significantly less than full-size segment leaders like the Chevy Impala and Ford Taurus.
One of my favorite things about the Cadenza is its control layout. There are lots of buttons. There are lots of knobs. They’re marked in a legible font. And you can easily find what you’re looking for by touch, or with no more than a glance away from the road.
This approach to the control layout might result in extra visual clutter, but at the same time it makes the car easier to use, because you’re not distracted by a touchscreen, or basic controls used to cycle through menus on the screen, or voice prompts that may or may not respond quickly and naturally to you.
The problem in the Cadenza, though, is that the climate controls are located where you expect to find the radio controls. Also, direct access to specific radio-station pre-sets is available only through the screen, and I’m not crazy about the red nighttime control lighting in this car.
By including so many buttons and knobs on the Cadenza’s dashboard, Kia limits required interaction with the latest version of its Your Voice, or UVO, infotainment system. Cadenza Premium models have UVO with a 7-inch display screen, while Technology and Limited models get a larger 8-inch screen, navigation system, and wireless smartphone charger.
Both setups come with smartphone projection support in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and both include UVO eServices, which is free for 10 years and requires a paired smartphone to access the various functions and features. I had no trouble pairing an iPhone 6 to the system, and programming a destination by voice was easy.
That Kia provides free access to UVO eServices is a significant perk. Most other car companies charge a monthly or annual subscription for these types of services, which in the Cadenza include features like automatic collision notification, 9-1-1 Assist, a parking minder to help you find the car when you’ve forgotten where you left it, and safe teen-driving alerts related to vehicle speed, curfew times, and geographic boundaries.
My test car also had a 12-speaker, Harman Kardon premium Surround Sound system with Clari-Fi music restoration technology, which is specifically designed to restore details lost to digital compression, such as when playing or streaming music from a smartphone. In every vehicle I’ve driven with this type of a sound system, I’ve been impressed, and the Cadenza is no exception.
My test car also had a handy 360-degree surround-view camera system and a heads-up display (HUD) that provides a comprehensive amount of information, including blind-spot warnings, within an 8-inch display area. Unfortunately, the HUD is difficult to see when you’re wearing polarized sunglasses.
Buy a new Kia Cadenza, and it is guaranteed to have a reversing camera. The Premium model can be upgraded with a blind-spot monitoring system, rear cross-traffic alert, and rear parking-assist sensors.
For anything more in the driver-assistance and collision-avoidance department, you must upgrade to the Cadenza Technology. It includes these items, plus forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and a smarter version of the blind-spot monitoring system that adds a lane-change-assist feature and a lane-change-prevention system.
In my opinion, Kia has some work to do with regard to the refinement and sophistication of these technologies. During my time with this car, the adaptive cruise control, the smart blind-spot monitoring, and the lane-departure warning systems all revealed flaws or irritations that made them less enjoyable to use.
Should a collision occur, it is unclear how the Cadenza might protect you, because crash testing had not been performed on this model at the time this review was written.
However, with slightly more than half of the car’s structure composed of high-strength steel and curb weights ranging between 3,600 and 3,800 pounds, the stage is set for promising returns if and when the federal government and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) get around to it.
Owning a Kia is cost effective. The company provides one of the longest warranties in the business, and the roadside-assistance program is good for five years. Plus, in recent years Kia has been earning awards and accolades for its quality and reliability. I was also surprised by how easily my test car met and exceeded its EPA fuel-economy estimates, which are 20 mpg in the city, 28 mpg on the highway, and 23 mpg in combined driving.
Still, if someone asked me if they should buy a new Kia Cadenza, I’d say: “Sure, why not?”
That’s a non-committal response from a person whose job it is to critique new vehicles, but after putting more than 700 miles on Kia’s new full-size sedan, I can’t think of a good reason to recommend against one. At the same time, though, I can’t effusively recommend in favor of one, either. Aside from style and value, which are admittedly important attributes to most car buyers, nothing about the Cadenza is particularly remarkable or compelling.
In short, it meets expectations in a full-size sedan. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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