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2017 Kia Cadenza First Drive Review: Splitting the Hairs of Luxury

Luxuriate in the Corners but Don't Drive the Cadenza Like a Sport Sedan

Luxuriate in the Corners but Don't Drive the Cadenza Like a Sport Sedan

Splitting the difference in luxury is like splitting hairs. Does luxury maintain its appeal if it’s available to nearly everyone? Kia thinks so, and with the new 2017 Cadenza, the automaker is targeting anyone who has ever wanted lots of premium features and miles of ultra-quiet interior space.

Nestled between the top-of-the-line rear-drive Kia K900 and the midsize front-drive Kia Optima is the front-drive Cadenza. Not quite as big or luxurious as the K900, the 2017 Cadenza gets updates to make it more upscale, more mature, and more refined. The revised Cadenza’s styling and features-list make a fantastic argument for bridge luxury.

First, Kia tackled the looks of the Cadenza. Under the well-trained eye of the man who brought us the iconic first-generation Audi TT, Peter Schreyer, the Cadenza gets an athletic overhaul. The car is the same length as its predecessor though the wheelbase has been extended by 0.4 inches, the entire car has been lowered by 0.2 inches, and widened by nearly an inch. The extension of the character line along the body makes it look taut, and inside there’s one cubic foot of extra interior space, with rear passengers benefiting from an extra 0.4 inches of leg room.

2017 Kia Cadenza rear interior seats

The overhaul didn’t stop with just looks. The front-wheel drive, full-size sedan is powered by a revised 3.3-liter direct-injected V-6 that makes 290 hp and 253 lb-ft of torque. The engine is mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission that was designed in-house. The outgoing model had more horsepower and torque (by 3 hp and 2 lb-ft), but the 2017 Cadenza is EPA-rated at 20/28 mpg (11.7/8.4 L/100km) city/highway, compared to the 2016 model’s 19/28 mpg (12.4/8.4 L/100km) (2017 ratings are more stringent than before). That 20/28 mpg (11.8/8.4 L/100km) is just above the 2017 Chevrolet Impala‘s 18-19/28 mpg (13.1-12.4/8.4 L/100km), about even with the 2017 Hyundai Azera’s 19-20/28 mpg (12.4-11.8/8.4 L/100km), and below the 2017 Buick LaCrosse’s 21/31 mpg (11.2/7.6 L/100km) with front-wheel drive.

The 2017 Cadenza, which weighs around 3,600-3,800 pounds (1,633-1,724 kg) depending on the model, gets MacPherson independent struts in the front and a multilink suspension in the rear, and the suspension has been re-tuned for a smoother ride. Improvements to the suspension include amplitude damping and hydraulic rebound stoppers, which help you feel the road beneath you without launching your kidneys from your body. The result is a communicative but still soft and smooth ride, even over rough railroad crossings and on gravel roads.

To give a more luxurious feel to the 2017 Kia Cadenza, the car’s torsional rigidity is increased by 35 percent, yet with a lighter body structure. A more rigid structure and retuned suspension don’t mean that the Cadenza corners like a sports sedan; there is ample body roll. On twisting roads through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Cadenza was wallowy in the corners and slid backseat occupants from one side of the car to the other when pushed. But this is a full-size sedan—one that takes work to drive quickly on narrow twisting roads. It’s a car you luxuriate in the turns instead of push hard. To assist with that, Kia replaced the outgoing car’s 16-bit ECU with a 32-bit version, and replacing the steel steering knuckles with aluminum ones. The result is a slightly better steering feel, though there is still some numbness on center.

2017 Kia Cadenza SXL front three quarter 07

To address some of those niggling numb steering concerns, Kia offers a drive mode select system, versions of which we’ve seen on other Kias and Hyundais. The driver can toggle through four different driving modes by using a button near the gear selector on the center stack. On start-up the car defaults to Comfort mode. Push the button again and you can slide into Eco, Sport, or Smart mode. In each mode, the steering weight and transmission change to adjust the driving dynamics. Smart mode monitors your driving habits and adapts the steering weight and transmission to deliver the best settings for your driving style. Changes between modes are at best subtle; in Eco and Comfort the steering is slightly lighter and subtly more desensitized, and the throttle is soft. Move up to our preferred driving setting, Sport mode, and the steering gets a little heavier and the transmission shifts sooner, maximizing the car’s 290 hp.

That transmission is surprisingly good, too. The eight-speed is seamless, smooth, and almost unnoticeable, whether you use the steering-wheel-mounted paddles or let the system do the work. The company is proud that it opted to use in-house resources to develop the transmission rather than go to a supplier like ZF or Aisin, and says this is the first time an automaker has used an in-house developed, eight-speed automatic in a front-drive car. The new transmission has a greater span in ratios than the outgoing model, making for quicker down and upshifts. Though on a full-size sedan, paddle shifters are a lot like a fish with a bicycle, they’re ubiquitous across the industry and here to stay. Grabbing the left paddle before a turn, it’s almost impossible to tell that the car has downshifted without looking at the dash to confirm it.

One of the 2017 Kia Cadenza‘s best features is the available adaptive cruise control. We tried it out on some of the 55 mph (88 km/h) roads that lead up to the soft shoulders of the Blue Ridge Mountains. With the system set at the speed limit, we were following along with traffic when someone two cars ahead slammed on the brakes. The system braked smoothly, taking the car down to 25 mph (40km/h) to adjust for the stopped traffic ahead, and as traffic moved on, it moved back up to speed all without any pedal input from us. The adaptive cruise feature is available only on the mid- and top-level Cadenza, but is well worth the investment.

Near-luxury cars need more than just a smooth driving experience, however—such cars need the right equipment, style, and comfort in the cabin. The 2017 Cadenza we drove was the loaded Limited trim with Kia’s new color head-up display complete with speed limit, speed, and navigation indicators. The 2017 Cadenza Limited also gets quilted Nappa leather seats with an extended driver-side leg extension, plus heated and ventilated seats. Inside, the Cadenza is very quiet until you reach highway speeds, when you barely hear the external world whistling by. And at certain speeds, it does whistle. Wind noise is noticeable around the side view mirrors at speeds of 65 mph (105 km/h) and up. Kia did a lot of work on the underbody pan borrowed from the higher level K900 and added air curtain intakes at the front fascia to help break up wind vortices as the car moves forward, reducing drag marginally. The automaker also added triple laminated front windows and sound insulation to the A-pillars to create an even more silent interior.

Although the Cadenza is quiet, the interior’s center stack of controls is a little button-heavy, and in our tester with the upgraded eight-inch touchscreen, the updated UVO system was slow to respond to touch and clunky to use when we tried to find our hotel by inputting its name and the city it was in. Kia has also locked out navigation input once the car is moving, rendering the passenger useless if they need to change a destination. Because the Cadenza now offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, most owners will have an alternative navigation option as long as the connected phone has reception.

The 2017 Kia Cadenza makes a good argument for spending less to get more luxury. Although Kia hasn’t announced pricing for the 2017 Cadenza, which will go on sale in late October, executives did say that the base level model will start below $32,000 USD, less a delivery charge of $895 USD. That’s about $1,000 USD less than the 2016 Kia Cadenza. With the loaded Limited model starting below $44,000 USD, Kia makes luxury seem a lot more attainable.

2017 Kia Cadenza SXL front three quarter 05