Big, regal sedans wore propellers or stars on their hoods a decade or so ago -- imposing executive expressions as ruthlessly polished as their owners.
Bimmers, Benzes and others had a finely stirred mix of performance, head-turning style and leather-soaked luxury that no mainstream sedan could hope to match. Meanwhile, we got Ford Tauruses and Nissan Maximas. Whoopee.
But here's a little secret about the auto industry today: The class gap is narrowing. Sure, you can spend six figures on some silver German missile. But $100,000 peasant-mashing sedans today are no longer twice as good as the plebeian $40,000 ones.
And believe it or not, we can add Kia to the growing list of contributors to this egalitarian cause. Once the builder of tinny cars of last resort, Kia has broken free of its dismal past.
Take a look at the 2014 Cadenza, the Korean automaker's first true near-luxury, full-size sedan and a prelude to a bigger high-end sedan in the near future.
The Cadenza has unusually long front fenders and hood, elements you don't typically see on front-wheel-drive vehicles. Kia's signature "tiger-nose" grille in black is flanked by long headlamps stretched relatively low on the front fenders. A slightly raised hood flows into a sharply raked windshield, curving top and classically short trunk.
With a window sticker price of $41,900, the Cadenza is hardly inexpensive. But it possesses some fairly premium content, including a lively 293-horsepower V-6 engine, smooth six-speed automatic transmission and well-tuned suspension.
The car's hip black-and-white interior feels even richer. A deep black dash rolls around a hooded instrument panel stitched nicely on the edges. Gray Zebrano-style wood covers the console and provides trim for the black door panels.
As much as I admired the appearance of the Cadenza's white leather seats -- with stitched bolsters and perforated centers -- I wondered how long they would stay clean in the dirty, dusty real world.
Thanks to direct fuel injection and high compression, the 3.3-liter V-6 was highly responsive, stepping briskly away from stops with even mild nudges to the accelerator pedal. Low-end torque was not great, but the engine was smooth and eager and got stronger in the midrange.
The Cadenza is also rated at 19 miles per gallon in town and 28 on the highway, which isn't great but acceptable for a big sedan.
Considering how far Kia has come, the Cadenza should be a high-water mark for the company -- a sedan with better styling and driving dynamics than its Japanese competitors.
2014 KIA CADENZA
Base price: $35,100
Price as tested: $41,900
Engine: 3.3-liter V-6
Power: 293 horsepower and 255 pound-feet of torque
0 to 60 mph: 6.2 seconds
EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city, 28 highway
Weight: 3,789 pounds
Length: 195.5 inches
Width: 72.8 inches
Height: 58.1 inches
Cargo capacity: 15.9 cubic feet
Bottom line: surprising luxury