The 2014 Kia Cadenza is the automaker's attempt to break into the luxury-sedan segment. (Kia)
Big, regal sedans wore propellers or stars on their hoods a decade or so ago — imposing executive expressions as ruthlessly polished as their owners.
Bimmers, Benzes and others had a finely stirred mix of performance, head-turning style and leather-soaked luxury that no mainstream sedan could hope to match.
They glistened in traffic like a gold Rolex on a rich man's tanned arm.
Meanwhile, we got Ford Tauruses and Nissan Maximas. Whoopee.
But here's a little secret about the auto industry today: While the rich eat more cake than ever — and can still buy and sell most of us over French appetizers before $50 lunches — the class gap continues to narrow in cars.
Sure, you can spend six figures on some silver German missile that will drive itself in traffic while reading your emails to you, and then effortlessly whisk you to that SEC hearing downtown at 100 mph.
But $100,000 peasant-mashing sedans today are no longer twice as good as the plebeian $40,000 ones.
And believe it or not, we can add Kia to the growing list of contributors to this egalitarian cause.
Once the builder of tinny cars of last resort — compacts that beat-down people bought because they had no other choices — Kia has broken free of its dismal past.
Take a look at the 2014 Cadenza, the Korean automaker's first true near-luxury, full-size sedan and a prelude to a bigger high-end sedan in the near future.
Though the Cadenza shares its front-wheel-drive platform and direct-injected V-6 with sister company Hyundai, it looks and feels distinctly different.
In fact, I think the Cadenza firmly establishes Kia as the style leader among Asian vehicles.
Granted, the Cadenza and the new Chevy Impala and Toyota Avalon lack the cachet of a BMW or Mercedes-Benz or Audi, but all wear nicely tailored suits these days.
The metallic gray Cadenza I had recently even looked like a rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan.
It had unusually long front fenders and hood, elements you don't typically see on front-wheel-drive vehicles.
Kia's signature "tiger-nose" grille in black was flanked by long headlamps stretched relatively low on the front fenders.
A slightly raised hood flowed into a sharply raked windshield, curving top and classically short trunk.
Meanwhile, two well-placed character lines brought some sinew to the sides of the 3,800-pound sedan.
Its striking silhouette looked Audi-esque to my hick eyes.
And like an Audi, it rolled on stylish 19-inch wheels shod with 245/40 tires.
With a window sticker price of $41,900, the Cadenza was hardly inexpensive.
But it possessed some fairly premium content, including a lively 293-horsepower V-6, smooth six-speed automatic and well-tuned suspension.
The car's hip black-and-white interior felt even richer _ albeit somewhat impractical.
Most of the elements inside made sense. A deep black dash rolled around a hooded instrument panel stitched nicely on the edges.
The center stack, which included a navigation/entertainment screen, was horizontally shaped and much more subtle than the big vertical units in some Hyundais and Fords that look like televisions glued to the dash.
Gray Zebrano-style wood covered the console and provided trim for the black door panels.
As much as I admired the appearance of the Cadenza's white leather seats _ with stitched bolsters and perforated centers _ I wondered how long they would stay clean in the dirty, dusty real world.
About two weeks, maybe _ and that's if you don't have jelly-encrusted kids.
But, hey, those seats will impress your neighbors and that guy you know with the chopped lime-green '49 Merc.
At least the head- and legroom in back were expansive.
So, for the most part, was the Cadenza's performance, especially for a heavy sedan powered by a smallish V-6.
Thanks to direct fuel injection and high compression, the 3.3-liter V-6 was highly responsive, stepping briskly away from stops with even mild nudges to the accelerator pedal.
Low-end torque was not great, but the engine was smooth and eager and got stronger in the midrange.
If I stood on it hard from a stop, the front wheels would squirm some from the sudden burst of power. But most of the time, I had to work to generate any real drama.
Nonetheless, with help from the six-speed automatic, the Cadenza sprinted to 60 mph in an impressive 6.2 seconds, according to Car and Driver. It is also rated at 19 miles per gallon in town and 28 on the highway, which is not great but acceptable for a big sedan.
Like every Kia or Hyundai I've driven, the Cadenza's steering felt light and a bit fuzzy — but quick.
For some reason, Hyundai-Kia continues to struggle with tuning its electric steering-assist units for better feel.
The ride, however, felt as German as sauerkraut: firm yet compliant, and nicely sorted-out over most surfaces. In corners, the body remained well-controlled with modest lean. Though turn-in to corners was not sharp, the Cadenza kept its composure and balance.
Still, it mostly excels at chewing up highways in high fashion.
The Cadenza, incidentally, shares a basic platform with the midsized Optima, but the Cadenza is 5 inches longer and gets different sub-frames.
Considering how far Kia has come, the Cadenza should be a high-water mark for the company _ a sedan with better styling and driving dynamics than its Japanese competitors.
But it may just be another step on a much longer journey. Kia plans to build a larger, rear-wheel-drive sedan called the Quoris that may compete directly with models from Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
And if I were the exec in charge of the Mercedes-Benz C-class, I might already be tossing and turning at night.