Fine, so it's no longer fair to single out even Kia. After all, that little guy from South Korea has gone from punch line to knockout in the blink of an eye. So it comes as little surprise that the brand has a new flagship ready to take on heavy hitters from all sides of the globe.
The Kia Cadenza owes its arrival in North America to two factors: Its Hyundai Azera platform-mate and the amazing success of its Kia Optima little sister. The brand once known for cheap and cheerless has a midsize sedan as its highest volume model, something few brands in the industry can claim.
What is it?
If you find yourself among the ranks of Kia and Hyundai cognoscenti, the Cadenza shouldn't come as much of a shock. Underneath, it's essentially a retuned Azera, sharing that model's 3.3-liter V6 engine and six-speed automatic gearbox.
But Kia and Hyundai have an odd relationship; platform aside, the two cars seem more like feuding relatives than siblings separated at birth. And although this isn't a Hatfields and McCoys squabble, it's safe to say that the Cadenza generally got the better genes. Equipped to the gills as our tester was, the Cadenza does more than just verge on luxury car territory.
Yes, you can buy a $35,100 Cadenza Premium (there is no Cadenza "base"). And you'll be plenty happy with what you get. But our tester first added $3,000 worth of Technology Package goodies: Think radar cruise control, a blind spot monitor, a lane departure warning system, hydrophobic front windows (rain has never been so scared!) and 19-inch alloy wheels. It was the next $3,000 spent on the Luxury Package that pushed it into the big leagues - enough premium Nappa leather and upmarket convenience features were on board to give Mercedes-Benz a run for its money.
Our tester also included a no charge White Interior Package that gave it a little more of a Liberace vibe than we might have preferred. Warmer and more traditional tones are also on offer.
Those wanting just a bit more can go whole hog with the Cadenza Limited, but a well-optioned Premium is hardly short on features.
What's it up against?
Aside from the Azera, the Cadenza squares off against the impressive Buick LaCrosse, Chevrolet Impala and Toyota Avalon. A year ago, this segment was a joke. Today, you can't go wrong with anyone.
What does it look like?
Sharing its underpinnings with the Azera, the Cadenza is arguably the looker of the two. Signed off on by noted Kia design chief Peter Schreyer, the Cadenza is distinctly Teutonic without blatantly copying anything from the old country.
Swathed in our tester's Smokey Blue, the Cadenza is subtly stylish. It doesn't grab your attention like the Impala and Avalon - or even the Azera, for that matter. But there's a certain understated symmetry that's soothingly upscale, visible from the gently carved front fascia to the distinctive roofline. Slap some tape over the Cadenza's badges and we bet most passers-by would peg it as an offering from an established luxury brand.
That said, our tester's added bling - the gorgeous 19-inch wheels and HID headlamps - undoubtedly helped its cause.
And on the inside?
Debate about the Cadenza's interior merits versus the Azera all you want, but nearly everyone will agree that the Kia positively socks its Hyundai pal inside.
Looking like an upsized Optima interior isn't a bad thing, as the Cadenza's inner trappings clearly prove. The dashboard itself is canted slightly toward the driver, a sporty touch not quite met by the car's driving dynamics but nonetheless enough to boost it toward the top of the class.
Passenger and cargo space is generally at or above segment standards as well. We found ourselves especially fond of the comfortable front thrones, although the fact that Kia restricts an air conditioned seat to the driver - and not the passenger - strikes us as an oversight at this price point.
Throughout the Cadenza's cabin, nice materials brighten the mood. A smattering of chintzy plastics on the door panels stand in contrast to an otherwise premium-quality atmosphere set off by convincing faux wood trim and plenty of stitched panels plus an upmarket suede-like headliner.
On the other hand, there's no shortage of Kia's line-wide switchgear here, which seems a little amiss given the Cadenza's hefty sticker price. That's one place where Kia falls behind rivals like the Toyota Avalon, which forge new button and knob territory.
That said, one parts bin grab we'll happily take is the automaker's intuitive Uvo touchscreen infotainment system. One of the industry's simplest setups, Uvo delivers a "just right" amount of information displayed and it is pleasantly free of annoying software lag like so many rivals.
But does it go?
Cadenza makes good use of one of the industry's most under-rated engines: Its parent company's 3.3-liter V6. Making use of direct injection and a three-stage variable intake system, it comes rated at a solid 293 horsepower and a decent 255 lb-ft. of torque.
But the V6's power ratings are only part of its story. This engine feels more robust than its on-paper specs might indicate. Moreover, it's remarkably refined, producing only a distant growl under hard acceleration. Making the most of things is its quick-shifting six-speed automatic gearbox.
Though the Cadenza is hardly a corner carver, its chassis proved balanced and capable in the twisties. Shame about the tiller, which delivers up little in the way of road feedback, although at least it is consistent in its weighting.
The big boon here is the Cadenza's ride quality. Although there's nothing especially remarkable going on underneath in terms of hardware - the MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear setup is as conventional as they come - the Cadenza makes good use of its standard dual flow shock absorbers. As a result, impacts are buttery smooth, even over the most undulating pavement around. The structure here isn't as vault-solid as the Impala, but we still judge the Cadenza as one of the class' most polished performers.
A relaxed highway cruiser, the Cadenza lets in only modest road rumble. But one thing that prevents it from being an ultimate highway cruiser is its middling fuel economy: We pegged the EPA's 19/28 mpg figures, although we bested its 22 mpg combined number.
Leftlane's bottom line
A flagship worth coveting, the Kia Cadenza bolts ahead of the Hyundai Azera as a genuine rival to the segment's heavy hitters.
We're sold on its style and ride quality, even if it is among the segment's pricier offerings - and, for better or worse, that's something we've never said about a Kia before.
2014 Kia Cadenza base price, $35,100. As tested, $41,100
Technology Package, $3,000; Luxury Package, $3,000; Destination, $800.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.