DEL MAR, Calif. -- Kia loaded its new U.S. flagship Cadenza sedan with high-tech content and upscale touches, hoping to seize on the rising image of its brand to steal customers from competitors such as the Acura TL, Lexus ES and Toyota Avalon.
The 2014 Cadenza went on sale in April after debuting in 2009 in South Korea, where it's sold as the K7. The U.S. market version is the car's midcycle facelift.
The basics: The Cadenza sits on a longer version of the mid-sized platform underpinning the Kia Optima. The Optima platform's wheelbase was stretched by 2 inches to help make the Cadenza about 5 inches longer overall than the Optima, most of which is allotted to rear legroom.
Under the Cadenza's hood is a 3.3-liter V-6 engine producing 293 hp and 255 pounds-feet of torque routed to the front wheels through a six-speed automatic transmission.
Cadenzas tested during a recent media event were loaded, $41,900 versions equipped with supple Nappa leather seats, panoramic sunroof, digital instrument displays and other upscale features. The Cadenza's interior design is smart and clean, with easy-to-use buttons and knobs to control the car's infotainment and climate-control systems arranged horizontally on a center stack that is slightly angled toward the driver. Glossy faux-wood inlays sit below soft-touch dash materials.
Notable features: Navigation, leather seats, rain-sensing wipers, LED headlight accents, a 12-speaker Infinity audio system, Bluetooth, rearview camera and backup warning system are all standard on the Cadenza.
Advanced safety features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and blind-spot detection are available as options.
What Kia says: Michael Sprague, Kia's executive vice president of marketing, says the time is right to introduce what he called the most technologically advanced vehicle Kia has ever sold in the United States. The brand is already gaining traction with more-affluent consumers, Sprague said, citing the 40 percent of Optima shoppers coming from the large car, near-luxury and luxury segments.
"The perception of the Kia brand has really shifted over the years," Sprague said. "There's a lot of opportunity with these customers who have been buying near-lux or premium vehicles for years who are looking for something new."
Shortcomings and compromises: The Cadenza glides over smooth pavement but fails to eat up rough patches as easily as some near-luxury competitors. Shoddy roads unsettle the Cadenza in the corners. Ample power is available when needed, but the motor lacks the smooth confidence of the Acura TL's 3.5-liter V-6 when pushed toward its 6,700-rpm redline.
The market: Kia hopes to sell about 12,000 Cadenzas a year, which would put it on a par with the annual sales pace of its platform-sharing sibling, the Hyundai Azera, so far this year.
The skinny: Kia has vastly improved vehicle quality since it last tried to crack the entry-luxury market with the Amanti starting about a decade ago. The Cadenza clearly sits a few pegs above the mid-sized Optima and has a feature list that stacks up well against competitors. The challenge will be building awareness of the sedan and convincing near-luxury intenders to forgo a more prestigious badge and give Kia's U.S. flagship a chance.