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New Car Review: 2004 Kia Amanti Sedan

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In many ways it is an automotive version of the classic immigrant story: foreign auto manufacturer comes to America at the bottom of the market and works its way up. Some succeed, some fail. The Europeans paved the way in the 1950s, with mixed long-term success. There are a few very well-known European luxury brands; the many low-budget makers that attempted to crack the American market 40 years ago or more have been long forgotten. The Japanese, in the 1960s and 1970s, were more successful. And they started humbly. For those of you who don't remember those days, there was nothing in the late-1960s Japanese economy cars to suggest the popular midsize sedans of today, let alone the Japanese luxury brands.

Now it is the Koreans' turn. With both the Europeans and the Japanese paving the way, their learning process has been faster, but the competition has been much fiercer. Hyundai paved the way, but not without pitfalls. Kia has followed, and is now posed to enter the big time in a big way with the Amanti, its first large, near-luxury car.

Founded in 1944, and building passenger cars since the early 1970s, Kia has had a checkered history. It's first products sold in this country were built for Ford, in the form of the Festiva and Aspire in the 1980s. 1992 saw establishment of Kia Motors America and introduction of the subcompact Sephia, followed by the Sportage SUV. Surprising the pundits, Kia survived in the American marketplace, but the mid-90s Asian financial crisis brought near disaster. Kia went bankrupt in 1997, and was acquired by Hyundai in 1998. By 1999, it was again profitable, and the formation of the Hyundai Automotive group in 2000 allowed shared, synergistic vehicle development and economies of scale.

The past few years saw an upscale movement with the debut of the Sedona minivan and Sorrento SUV. That continues with the new Amanti. Developed off the same platform as the Hyundai XG350, the Amanti is slightly larger, and more luxurious. To give current Kia owners something to move up to, and to attract people from 40 to 60 who don't want an SUV, it is aimed at a niche not normally associated with imports - the full-size sedan. Oh, wait. ``Oh no! DON'T call it a `full-size sedan!''' exclaimed the Kia public relations representative at the press conference when it was introduced. ``It's a big car. Full-size sedans are what your grandparents drove.''

Whatever you want to call it, the Amanti is an Americanized version of a Korean executive sedan. In Korea, it would likely be chauffeur-driven; here it will be owner-driven. The suspension has been tightened appropriately, but it's still a soft, cushy luxury car at heart. Like all Kias, the standard equipment level is high and the price is very competitive. What impressed me the most about the Amanti during the week I drove it was its build quality. Kia has discovered that in order to be successful in the near-luxury market, a manufacturer must meet or exceed the standards set by the class leaders. Good materials and close seam fit inside and out show that Kia has learned its lesson well, and will be a force to reckon with in the future.

APPEARANCE: Kia calls the Amanti's styling ``neo-classical'' and ``European-influenced.'' And it does bring to mind several British and German luxury sedans. Kia is young, and has yet to discover its own design language. So the Amanti's looks are derivative, but no more so than those of some Japanese luxury sedans. The tall shape and rounded roofline and C-pillar recall several British and American luxury cars, the headlights look German, and the grille could be seen as either British or Italian-American. But the net result is cohesive and distinctive. Asian home-market luxury cars, like older American ones, use lots of chrome, and, although it is toned down a bit for the U.S. market, the Amanti's origins show in its generous use of bright trim. As to how it looks to its intended customers, one day during my time with the Amanti, I parked it, got out, and a fiftyish man nearby said ``Excuse me, what kind of car is that?'' ``Kia Amanti,'' I replied. ``Oh. Snappy car, I like it!'' he exclaimed.

COMFORT: The Amanti's interior style and materials are contemporary near-luxury, with the level of fit and finish expected in a $30,000-plus car. The pleasantly-flowing two-tone interior design and large glass area give an open, spacious feeling that is no illusion. Seat space and comfort, front and rear, are very good, and noise levels are low. As with its major competitors, leather is optional, an my test car was so optioned. Realistic woodgrain trim gives a luxury touch. Power front seat adjustment and one-touch up/down power windows with pinch protection are standard, adding convenience. Small details are important, and Kia's designers did not overlook them. Fold-out door-pockets, soft-touch release for the overhead grab handles and covers for the ashtray, and plentiful storage make the Amanti's interior a hospitable place. Rear seat passengers have very good legroom and good head and shoulder room, and floor heat and console air conditioning vents, personal storage space, and cupholders. A large trunk adds utility. Four sets of golf clubs can fit - did Kia do its market research or what?

SAFETY: A full complement of safety features are standard, including front and rear crumple zones around a strong central structure, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, and eight air bags - dual front, side for front and outside rear seats, and side head curtains. A traction and stability-control system is available.

ROADABILITY: A rigid, well-engineered chassis benefits not only safety but ride comfort. The Amanti's fully-independent suspension is tuned softly, in the manner of an American luxury car. But good damping keeps body motion in control. It is in no way a sports sedan, nor was it meant to be such. It works very well, with good comfort and control, at reasonable and proper speeds on the highway or secondary roads. Four-wheel antilock disc brakes stop it well.

PERFORMANCE: Under the Amanti's sculpted hood is a 3.5-liter twincam V6. Its 200 horsepower (at 5500 rpm) and 220 lb-ft of torque (at 3500 rpm) pulls the Amanti's 4000-lb. mass competently. However, the five-speed automatic transmission with manual-shift mode is not typically found in its class, and enables the Amanti to make the most of its available power. Adaptive shift control logic improves performance, and shifts are quick, smooth, and efficient.

CONCLUSIONS: Kia explores new territory with its Amanti large near-luxury sedan.

2004 Kia Amanti Sedan

Base Price $ 24,995 Price As Tested $ 28,260 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve V6 Engine Size 3.5 liters / 213 cu. in. Horsepower 200 @ 5500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 220 @ 3500 rpm Transmission 5-speed automatic with manual control Wheelbase / Length 110.2 in. / 196.0 in. Curb Weight 4021 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.1 Fuel Capacity 18.5 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P225/60 HR16 Hankook Optimo H417 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone / independent multi-link Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 17 / 25 / 19 0 to 60 mph 8.9 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Convenience Package - includes: sunroof, heated front seats, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror with Homelink (tm) $ 900 Leather Package - includes: leather seat trim, 2-position driver's seat memory, Infinity AM/FM/cassette/6 CD audio, 4-inch monitor with trip computer $ 1,805 First Aid kit $ 20 Destination charge $ 540