Rare Rides Icons: The History of Kia's Larger and Full-size Sedans (Part XI)

Corey Lewis
by Corey Lewis
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rare rides icons the history of kia s larger and full size sedans part xi

Kia’s second attempt at a K7 (Cadenza in North America) arrived at a time when the company fully embraced a styling language of its own. More upscale and nicer to look at than the derivative generation of 2010 to 2016, the new Cadenza debuted in all global markets for 2017. Kia was hopeful the second Cadenza would sell better than the first one, particularly in North America. Any predictions on how that went?

With large and in-charge styling and a bevy of standard luxury features (discussed last time), Kia pitched the Cadenza to the entry-level premium full-size car buyer. Think of the customer who’d purchase a Toyota Avalon, a Buick Lacrosse, or one who might upgrade from an Impala or splurge on a low-trim Cadillac XTS. Competitive space, comfort, and sedate styling were all on offer with the new Cadenza.

Unfortunately, though the large sedan market in other places remained at least sustainable, such was not the case in North America. It had been a long decline for the large car, and even the headliner of the class (Avalon) receded from its heyday in the early 2000s. Avalon had 95,318 sales in 2005, which shrunk to 70,990 in 2013, and 32,000 in 2017. In between those points, there were plenty of sales valleys, as low as 28,390 in 2009.  

The new 2017 Cadenza waded into the dying market segment with general praise for its level of comfort, a large interior living accommodation, and its suitcase of luxury features for a reasonable asking price. Features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as a head-up display and surround-view cameras, were available equipment often excluded from much more expensive luxury cars. The 3.3-liter V6 motivated the Cadenza in an acceptable way, as did the new eight-speed automatic. 

However, even with fancy tech features the Cadenza was very conservative in its looks and attitude and was highly unlikely to excite. While it had adequate power, it certainly wouldn’t win any driver engagement or acceleration awards. And though the equipment was nice, it was forced into three distinct packages in an all-or-nothing pricing methodology that is not typically popular with buyers. 

In fact, there were no standalone options for the new Cadenza. The base model Premium trim asked $31,990 ($39,034 adj.), while the Technology was $38,990 ($47,575 adj.). Top specification was the Limited trim, which included all the features mentioned above. However, it was a big price jump between each trim. That was especially so from Premium to Limited, which asked $44,390 ($54,164 adj.). Per trim, the Cadenza was almost always more expensive than its Avalon competition. 

Did customers bite? Not at all. In the US, Kia’s final year of the first-gen Cadenza saw 4,738 sales, and that figure improved slightly to 7,249 in 2017. Sales fell precipitously again in 2018 to 4,507, and again in 2019 to 1,577. Comparatively worse was Canada. Sales in 2016 of 166 Cadenzas fell to 124 in 2017, 83 in 2018, and 21 in 2019. Kia needed to take action!

The action chosen was a visual refresh for 2020 and a couple of engine updates. Gone for 2020 was the old 2.4-liter Theta II engine, replaced by a Smartstream 2.5-liter inline-four. Power increased from 187 to 195 horses in the engine swap. The other engine change didn't affect North America either: The 3.3-liter Lambda II engine with direct injection was replaced with a 3.5-liter Lambda II with multiport injection in some markets. Power decreased from 290 to 286 horses, and Cadenza found itself with 250 lb-ft of torque instead of 253. Interesting upgrade choice.

As far as visuals were concerned, changes occurred only to the front and rear of the Cadenza for its update. The most notable revision was to the Tiger Nose grille, as it grew larger and had fewer slats. There was also a new mesh grille texture in its background. 

The change brought the grille away from Kia’s corporate appearance and more in line with the front end of a Ford Fusion. Ditto for the headlamps, which lost their trapezoidal shape and aw their Z light signature flipped to become more of an S. The headlamp housing itself transitioned to a more rectangular lens with four LED lighting elements on either side.

While the grille was less conservative and more aggressive looking, the headlamps were the opposite. Below there was a new lower valance that saw a more aggressive use of chrome trim, and the removal of the quad fog lamps on either side. Fog lighting was replaced with a new faux vent trim and a single smaller lamp. Above the front fascia, sculpting on the hood grew stronger and more muscular, and was also more Fusion-y looking.

Though the Z lighting element was revised at the front of the Cadenza, the one at the rear remained. It was housed inside some more upscale-looking brake lamps, which were larger and sharper than they were the previous year. Kia added a heckblende to the rear, right through the middle of the trunk lid. 

Not fully lighted, the blende displayed some Morse Code dashes (a cue used on some of its other models). The trunk lid grew sharper looking with a revised upper edge and had more intense sculpting to make its design match with the new lighting. Having described the rear of the 2020 Cadenza I must draw your attention to the rear of a previously debuted vehicle: The 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass. I didn’t want to see the similarities, either.

So then, a rapidly deployed new front and rear design that was more aggressive. Did that help the Cadenza’s sales? It never had a chance in Canada, where Kia pulled the Cadenza from the market after 2019. Two Canadian examples held out on lots until 2020 when they were finally sold. Nobody noticed the new styling in the US, as sales slumped over 2019’s figure to 1,265. 

2020 proved to be a last-of for the Cadenza in North America, as Kia canceled it. Cadenza outlived most of its large sedan competition (all of which are dead now). Unsold Cadenzas remained on U.S. dealer lots through 2021 (249) and indeed 2022 when the last remaining one was sold. To date, your author has never seen a refreshed 2020 Cadenza. 

Elsewhere in the world Cadenza’s sales failed to impress, and Kia pulled it from all global retail sales in January of 2021. It continues today in limited production as a sort of Cadenza Classic, for sale to fleet customers only. It must be an attempt to recover some of the development costs for such a short-lived model, as its replacement (the K8) is already in production. 

Meanwhile, shortly after the second Cadenza arrived Kia was prepared to build an even larger car (again) as it introduced the brand new, luxurious, and rear-drive K9. We’ll pick up there next time, with a car that’s probably the most impressive vehicle Kia’s ever produced. 

[Images: Kia]

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Corey Lewis
Corey Lewis

Interested in lots of cars and their various historical contexts. Writing things for TTAC since late 2016 from a home base in Cincinnati, Ohio. You can find me on Twitter @CoreyLewis86, and I also contribute at Forbes Wheels.

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3 of 8 comments
  • Daniel J Daniel J on Aug 11, 2022

    When this came out I was really interested in it but there were only 2 on the lot in a 250 mile range. The closest one was not the trim I was looking for. The other issue was that the the only colors that were on the lots were black and silver.

    It really seemed to me that Kia really wasn't interested in selling this.

  • Arthur Dailey Arthur Dailey on Aug 11, 2022

    As 'nice' as this car may have been, who in their target demographic would chose this over an Avalon? Particularly if the Avalon cost less.

    • BetterOne BetterOne on Aug 12, 2022

      I did, though on the Toyota side I compared it against the ES350. Exterior styling and interior layout/controls were a couple of the reasons why. And even at a higher MSRP, I can't imagine anyone even semi-skilled at negotiation has ever paid more for a Cadenza than a comparable Avalon.

  • Carsofchaos The bike lanes aren't even close to carrying "more than the car lanes replaced". You clearly don't drive in Midtown Manhattan on a daily like I do.
  • Carsofchaos The problem with congestion, dear friends, is not the cars per se. I drive into the city daily and the problem is this:Your average street in the area used to be 4 lanes. Now it is a bus lane, a bike lane (now you're down to two lanes), then you have delivery trucks double parking, along with the Uber and Lyft drivers also double parking. So your 4 lane avenue is now a 1.5 lane avenue. Do you now see the problem? Congestion pricing will fix none of these things....what it WILL do is fund persion plans.
  • FreedMike Many F150s I encounter are autonomously driven...and by that I mean they're driving themselves because the dips**ts at the wheel are paying attention to everything else but the road.
  • Tassos A "small car", TIM????????????This is the GLE. Have you even ever SEEN the huge thing at a dealer's??? NOT even the GLC,and Merc has TWO classes even SMALLER than the C (The A and the B, you guessed it? You must be a GENIUS!).THe E is a "MIDSIZED" crossover, NOT A SMALL ONE BY ANY STRETCH OF THE IMAGINATION, oh CLUELESS one.I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THE NONSENSE you post here every god damned day.And I BET you will never even CORRECT your NONSENSE, much less APOLOGIZE for your cluelessness and unprofessionalism.
  • Stuki Moi "How do you take a small crossover and make it better?Slap the AMG badge on it and give it the AMG treatment."No, you don't.In fact, that is specifically what you do NOT do.Huge, frail wheels, and postage stamp sidewalls, do nothing but make overly tall cuvs tramline and judder. And render them even less useful across the few surfaces where they could conceivably have an advantage over more properly dimensioned cars. And: Small cuvs have pitiful enough fuel range as it is, even with more sensible engines.Instead, to make a small CUV better, you 1)make it a lower slung wagon. And only then give it the AMG treatment. AMG'ing, makes sense for the E class. And these days with larger cars, even the C class. For the S class, it never made sense, aside from the sheer aural visceralness of the last NA V8. The E-class is the center of AMG. Even the C-class, rarely touches the M3.Or 2) You give it the Raptor/Baja treatment. Massive, hypersophisticated suspension travel allowing landing meaningful jumps. As well as driving up and down wide enough stairs if desired. That's a kind of driving for which a taller stance, and IFS/IRS, makes sense.Attempting to turn a CUV into some sort of a laptime wonder, makes about as much sense as putting an America's Cup rig atop a ten deck cruiseship.