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With this model’s makeover, the Korean car giant offers a saloon that aims to survive the SUV revolution. Alvin Thomas reports.
The car industry has seen some drastic changes over the past decade or so.
Brands like Jaguar and Maserati have started producing SUVs, Swedish brands like Volvo and Saab are now linked to the Chinese (the latter is now non-existent); Volkswagen has taken over as the world’s largest automaker (Dieselgate? What Dieselgate?); Alfa Romeo cars can now run without breaking down every five metres (!) and more recently, the South Koreans have somehow kicked dust on its rivals from the other end of the pond (Nippon).
While all of that is intriguing, it is the last point that I want to stress, this week.
It wasn’t very long ago (possibly a decade or two) that the Koreans were actually fluxing out millions of below-average cars worldwide.
While many bought into the idea of owning some cheap, fairly reliable and insipid cars, others shied away from these brands citing the Japan’s superior use of technology and above all, design language.
But the late noughties saw a shift in momentum, and one that had the Japanese right on the edge of their seats. Kia had just bagged one of the world’s most influential designers: Peter Schreyer – the designer of the iconic Audi TT.
The results? Well, they speak for themselves. Kia has since become a design-conscious brand with great, if not some of the best designs on passenger cars, making it a very desirable brand overall. As a matter of fact, I would go as far as to say that Kia is among the top 10 manufacturers for car design and aesthetics.
And much of that design-language has eked its way into my test car – the Kia Cadenza.
For starters: it looks rather attractive. Agreed, the design isn’t what I would call avant-garde but it is still bold and intrepid. Adding to its character are the large quad-LED headlamps and the “diamond butterfly” grille. There’s plenty of chrome on the grille and the lower portions of the front bumper. The turn signals have a sort of zig-zag pattern, which is quite unique.
The rear of the car takes a low-profile but unlike the tail lights found on the Sorento, the ones on the Cadenza actually suit the overall shape of the car. Adding to the likeable exterior are the dual-exhaust tips (which are finished in chrome), the 49cm alloys and additional chrome elements on the sides – enough to keep the average American rapper happy.
Sitting atop the marginally smaller Optima and the much larger (and expensive!) Quoris, the Cadenza slots into a market that is losing its share to mid-size SUVs, and thus lacks visibility. But it more than makes up for this shortcoming with myriad standard on-board tech and interior real estate –and I’m not pulling a fast one when I say that.
The interior fit and finish is excellent and the placement of the buttons is a little more thoughtful when compared to its direct competitors. Most players in the market still cram in a host of unnecessary buttons and unresponsive touchscreens.
The 21cm touchscreen on the Cadenza is incredibly easy to navigate, and is also quite responsive; only falling short to the newer screen found in the Nissan Maxima. Otherwise, it has everything beat. For the audiophiles, there’s also a voluminous-sounding 12-speaker Harman/Kardon system on board.
The interior is wrapped in leather, with hard plastics only taking up the lower portions. But, the places you would touch are all well-padded. There’s also fake wood grain that goes across the sides of the dashboard. The seats are incredibly comfortable, and surprisingly well-bolstered. But where the Cadenza stands out is in rear passenger comfort: there’s adequate space in the back (both head room and leg room) for three full-size adults (if you’re OK cramming a third person between the exhaust pass-through hump in the middle). The cabin is also airy, and feels very upscale. It actually feels German (if you ignore the quality of some of the plastics).
Underneath the hood lies a 3.3-litre V6 engine pumping out an admirable 290hp and 336Nm of torque. The power is sent to the front wheels only, via a six-speed automatic gearbox. The engine is spritely, with a lot of low-end torque. Power delivery is also linear across the rev-range, which is characteristic of Kia’s engines.
All this power translates to a 0-100kph time of roughly eight seconds but I have to say that it can do a lot better if the conditions are right. I, for one, had to do the run in the midday heat, which meant there was a substantial drop in performance (as with every car).
As is the case with the most powerful front-wheel drive cars, the Cadenza also suffers from wheel spin when you floor the throttle from a standstill. Even the exhaust is rather muffled, with only a bit of the gruff V6 noise entering the cabin. But I do admire Kia for not attempting any trickery: like playing the exhaust note through the speakers.
The car takes corners in a very neutral manner, with no real drama whatsoever. I could take corners at relatively high speeds with understeer only kicking in after I flirted with the limits of the available grip from the front tyres. But, snap (or unexpected) understeer isn’t something you would have to deal with if you drive sensibly.
The chassis is quite rigid, thanks to the addition of high strength steel. That can sometimes result in the back end stepping out ever so slightly midway in a corner. But, it will be brought back into control with ease by the on-board nannies (stability and traction control), and is quite fun.
The ride is fairly compliant, though (despite the wide tyres), as the suspension is tuned for comfort than sport. Switching the ride from “Normal” to “Sport” doesn’t affect the ride either, as it only sharpens the throttle response, gearshifts and the feel of the steering wheel.
Despite the weight, there’s not much feedback from the steering, but it is precise in changing direction. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it is the best electric-steering system installed in a car but it certainly is up among the better ones. In retrospect, the Nissan Maxima’s steering provides no real feel either, and fails to communicate with the driver.
Wind noise is down to a minimum too, with noise only creeping in (marginally) after the 100kph mark.
The Kia Cadenza is a vehicle that sits in a niche segment, only hampered by cars from the same brand – the Optima and the Quoris – both of which provide similar spacing and value for money.
But, after a day with the car, I have come to the conclusion that the Cadenza isn’t designed to cater to everyone; it is designed to take on the segment-pioneering Toyota Avalon. And you know what? I think it will cut the mustard.