With its brand-new 2014 Cadenza, South Korea's Kia has tossed a high, soft one directly into the strike zone.
In this inning, the zone is populated by large, front-wheel-drive sedans with luxury characteristics. They include Chevrolet's new Impala, Ford Taurus, Buick La Crosse, Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima and even a few near-luxury mid-size nameplates like the Acura TL, Lexus ES and Lincoln MKZ. Oh, and don't overlook the Azera from Kia's corporate partner, Hyundai.
Hyundai owns 38 percent of Kia and the two brands share power trains and other components. They are distinguished by different approaches to systems such as suspension tuning, as well as styling and interiors.
The Cadenza arrives as Kia's top-of-the line car, the flagship of a lineup that starts with the compact Rio and moves through the Soul, Forte and Optima. It shares components with Hyundai's Azera, but the main difference is that the Azera nestles in the middle of the Hyundai lineup beneath the Genesis and Equus, but above the Accent, Elantra and Sonata.
No doubt that will change soon as Kia continues its relentless assault on the marketplace. There already has been talk of it bringing a luxury car similar to Hyundai's Equus. For now, Kia has a formidable contender in the Cadenza, which takes its name from a music term that refers to cadence.
In the last century, big sedans ruled the nation's roads, although then they were way bigger than full-size cars now. But they have since yielded to mid-size cars and have receded on the sales pie chart to the point where they no longer pose a threat to their smaller brethren. Nevertheless, they deliver profits and credibility to manufacturers' model lineups.
The classy Cadenza is more than a foot longer than Hyundai's Azera, though the cars have the same space for passengers and cargo. Both use a smooth 293-horsepower, 3.3-liter V6 engine that delivers its power to the front wheels through an easy-shifting six-speed automatic transmission that can be shifted manually.
Distinguishing the Cadenza is its luxury orientation and pleasantly conservative exterior styling marked by LED (light-emitting diode) running lights and taillights. Kia says the intention was to make the Cadenza look and feel like European luxury cars.
The face shows Kia's distinctive so-called tiger-nose grille, which unfortunately has been rendered somewhat less recognizable, especially from a distance, because the stylists softened the outline and filled it in with black mesh.
With a base price of $35,900, the Cadenza comes with navigation, backup camera, leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control, pushbutton starting, heated front seats, free routine maintenance for 36 months or 37,500 miles, and Kia's excellent UVO website-based electronic connectivity system.
The system provides a free smartphone app that automatically connects to emergency assistance in the event of a crash. It also provides maintenance reminders as well as convenience items such as a finder that remembers the location of where you parked your Cadenza. All the services, including connecting to a real person for roadside assistance, are free upfront with no monthly charges.
There are two upgrade packages: Luxury and technology, each costing $3,000. They include such items as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, blind-spot monitoring, a panoramic sunroof, heated rear outboard seats, power tilt and telescoping steering column, memory settings for the driver's seat and outside mirrors, power rear sunshade, 19-inch alloy wheels and an electronic parking brake.
The tested Cadenza was loaded with both packages plus a few minor items like a cargo net in the trunk, which brought the suggested price to $42,030.
On the road, the Cadenza proved itself to be a comfortable long-distance cruiser. The suspension is biased toward a comfortable ride, augmented by a quiet interior with virtually no intrusion of wind or mechanical noise. The steering is a trifle light and could use a bit more heft on center to maintain effortless straight-line tracking.
That said, the Cadenza is responsive and capable in cornering on curving roads, though it is no sports sedan. The driver's seat delivers good lateral support and comfort, although some shorter test drivers complained that the front passenger seat was too low with no height adjustment.
In back, knee room is generous in the outboard seats while head room likely would be in short supply for anyone more than 6 feet tall. The center-rear seating position, as in most cars, is hard and unyielding.
Kia expects to build up to 13,000 Cadenzas a year. It could easily wind up higher.
Model: 2014 Kia Cadenza four-door sedan.
Engine: 3.3-liter V6, 293 horsepower.
Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual-shift mode.
Overall length: 16 feet 4 inches.
EPA passenger/trunk volume: 107/16 cubic feet.
Weight: 3,792 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 19/28/22 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $35,900.
Price as tested: $42,030.