It was a mistake to leave a copy of the window sticker on the front seat of the loaded 2014 Kia Cadenza.
Three times during a week of testing, a passenger climbed in, saw the $41,900 price and blurted: "That much for a Kia?!"
But it took only a short ride for the impressive Cadenza to make its case.
Kia Motors Corp. was once known to U.S. buyers as the builder of econoboxes, not leather-lined premium sedans. A decade ago, the brand's middling reputation would have prevented it from entering the luxury realm.
Yet in recent years Kia, a corporate cousin to Hyundai Motor Corp., has hit its stride in both quality and sales. The popularity of models such as the excellent Optima mid-size sedan, Sorento sport utility vehicle and Soul compact crossover have led to a vehicle sales increase every year since 2008. Kia eclipsed the 500,000 sales mark in the U.S. for the first time last year.
Kia hopes this success will make buyers more comfortable parting with a respectable sum of money for its new flagship — $35,900 to start. The full-size Cadenza aims to steal sales from the likes of Chrysler's 300, Buick's LaCrosse and Toyota's Avalon.
The South Korean-built Cadenza shares a platform with the Hyundai Azera, along with its 3.3-liter, direct-injected V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission. The motor makes 293 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque.
This engine and transmission combination are a smooth duo, providing power and refinement in equal measure. Fuel economy is rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 mpg on the highway. In 300 miles of mostly city driving, we averaged 16 mpg.
Despite the shared underpinnings, the Kia Cadenza is positioned upmarket from the Hyundai Azera. The $3,000 difference in the cars' starting prices yields few tangible upgrades in the Kia beyond some basic interior trim and a better stereo system.
But the Cadenza has the poise of a luxury car, while the Azera feels more like just a larger family sedan. Wind and road noise are wonderfully absent from the interior, and the Cadenza's ride is comfortable without wallowing all over the road.
This refinement extends to the car's design. The layout and construction of the cabin give it an upscale, if understated, impression of luxury. Complaints are limited to a slightly counterintuitive layout of buttons on the dashboard.
The Cadenza is slightly longer and narrower than the similar Hyundai, and is down just a smidge in cargo room. There's more interior space than the Toyota Avalon and Chevy Impala, despite offering less rear legroom. Trunk space is about the same as the Toyota and Hyundai, though all three trail the Impala here.
With former Audi designer Peter Schreyer at the helm, Kia's exterior styling has evolved dramatically in recent years. The Cadenza's look is wisely subdued; when you're an econobox-maker breaking into the luxury car market, you don't want to make a scene.
Tasteful bits of chrome trim, LED taillights and daytime running lights are as exciting as the Cadenza gets, though our tester also benefited from some handsome 19-inch alloy wheels. These are, curiously, part of the Technology package, which also include adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring and lane departure warning.
Although helpful at times, these systems didn't seem as sophisticated as those from rival brands. They ended up being more annoying than helpful. Skipping them is an excellent way to save yourself $3,000.
The only other package buyers can add to their Cadenza is the $3,000 Luxury package. It adds wonderfully soft Napa leather seats, a panoramic moon roof, heated rear seats and steering wheel, and a digital instrument panel. The driver also gets a ventilated seat, but the joys of backside cooling aren't offered to anyone else in the car.
But even these add-ons aren't necessary to get the luxury treatment from the Cadenza. In stock form, the car's list of niceties is long: 8-inch touch-screen navigation system, leather seats and steering wheel, Infinity sound system, backup camera, eight air bags and a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty.
Regardless of what you pay, Cadenza is priced competitively enough to give rivals fits. It will need the help; with the Avalon and Impala all-new this year, the segment is much more cutthroat than even a year ago.
Consumer Reports turned a few heads recently by giving the 2014 Chevrolet Impala one of its highest scores ever. Although the new Impala is a world of improvement over its predecessor, this Kia outshines the Chevy in terms of refinement, handling and drivetrain.
It also has a firmer grasp of entry-level luxury than the new Avalon and the rest of the segment.
For an automaker practiced in this space, that would be an achievement. That Kia pulled it off on its first pass is even more impressive, especially since this segment averages only about 500,000 cars a year.
This bodes well for the brand's future in the luxury realm. Kia sells a larger rear-wheel-drive sedan in foreign markets, and there have long been rumors that the car could be headed to the U.S. If it does land here, expect it to sell for $50,000 to $70,000.
Yes, for a Kia. The Cadenza proves you really don't need to ask that anymore.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times