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First drive: 2017 Kia Cadenza [Review]

Kia overhauls its Cadenza sedan for 2017.

Kia made a name for itself in the United States market with small, affordable cars and crossovers, but the brand is now branching out with more up-scale models like the K900 and the Cadenza seen here.

So why the change in direction for a brand that built its name on value? According to Kia, there is a small but loyal base of buyers that yearns for something a little more spacious and a little more sophisticated than the company's Optima sedan, which competes a rung down from the Cadenza in the mid-size segment. So is the all-new 2016 Kia Cadenza worth its premium over the Optima? Come with us as we find out.

The basicsThe 2017 version of the Cadenza represents the second-generation of the large sedan, following the launch of the original in 2010. The 2017 Cadenza has the same overall length as its predecessor (195.7-inches), but wheelbase and width have grown slightly, resulting in a, you guessed it, slightly roomier cabin.

Likewise, the Cadenza's overall formula hasn't changed much over the last seven years. The Buick LaCrosse rival still uses a 3.3L V6 to drive the front wheels, although last year's six-speed automatic has been replaced with an in-house designed eight-speed unit. Oh, and power has also changed, although not for the better; horsepower falls by three to an even 290 while torque dips by 2 lb-ft to 253. Kia notes, however, that the new eight-speed should more than off-set the V6's reduced power.

Clean cutAt first glance it might look as though not much has changed in the styling department either, but, as the saying goes, the devil's in the details. Designed around the concept of a tailored athlete, every line and crease is just more taut and crisp on the new model. Comparatively, the old Cadenza looks like a teenager trying to wear one of his dad's off-the-rack suits.

The 2017 Cadenza further refines Kia's signature tiger nose grille with vertical slats that makes it look more distinguished and more like a Maserati. The lower bumper of the Cadenza has been redesign to integrate new fog lights and vertical slats that help move air more efficiently around the big sedan. Headlights are also new, featuring a revised projector design with Z-shaped LED accents below.

View the new Cadenza in profile and you'll notice that designers created a straight line from the end of the Z in the front headlights all the way back to a corresponding Z-shape in the rear taillights. The side of the Cadenza is also simpler than before, with the previous model's body crease now eliminated. The chrome strip at the bottom of the doors has also been reduced in size for a more tasteful aesthetic.

At the rear of the Cadenza you'll find a roofline that has been pulled back, giving the car a more fastback-like look, especially when combined with the car's lower height. Taillights and thinner and wider than before, helping to reduce the car's visual mass. A subtle ducktail spoiler and dual exhaust outlets add a dash of sport.

Wheels on our tester were a handsome design that measured 19-inches in diameter; 18-inchers come as standard. The Cadenza wears Michelin tires specifically designed to optimize the ride and handling of the sedan.

Inside the 2017 Cadenza continues the theme of evolution rather than revolution. The dash is a clean design with straight lines and clear influences from the latest Optima. It won't set any hearts on fire, but it's a good looking design that's well laid out.

Technology and Limited trim levels get a standard eight-inch touchscreen nestled high on the dash. The entry-level Premium trim comes standard with a seven-inch unit, but the larger screen is available as an upgrade. Both versions of the system run Android Auto and Apple CarPlay out of the box.

We didn't take a deep dive into the Cadenza's UVO infotainment system during our day of driving, but what we did use was generally easy to navigate and of good resolution. However, even the eight-inch screen seemed a little small in the Cadenza's dash, especially compared to newer systems on the market.

HVAC controls are logically arranged and easy to manage, which should appeal to the older buyers that typically shop the large, front-wheel drive sedan segment. An analog clock sits in the middle of everything, giving the Cadenza some luxury car cred.

Gauges in the Cadenza are large and easy to read. A center LCD screen displays other pertinent vehicle information, like trip computer or average economy. Top-spec Cadenza Limited models also get a color head-up display, which is a first for the nameplate.

Seats are as comfortable as you'd expect from a vehicle in this class, with excellent adjustability for the driver. Front-seat passengers are also pampered with power adjustments; 10-way in the case of the Cadenza Premium and 12-way in Technology and up models.

Although the Cadenza's front seats provide plenty of space and comfort, the sedan's rear seats are where you really want to be for long trips. The Cadenza's rear bench provides limo-like leg room and plenty of head room for those a few inches north of the six-foot mark. Heated rear seats come standard on Limited models for those cold winter mornings.

Materials are quite good across the board, although there is some mismatch in terms of graining where the dash meets the front doors. The Cadenza's quilted leather seats won't appeal to all tastes.

On the roadAs we slipped behind the wheel of the 2017 Cadenza for the first time, we were surprised by the car's low feel. The Cadenza isn't a Lotus Elise, but its low seating position and relatively high cowl aren't what you'd expect from a car in this segment.

On the road that split personality continued. Steering in the Cadenza isn't heavy, but it required more effort than we expected. Likewise, the Cadenza doesn't crash over road imperfections, but its suspension is on the firmer side for a vehicle in this category. The 2017 Cadenza includes paddle shifters and a Sport setting (both of which are now industry norms), but we suspect most drivers will leave it in D and stick with the car's Comfort, Smart or Eco setting.

Acceleration from the Cadenza's 3.3L V6 is good, but falls below the punch you'll find in rivals like the aforementioned Buick or the Nissan Maxima. At just under 3,800 pounds, the Cadenza at least doesn't have a lot of mass to carry around.

The Cadenza's new eight-speed automatic provides smooth shifts, but isn't totally fault-free. The unit is clearly geared for economy so it cruises in the upper gears, meaning it takes a few kick-downs for sudden bursts of acceleration. And despite having two more cogs than last year, some of the lower gears ratios seem a bit too wide, resulting in a long pull through the RPM range, which can make for lethargic acceleration.

Most of the safety and security systems you'd expect to find in a 2017 model year vehicle are present and accounted for in the new Cadenza. Spring for the Technology or Limited trims and you'll get smart cruise control, cross-traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking, surround view monitor and lane departure warning. However, one thing missing from the Cadenza's spec sheet is lane keep assist, which is sort of perplexing since the 2017 Cadenza uses a more powerful 32-bit processor for its electronic steering. The Cadenza's smart blindspot monitoring system does at least keep you from clipping the car in the next lane by using the car's brakes to keep you between the dotted lines.

The 2017 Kia Cadenza is rated at 20mpg city and 28mpg highway, netting a 23mpg combined average. Those figures were supported by our dash readout after a full day of driving.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2017 Cadenza is a solid effort, but big sedans aren't Kia's forte (pun intended).

The new Cadenza is sharply styled and boasts a well-executed interior, but it almost feels as though Kia couldn't decide whether to make a sporty sedan like the Nissan Maxima or a comfortable cruiser like the Buick LaCrosse. That compromise doesn't completely spoil the Cadenza, but we know there is a better car hiding beneath its tailored suit.

2017 Kia Cadenza, pricing TBD. Expected range, $32,000-$44,000.

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