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First Drive: 2017 Kia Cadenza Limited

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Kia is positively popping its buttons, and with good reason. The automaker placed first in J.D. Power’s recently announced 2016 Initial Quality Study, the first time in 27 years a non-premium brand topped the rankings. At the recent press presentation of the2017 Kia Cadenza, that honor was front and center, as was the fact that, in 2001, Kia was dead last.

That’s right, in just 15 years, the automaker jumped over 30 spots from last to first. What the hell? How did this happen? These are two questions the competition is damn sure asking.

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To understand where Kia is, you have to understand where Kia was. When it entered the U.S. market in 1994, timidly starting in Portland, Oregon and working its way east, Kia had only two products: the little Sephia sedan, certainly one of the most anonymous sedans ever sold here, and the Sportage, marginally an SUV, but take it off-roading at your own peril.

The Sephia was a miserable failure, but the Sportage clicked, and at one point outsold the Toyota RAV4. Back then Kia, like Hyundai, was nobody’s first choice: The appeal was that you could buy a new Hyundai Excel or a Kia Sephia for the price of a three-year-old Honda Civic, making it the first new car many buyers ever owned.

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Resale value for Hyundai and Kia vehicles was grim, but two things began turning that around: One, both manufacturers were improving build quality dramatically. And two, Hyundai introduced the now-famous, partly transferable 10-year warranty. When Hyundai joined up with Kia, vehicles made by Kia got the same warranty, including the 2001 Kia Sephia, which had progressed from lousy to, well, much less lousy.

In the presentation for the 2017 Cadenza—and yes, we’ll get there in a moment—Kia didn’t go back that far, or in that much detail, regarding its increasing status. It put a lot of emphasis on the 2006 hiring of Peter Schreyer, designer of, among other cars, the Audi TT. This hiring was greeted by many of us with skepticism—how much was it paying him, and how long would he last before he took the first flight back to Frankfurt?

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The answers: However much, it was worth it, and he’s still there.

Kia didn’t even get its own design studio until 2007, but under Schreyer, styling has blossomed. The Kia Soul and the very similar Nissan Cube were launched about the same time: When was the last time you saw a Cube on the road? And the last-generation Kia Optima was simply a masterpiece; the freshening since, not so much.

This—finally!—brings us to the new Cadenza, which gets its first major makeover since it was introduced in 2014 as an indirect replacement for the awkward Amanti. The Cadenza remains a full-size sedan, competing with the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Impala, and Toyota Avalon, though Kia markets the Cadenza as more upscale than that trio.

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A tenuous claim in 2014, that positioning is pretty darn on-target for 2017. The new Cadenza is exactly the same length as the outgoing car, but is slightly wider and lower, and has a small increase in wheelbase. Visible changes aren’t dramatic, but under the skin, Kia improved and refined the Cadenza in almost every area. The body is stronger but lighter, yards of structural adhesive have increased its rigidity and helped quiet the ride, and a revised suspension—still MacPherson struts up front and multiple links in the rear—helps both cornering and ride. It doesn’t hurt that two of the three available models—the mid-level Technology and top-of-the-line Limited—have fat P245/40 R19 tires on alloy wheels, while even the entry-level Premium trim gets P245/45 R18s. Brakes are bigger, and the electric-assist power steering is better.

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Under the hood is a slightly massaged 3.3-liter V-6 with 290 horses, though it frankly doesn’t feel like that many. Torque, 253 lb-ft at 5,200 rpm, is helped substantially by the all-new eight-speed transmission—Kia added two gears, yet the transmission is still lighter than last year’s. Power is more than adequate but hardly exciting, even in Sport mode. As it turns out, Normal is the best of the three modes; Eco doesn’t seem to do much of interest.

Outside, the grille is different from last year, still incorporating what Schreyer has been calling the “tiger nose” since 2007. I’ve seen a lot of tiger noses, and I have no idea what in the hell he is talking about. Otherwise, you almost have to have a 2016 and 2017 model side by side to pick out the differences.

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Inside, all Cadenzas have a leather interior, with the Limited upgraded to quilted Nappa leather. All the Cadenzas available at the press preview were Limiteds, which was unfortunate. Kia says the Premium will be “under $32,000,” the Technology (which, as you can guess from the name, adds a lot of tech features ranging from an electronic parking brake to a nav system to a panoramic sunroof to a 14-way adjustable driver’s seat, instead of the Premium’s 10-way seat) will be “under $39,000,” and the Limited, which has everything the Technology has plus a few features like a “smart” power trunk lid and heated rear seats, will be “under $44,000.” Add $895 for shipping to whatever price they all turn out to be.

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Here’s a problem: At almost $45,000 when it’s said and done, which we guess the Limited will be, that’s real money. There are a lot of cars in that almost-$50,000 price range, including the car Kia benchmarked as it developed the Cadenza, the Lexus ES350, which starts at less than $40,000. (Which would also get you a 485-horsepower Dodge Charger R/T with the Scat Pack, but that’s just how we think.)

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That’s why I would have liked to have seen, and driven, the Cadenza Premium. At “under $33,000,” it could be a hell of a bargain for a leather-clad, five-passenger sedan, if you can do without panoramic sunroofs and such.

Let’s take nothing away from Kia’s moment in the sun with its honorable quality assessment, but everything else has risen from the tar pits too—looks, performance, a luxury feel even in some of its non-luxury cars, and just as important but often overlooked, resale value. The time to trade in your Sephia is now.

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2017 Kia Cadenza Specifications

Price: $33,795 (estimate, Premium model)
Engine: 3.3L DOHC 24-valve V-6/290 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 253 lb-ft @ 5,200 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 20/28 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 195.7 x 73.6 x 57.9 in
Wheelbase: 112.4 in
Weight: 4,784 lb
0-60 MPH: 6.4 sec
Top Speed: N/A