Kia has raised its game so quickly, the average new-car shopper may not have caught on right away. But those shoopers are now catching on in a hurry, thanks to the strength of some key Kia models.

However, the 2014 Kia Cadenza has to overcome a bigger hurdle than other Kia vehicles: the fact that no one has even heard of it. Cars like the Optima, Sportage and Soul have at least been around for a while in one form or another. Yes, those cars have changed dramatically over the years, but shoppers know their names.

If you've never considered a Kia before, you'll probably be surprised by the Cadenza and the quality of Kia cars in general.

But the Cadenza is a $35,000 car. Is Kia getting in over its head? Is any Kia really worth $35,000, or even $40,000? That's exactly what we aim to find out by spending the next year with a 2014 Kia Cadenza Limited.

Surprises

We added the Kia Cadenza to our long-term garage mainly because we like surprises. It's easy to look at photos of the Cadenza and judge it based on its exterior alone. It's a good-looking car for sure; we've only had the car a few weeks and already it's been mistaken for a Jaguar, Lexus and an Audi.

What fooled those people -- the LED lights in the front and back? The 19-inch chrome wheels or the dual exhaust outlets out back? Whatever it is, Jag, Lexus and Audi are pretty good company for Kia to be keeping, especially for an all-new car from an automaker most folks associate with budget-friendly, basic transportation.

So we like the way the car looks, but how does it hold up in the real world? We have our reservations. The $40,000 price tag is a lot of cash or a sizable monthly payment, which means the car better deliver or Kia could lose some customers forever.

What Does $40,000 Get You?

The Cadenza comes in two trim levels, Premium and Limited. The Premium is priced at about $36,000 and comes nicely equipped even without options. Honestly, you probably don't need options on this car. Even navigation is standard.

All 2014 Cadenza vehicles get a 3.3 liter V6 that makes 293 horsepower connected to a 6-speed automatic transmission with a shift-it-yourself feature. Standard features also include 18-in wheels and power folding mirrors with LED turn signals integrated inside.

Inside, there's no shortage of luxury features, including a 12-speaker Infiniti audio system, satellite radio, a rear parking camera, Bluetooth, dual-zone climate control, leather seats, a 10-way power driver's seat, a 4-way power passenger's seat, push-button start and power windows with 1-touch for both front windows.

Our test car is a Cadenza Limited version that adds 19-in wheels, an electronic parking brake, adaptive cruise control, a multi-function display screen in the gauge cluster, heated and power adjustable steering wheel, driver memory settings, an upgraded leather interior, a suede headliner, a panoramic sunroof and a power rear sunshade. Limited buyers also get a lane-departure warning system and water-repellent front windows.

The Limited essentially includes every option already in the Premium trim's Luxury Package and then some. The Limited is priced just under $43,000.

Worth the Price?

On paper, it's a lot of car for the money. Then again, it's a lot of money no matter how you slice it.

In our first few weeks with the car, we've already seen some evidence that, in total, it lives up to the steep price tag -- but we've also noticed a few things that are not so great.

Positives include a super smooth and very quiet ride, adequate power from the V6 engine, a comfortable cabin with plenty of room and an excellent Infiniti stereo.

We like the nav system, which allows the passenger to input an address even while the car is moving. We're also looking forward to using Kia UVO voice control system to see how it stacks up against Ford's Sync, the Lexus Enform system and Buick's Intellilink.

We've also noticed a few things we don't really like. For example, the boot material that surrounds the shifter looks suitably sporty, but it feels too low-budget for a $40,000 car. Also, the V6 engine makes close to 300 hp, but there's not a lot of thrust from a stop. It's hard to call this a real fault, though, because one thing that really works about this car is that it isn't trying to be a performance car with jumpy acceleration and razor-sharp steering.

We like that the Cadenza knows what it is and doesn't try to pretend it's something else. There's a low-drama feel to the Cadenza and we think that makes it feel more like a luxury car and less like a sport sedan.

Our goal is use the Kia Cadenza the way you would: driving to birthday parties, taking road trips, client lunches, family outings etc. We're keeping it for a year, so there's plenty of time to see how the car holds up once it's off the auto show stand and pressed into service in the real world.

What do you think -- is the Kia Cadenza on your shopping list? What cars are you considering alongside the Cadenza?

author photo

Brian Moody heads up the AutoTrader.com editorial team. An automotive writer and presenter for more than 12 years, he's contributed to such media outlets as CNBC, Edmunds.com, Fox Business, Speed TV and The Today Show.

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