DEL MAR, CA – While large front-wheel-drive sedans may have been no more in demand than Sony Walkmans in recent years, Kia is leaving no stone unturned in its climb upmarket.

That’s why, after phasing out the Jaguar-wannabe Amanti in 2010, Kia is re-entering the U.S. large-FWD segment with the ’14 Cadenza, on sale now at U.S. dealers.

Don’t expect monster sales, Kia execs say wisely.

After all, the old Amanti sold annually in the 5,000-unit-or-less range for most of its 9-year run, with anomalies in 2004 (19,894 deliveries) and 2005 (18,668), WardsAuto data shows.

But even if volumes are meager, the Cadenza will help Kia further break out of the bland, affordable image it once held, and bridges the gap between the Optima midsize sedan and the rear-wheel-drive luxury 4-door arriving soon.

Fortunately, the new ’14 Cadenza more than fills the void left by the Amanti, bringing to market Kia’s signature design lines and a slew of tech-y features in a near-luxury model.

The car shares much underneath its sheetmetal with its cousin, the Hyundai Azera, including a powertrain.

Hyundai-Kia’s 3.3L direct-injected V-6 with 3-stage variable intake propels the Cadenza, churning out 293 hp and 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) of torque, making it Kia’s most powerful U.S. car yet.

Chevy’s new ’14 Impala, however, is the most powerful car in the class, with 305 hp from its 3.6L DI V-6.

The Cadenza’s 3.3L also powers Kia’s ’13 Sorento midsize cross/utility vehicle, and Hyundai-Kia engineers spent time reducing noise, vibration and harshness for the engine’s application in the car.

Orth Hedrick, Kia’s top U.S. product planner, says a smooth idle is achieved thanks to a patent-pending exhaust system design, with two down pipes quelling resonance or frequency normally associated with V-6 engines.

Foam-filled pillars and multiple layers of insulating materials in the dash and in the floor also make for a quieter cabin, Hedrick says.

In a recent test drive around greater San Diego, the Cadenza indeed is a tranquil ride and, showing how far Kia engines have come, has a pleasing, purring exhaust tone, rather than a gruff grumble.

Torque sometimes is wanting due to the relatively high peak of 5,200 rpm. Knocking the Cadenza’s 6-speed automatic down a gear, thanks to standard paddles, helps solve this issue.

The Kia large sedan is expected to achieve the same 22 mpg (10.7 L/100 km) combined as the Azera, which lost 1 mpg (0.4 km/L) last year when Hyundai-Kia was forced to restate mpg for some of its models. This places the Cadenza behind the new Avalon, which returns up to 25 mpg (9.4 L/100 km), albeit with a lower-output 268-hp 3.5L V-6.

In tests here WardsAuto averages 29.4 mpg (8.0 L/100 km) in one route, from rural Julian, CA, to Temecula, CA, and then 22.6 mpg (10.4 L/100 km) on a stop-and-go route that winds through beach towns along the Pacific Coast Highway north of Del Mar. Average speed on the first route is 47 mph (76 km/h) and a 28-mph (45 km/h) average speed is recorded on the second.

The Cadenza’s ride is more “sport lite” than full-on sport, as potential buyers Kia surveyed expressed interest in European styling, not a European-like ride.

Thus, the Cadenza’s chassis is forgiving over imperfect surfaces encountered here.

Like more new models, the Cadenza uses Sachs’ 2-piston Amplitude Reactive Dampers in its rear multilink suspension. Cornering is said to be “compliant,” but it depends on how tight a corner and at what speed. Some of the sharper turns along the route prove a bit much for the large sedan, rocking occupants from side to side.

The electric power steering stands out: It is nicely weighted and precise, with little slack in the wheel.

Almost perfect fit-and-finish is found inside the cabin, with one exception: loose-fitting seat leather. Other Kias have suffered from the same issue, but in the form of puckering on the corners of bottom rear-seat cushions. In the Cadenza, loose, wavy leather on upper rear-seat cushions is the culprit. Kia officials say they’ll look into the matter.

While fit-and-finish is good, the interior aesthetic is a bit dated.

The Cadenza’s cabin has a slight Amanti vibe, given its copious chrome, glossy-wood trim and a center clock. We’d rather see something aligned with other Kia cabins, which boast a more modern look with mostly matte trim and digital readouts.

In showing just how times have changed, the new Toyota Avalon, with its touch-sensitive center stack controls and smoky chrome trim, is the fashion-forward choice if one is looking to make a statement in this segment.

As in the Azera, the Cadenza’s driver’s seat is uncomfortable. The forward-raked head restraint may be the ultimate in passenger safety, but it makes for an awfully sore neck after hours behind the wheel. The thigh extender isn’t sufficiently supportive, either.

Passenger space is excellent, notably in the rear, with plenty of legroom for larger adult occupants, a deficit of the Avalon.

Kia is mum on the Cadenza’s expected U.S. sales, but admits roughly 12,000-13,000 units will be arriving annually from the auto maker’s Hwasung, South Korea, plant.

If Kia can sell all of those, it would put the Cadenza on track with the Azera’s sales pace this year. However, Kia’s cars typically undersell those of Hyundai, so 12,000-13,000 may bit a bit optimistic.

The Cadenza comes in just one grade, Premium, priced at $35,100. As with most Kias, the base price balloons with the addition of packages, as the brand offers few stand-alone options. The Cadenza’s technology and luxury packages are $3,000 each, although there are many compelling standard features, including an 8-in. (20-cm) touchscreen.

Kia touts it UVO eServices as being free for 10 years, but, as it runs off smartphone data networks, free is relative.

If buyers aren’t interested in supreme fuel economy or horsepower, the Cadenza is a good choice in its class and makes the brand a worthy competitor in yet another segment.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com

'14 Kia Cadenza
Vehicle type 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive sedan
Engine 3.3L direct-injected V-6
Power (SAE net) 293 hp @ 6,400 rpm
Torque 255 lb.-ft. (346 Nm) @ 5,200 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 92 x 83.9
Compression ratio 12.0:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic with Sportmatic
Wheelbase 112.0 ins. (284 cm)
Overall length 195.5 ins. (497 cm)
Overall width 72.8 ins. (185 cm)
Overall height 58.1 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight 3,668 lbs. (1,664 kg) w/ 18-in. wheels, 3,792 lbs. (1,720 kg) w/ 19-in. wheels & tech pkg
Base price $35,100
Fuel economy 19/28 mpg (12.4/8.4 L/100 km)
Competition Hyundai Azera, Toyota Avalon, Chevy Impala, Nissan Maxima, Ford Taurus
Pros Cons
Great fit-and-finish Loose leather
Progressive exterior Dated interior look
Roomy backseat Uncomfortable driver’s seat