Automakers are sometimes pilloried, even in this space, for being too cautious with their designs. But a conservative design can suggest confidence. Perennial favorites from the Honda Accord to the Chevrolet Silverado are evidence that long-term value isn't about the flashiest body or the latest trend.
The Kia Cadenza demonstrates the point. Driving this full-size sedan conjures words like "low key" and "straightforward." A decade ago, those would have been damning words in a Kia review, because Kia hadn't earned the right or respect to do straightforward. The quality wasn't there. Nor were the features, the performance or the consumer trust. These were Kias, darn it, the low-budget Korean alternative; the brand needed oddball gimmicks and pricing sleight-of-hand to make any kind of case with American buyers.
In contrast, the Korean-built Cadenza, new for 2014, comes across as the conservative offspring of a Toyota and a 5 Series, minus the athleticism of the BMW. Yet in this context, the Kia's mature, mildly soporific quality seems comforting.
In fact, Kia might well have called it the Credenza, rather than a name that refers to a virtuoso solo performance. The car's looks and functionality are more in keeping with that humble, but endlessly versatile, piece of living room furniture.
That makes the Kia right at home with the Toyota Avalon, Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala or Hyundai Azera, a Rotary Club of full-bodied sedans that can approach or even top $40,000 but would no sooner be called "luxury cars" than they would offer a Dolce & Gabbana Edition. Like its Korean partner, Hyundai, Kia continues to refine its high-value compact and midsize models while defying skeptics with larger and pricier sedans. That experiment — a game of "how high can they go?" — extends to the roughly $60,000 Hyundai Equus, whose platform is expected to spawn an enormous rear-drive Kia luxury car next year.
For now, the front-drive Cadenza, sister to the Hyundai Azera, is the roomiest and most dearly priced sedan Kia has offered in the United States. And Kia's confidence, bolstered by a run of well-received models, has the Cadenza adopting a surprisingly cocksure stance: Unlike most competitors, there's no less-appointed base version, but rather a single well-equipped Premium model that starts at $35,900. Its features include leather-wrapped seats, an excellent touch-screen navigation system, a 550-watt Infinity audio system, rearview camera, keyless locking and Kia's own Uvo telematics system.
From there, a pair of lavish $3,000 option packages — the Luxury group is required if you want the additional Technology package — raise the price to $38,900 and then $41,900.
Toyota loyalists or domestic diehards may stop reading right there. So, too, may fans of smaller Acuras, Audis, Cadillacs or Infinitis, who don't mind trading some space or features for an established luxury badge or more sporty performance.
Yet those considerations don't diminish the Kia's overall appeal.
This is a good car. And it's impossible to step from the cabin without being impressed by the quiet style, powerful V-6, generous interior and intuitive technology.
Five inches longer than the Optima sedan on which it's based, the Cadenza splits the size difference between midsize cars and full-bore luxury yachts.
Like all Kias, and now Hyundais, the styling was directed by Peter Schreyer, an acclaimed designer who formerly worked for Audi. But while Schreyer has drawn from Audi for designs like the Optima, he may have perused the BMW catalogue during late nights on the Cadenza project. One may argue that the Cadenza seems derivative, but the car has the sturdy stance and proportions of a big German sedan. The bluff rear end evokes the cars of Chris Bangle, the former BMW design chief, but isn't obnoxious about it.
Inside, the burnished wood and leather do a reasonable Lexus impression. Nappa leather upholstery in the Luxury package, especially, makes the hides in some competitors — including the Avalon, Taurus and Impala — look like diner-booth vinyl.
Aside from that leather upgrade, the Luxury package adds a 12-way power driver's seat with heat, ventilation and memory settings; an LCD driver's display; a heated, powered tilt-and-telescope steering wheel; full-length panoramic sunroof with a power sunshade; and high-intensity adaptive headlamps.
The airy cabin lets passengers stretch in all directions, though the rear seats don't fold as they do in some rivals. But the simple-and-straightforward theme extends to the impeccable ergonomics. Switches and systems are universally easy to operate.
The Technology package adds 19-inch alloy wheels, blind-spot and lane-departure monitors and water-repelling front glass. An adaptive cruise control lets the Kia keep smooth pace with traffic, even in stop-and-go Manhattan driving.
The Kia also keeps pace with rivals' performance, starting with its overachieving 3.3-liter V-6. The specs say 293 horsepower, but it feels more like 320 on the streets. The gearbox is a six-speed automatic. Car and Driver magazine needed just 6.2 seconds to hustle the Cadenza from zero to 60 mph.
The engine is also a smooth operator, but it's not the most frugal V-6 in the land. Fuel economy is rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway; the highway number trails the Avalon's by 3 mpg.
The ride is pleasingly supple and quiet, with excellent bump control that tames every pothole in sight. The Kia prefers relaxing to breaking a sweat: crank the speed and G-forces to sport-sedan levels, and the isolated steering and softly sprung chassis remind you that this is a family car, not a sport sedan.
Yet the Cadenza handles at least as well as the Avalon, LaCrosse and most other competitors; in this class, if the tires are squealing, it's usually by accident.
As with other Kias, there's a 10-year or 100,000-mile warranty; the Cadenza also offers free roadside assistance as well as free scheduled maintenance for three years or 37,500 miles.
As a $36,000 to $42,000 sedan, the Cadenza remains a stalking horse for Kia, a niche player in this segment. But for a brand that has increased its American sales for 18 consecutive years — to an estimable 558,000 cars in 2012 — adding the Cadenza can only help to make it 19 in a row.
And rather than coming off as a parvenu, an issue that afflicts the far costlier Hyundai Equus, the Cadenza looks and drives like a sedan that has nothing to prove. As Kia and its cars are demonstrating, that's how grown-ups are supposed to behave.