Test Drive: 2018 Kia Cadenza

Let’s kick this off with a little illustration, yes?

A look that’ll make passengers think you spent a lot more.

I like camera lenses. Camera lenses let me take great photos and videos, and I love them very much.

Actually, there’s only one thing keeping me from having an entire, considerably sized room brimming with camera lenses, and that thing is the fact that camera lenses are expensive. Heck, camera lenses that cost as much as a brand-new car are a thing that exist.

Often, this means I have a simple choice: spend a lot of money to attach a Nikon-branded lens to my trusty old D5300, or, spend a lot less money to attach a comparable Sigma-branded lens instead. For what and how I shoot, the more affordable Sigma lenses often give me excellent results for a boatload less cash.

At the moment, a Sigma 18-250 Macro is my favourite lens, and that’s especially because I could afford it. A Nikon equivalent of this lens was out of my budget – so I had two choices: buy the lower-priced alternative, or nothing at all.

This is what’s going on with the Kia Cadenza.

This stately cruiser is Kia’s top-dog front-drive model, taking a place above the Optima in the model range where it fights for a space on the mental radar of those considering other mainstream flagships like the Impala, Passat, and Avalon.

The goal of machines like these, in large part, is to give shoppers the option of a top-of-the-line motoring experience at a convincing price.

With Cadenza, that experience translates right down to the look of the machine. From some angles, you can literally see the Lexus dialled into the styling. Specifically, from the rear and side, and at the right angle, the shape of the exhausts, tailpipes, and the chrome slit on the lower door edges mean you could be forgiven for walking right past your Cadenza in a parking lot, because you thought it was someone else’s Lexus LS.

Conservative exterior, sumptuous interior

And that’s my biggest gripe: Kia can do a knockout original design (Optima, Soul, others), but the Cadenza borrows a few too many styling elements from various big-buck cruisers for my liking. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and all that.

Still, it’s luxury on the sly: unquestionably upscale, but no so much that anyone will think you’re paying for your Harvey’s drive-thru with loose gold nuggets.

If a Lexus or comparable luxury sedan is in your budget, you’re probably not a Kia Cadenza shopper. But, if a luxury-branded cruiser is not in your budget, yet the desire to own one burns away like a Listerine breath strip, the Cadenza is worth a serious look. It is to a Lexus or Mercedes or Cadillac what my Sigma lenses are to my Nikon lenses: a great way to have a good taste of something a fair bit pricier.

The designers have created a great little world on-board. The driving position and environment are nearly coupe-like, with drivers positioned deep in the interior and surrounded by the cabin, rather than feeling like they’re sitting above it. Headroom tightens quickly for those over about 5'10", but the low roofline adds to the unique atmosphere, and helps form Cadenza’s graceful silhouette.

Upon closer inspection, most will appreciate just how hard the interior design works to give this $46,000 top-line cabin a look that’ll make passengers think you spent a lot more.

It’s the honeycomb-quilted leather patterning and the contrast of matte and gloss finishes, deployed with plenty of depth and detail, that grab the attention first and hardest. Closer examination reveals light-years of stitching, and a playful stacking of textures and colours that build on one another for a rich feel, and an overall finish that’ll keep the eyes and fingertips busy. Even from a quick peek, this cabin has some considerable visual punch. A typical passenger reaction upon boarding is “Hmmph, this is a Kia?”

Additionally, leather surfaces extend down the door panels and centre console tunnel, and the ceiling liner is trimmed in suede, or something that looks and feels exactly like suede. All said, Cadenza’s driving environment is modern, unique, formal, and absolutely upscale, but not glitzy or overdone. It pulls off an authentically sophisticated feel, and delivers an effective invitation for occupants to sit back, unwind, and relax. Hell, even the turn signal sounds fine-tuned: perfect tick, not too much tock. Nice rhythm, too.

Up front, though headroom may be tight for taller drivers, there’s no lateral crowding thanks to plenty of space for larger, wide-shouldered passengers to unwind and relax. Within reach of front-seat occupants are numerous storage bins, charging ports, and even a built-in wireless charging pad for your smartphone. Rear seats are generously spacious for two adults, but just watch your head getting in to avoid taking some roof to the dome. With four not-too-tall adults on board, Cadenza makes a relaxing rolling social lounge. Behind all of that, a deep, wide, and generous trunk will easily accept all required luggage for a four-person road trip, too.

Features? Indeed. If you can think of one, the top-line Cadenza probably has it. Favourites included a slick radar cruise control system, birds-eye parking monitor with high-resolution display, and a punchy and glowing Harman Kardon stereo which makes for a satisfying listening experience when you’ll use Cadenza as a personal concert hall.

Also included were a panoramic sunroof, climate-controlled seats, a very simple and logical central infotainment system, and virtually every outward-looking hazard detection technology available. The Cadenza has a head-up display that’s high in resolution, informative, large, and colourful. There’s even a blind-spot monitor with warnings issued on the rear-view mirrors, and repeated in the head-up display, which is really slick.

Unobtrusive driveline

A 3.3-litre, 290 horsepower V6 drives the front wheels on all models via an eight-speed automatic. The driveline impresses most readily during gentle use where the smooth and very quiet low-end thrust calls an electric vehicle to mind, and the transmission shifts so smoothly that you never notice it.

The engine is an eager performer when opened up, too: it sounds pleasing right to redline, and a nicely shaped power curve sees thrust swelling up with the climbing revs, even if overall grunt is pleasing, not potent. Torque steer is as near to nil as it gets, and in all, the powertrain shouldn’t leave most drivers wanting in terms of refinement, though some will wish for a touch more jam.

Cadenza is an expert highway cruiser. It’s soft-footed, rides gently but never feels floaty or bloaty, and in all, prioritizes comfy cruising without managing to feel like a four-wheeled sponge cake. It’s got a touch of sporty firmness dialled in against a mostly comfort-first ride.

The Cadenza’s comfy, but a little sportier than you probably think. Unlike many a bigger-dollar luxury car, noise levels here can creep up at higher speeds, but if you keep near the limit, there’s rarely a need to raise your voice for a conversation with a nearby passenger.

A few additional notes.

First, Cadenza feels a touch more tuned and calibrated at all of its controls than I was expecting: the steering morphs from light and lazy to heavier and more locked-on as speeds increase, meaning it always feels “just right” whether you’re parking, making a three-point turn, or cruising at a good clip.

Second, the brakes bite with appreciable urgency from a mere press, but without feeling hyperactive or excessively touchy. Stopping power always feels plentiful and eager.

Third, there’s a heavy, velvety creaminess through much of the controls, switchgear, and ride, that you’d typically expect in a pricier machine.

Finally, even the most technologically challenged drivers needn’t fear Cadenza’s central command system. It’s presented vividly, responds quickly, and features menus and controls that all become second nature to navigate before long.

Gripes? Tight headroom and my wish for a touch more power aside, and keeping context in mind, few presented themselves. My biggest? The vivid and colourful head-up display virtually disappears if you’re wearing polarized driving glasses – which you should be, so that’s a bit of a bummer.

By and large, here’s a great way to take in a taste of the world-class motoring high-life, without the world-class price tag. If you like the Cadenza, check out the Toyota Avalon and Buick LaCrosse as well. Both are excellent.

So is the Kia Stinger, incidentally. Comparing fully loaded trims, the $4,200-pricier Stinger GT gives you a no-less-luxurious interior than the big-kahuna-spec Cadenza, a nearly identical set of features, an equally  road-trip-ready ride, some 75 more horsepower, and all-wheel drive. Stinger is heavier on fuel and (much) lighter on rear seat space, but for a shopper after something Cadenza-like but with (lots) more power and all-season grip, it’s a near no-brainer.

Cadenza starts around $36,000.

2018 Kia Cadenza Limited
Engine Displacement: 3.3L
Engine Cylinders: V6
Peak Horsepower: 290 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Peak Torque: 253 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
Fuel Economy: 11.5/8.5/10.2 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 452 L
2018 Kia Cadenza Limited
Base Price $45,795
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,785
Price as Tested $47,880
Optional Equipment $200 – Colour Charge $200
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 8.4
8 Styling
8 Powertrain
9 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
8 Drivability
9 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
9 Features
9 Value