Gone are the days when Kia struggled to convince buyers that their cars are worthy contenders in their respective segments. The Korean carmaker has come a long way since the days when a good car from its ranks would elicit responses like “that’s not bad for a Kia”, or “it’s better than what you’d expect from Kia”. In fact, most of the brand’s models today are among the best equipped in class, and are right up there with more established Japanese and American rivals in terms of quality, design, and reliability. At the launch of its second generation Cadenza in Seoul, South Korea, the brand’s top executives were keen to substantiate these advances in measurable terms and pointing out that Kia is now one of the major players in the automotive world. At ninth place in global sales volume, the carmaker today has 11 plants across the world, sales presence in 180 countries through 5,500 dealerships, and an annual turnover of nearly $44 billion.

And the new Cadenza is arguably the first model that befits Kia’s status as a true global player. Unlike earlier Kias, the Cadenza doesn’t try too hard to impress with its styling. The design is restrained and elegant compared to previous models, and evidently follows Peter Schreyer’s “simplicity of the straight line” design mantra with a single contour line running along the length of the car’s profile, connecting the Z-shaped motifs in the headlights and the taillights. Even the signature ‘Tiger Nose’ grille has been streamlined and is now offered in two different variants; ‘Diamond Butterfly’, which has the diamond-patterned mesh seen on all Kia vehicles, and the ‘Intaglio’, which comes with vertical slats. The former will be available with the lower end models, while the latter will adorn top-spec trims. The grille itself is more concave than before.

The new Cadenza is arguably the first model that befits Kia’s status as a true global player.

The straight line theme has been carried over to the cabin too, which gets a wraparound dashboard with a clean and simple layout. The quality of materials and workmanship are also much better than what we have been used to in a Kia this side of the larger, more luxurious Quoris. Kia is offering customers a choice of four interior trim packages, which include quilted Nappa leather upholstery and good quality wooden trim. The seats are super comfortable and proved supportive on the long drive from Seoul to the beautiful coastal town of Yangyang-gun. Adding to fatigue-free long journeys is the impressive sound deadening which keeps trye and wind noises effectively at bay. It’s also one of the roomiest saloons in its class, which also includes the Toyota Avalon, the Nissan Maxima, the Chevrolet Impala and the Hyundai Azera with which it shares its underpinnings. The leg and headroom at the rear is particularly remarkable, and even with two six-footers seated comfortably in the front and back, there’s still plenty of knee-room left for both.

There are two powertrain options offered, both variants of Kia’s 3.3-litre Lambda V6. The top end GDI engine makes 284 horsepower, while the lower spec MPI unit puts out 270 horses. Over the course of the drive, I tested both and found there isn’t much difference between the two powerplants in terms of outright oomph, however, what makes a real difference is the super slick eight speed automatic transmission that’s mated to the GDI. The first of its kind in a Kia, the eight-speed ‘box is extremely smooth and seamless in its operation, never hunting for cogs. Meanwhile, the MPI’s six-speed gearbox is comparatively less sophisticated, with the occasional jerky upshift sullying the plush cabin’s tranquility.

The ride quality is as smooth as that of an Avalon, which has been the benchmark in this segment, or even as good as that of its more premium cousin, the Lexus ES 350. I was glad to note that Kia has put in some effort to improve the car’s handling dynamics as well, which although not the sportiest or the most exciting, is a huge improvement over the previous model’s. The steering also is well-weighted and offers significantly more feedback than the previous one’s. Thanks to the extensive use of advanced high strength steel in its construction, the new Cadenza is stiffer and stronger than ever before, and is lighter too. And all these show in the way the car handles on the road.

I was glad to note that Kia has put in some effort to improve the car’s handling dynamics as well.

Over the years, Kia has earned a reputation for packing more tech features into its models than any other model in their respective classes. And the Cadenza is no different. It comes equipped with the kind of gizmos seen in cars from a more premium class. From head up display, a smart trunk that automatically opens the trunk lid if the key fob is detected for more than three seconds and wireless charging to blind spot detection, smart cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, forward collision warning, lane departure warning system and around view monitor, the list of features is long and impressive.

And if the feature set is not enough reason for the rivals to sit up and take notice, the highly competitive pricing is. With a starting price of Dh82,000, the Cadenza undercuts all its rivals, and positions itself as a compelling choice in the full-size saloon segment. Elegant, understated, mature, it’s the best statement yet of Kia’s transformation.