It is a beautiful car in terms of visual appeal and overall feel. It proves South Korean manufacturer Kia Motors can make a luxury automobile at a price starting under $40,000.
That formula — attractive car loaded with luxury features and blessed with good highway manners and competitive pricing — is bound to attract buyers.
But the 2014 Kia Cadenza lacks the essential thing to turn buyers into loyalists. It is bereft of personality.
As such, no one selling an Audi A4, BMW 3-series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class or Cadillac ATS sedan has much to fear from the Cadenza. Love or hate them, those similarly priced rivals are all loaded with personality, that “something” that lets you know you’re sitting in an Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz or Cadillac.
Kia is betting that consumers wowed by all the Cadenza has to offer — and the Cadenza does, indeed, offer a lot for a sub-$40,000 car — won’t worry about something seemingly as ethereal as personality. Kia might be right ... in the short run.
But the reality is that traditional luxury-automobile manufacturers are in it for the long haul, which means they invest heavily in personality, a trademarked, easily discernible identity that sets their cars apart from the rest.
I drove nearly 1,000 miles in the new Cadenza, throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. It was a pleasant enough drive — good acceleration and smooth handling. But at the end of my run in the Cadenza I found it difficult to put a face on the car, to attach an emotion to it. It was labored with too much of what we in my old New Orleans neighborhood used to call “imitation of life.”
Some might call it fake. But that word does not cover it. “Imitation of life” means you go out of your way to deny who you are, that you eviscerate your true identity and all of the value attached to it in pursuit of trying to be something or someone else.
Thus, while in the Cadenza, I thought the car an excellent imitation of something Mercedes-Benz C-Class with a touch of BMW 3-Series and maybe a hint of Cadillac ATS. Perhaps, tellingly, I never once likened it to something Audi. But, more to the point, I found it difficult to think of it as anything Kia.
Other than its badge and front grille, with its jack-o-lantern grin, there was not much “Kianess” about the Cadenza at all. It was a representation of everything else — panoramic glass roof a la something Mercedes-Benz or Mercury MKZ; retractable rear-window blind in the manner of something else Mercedes-Benz; white Napa leather trim; Infinity premium sound system a la all things high-end Chrysler.
Had I been shopping for a bargain, the Cadenza would be something to brag about. It is a well-made piece offering a lot for the money. But most people who buy luxury, even in the “entry-level” luxury market ($40,000 to $50,000), aren’t looking for a bargain. They are shopping for a statement, which is why BMW sells every 3-Series sedan it can make, which is why Audi keeps turning heads, which is why the Cadillac ATS and its big cousin, the Cadillac CTS, became sales hits.
It comes down to this: The Kia Cadenza is an excellent sedan, made even more so by its attractive price. Wal-Mart is an excellent department store. It offers good stuff for little money. My wife, Mary Anne, and I shop there all the time.
But we don’t brag about it.